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Negro Leagues' spring training recruited dynamic, educated players

Negro Leagues' spring training recruited dynamic, educated players
Larry Doby (R), shown with fellow former Negro Leagues baseball star Satchel Paige, was one of several players in the league who had attended one of the historically black colleges and universities. Photo courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

MIAMI, March 25 (UPI) -- As America focuses on baseball's spring training, few people know that the preseason regimen in the Negro Leagues differed markedly from the way in which Major League Baseball players prepare for the coming season.

Nearly a century ago, Negro Leagues' spring training was used more to search the country for premier baseball talent than to hone players' skills. Teams often signed star Black players from colleges and small-town squads, which led to many transcendent careers.

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"[Negro Leagues teams] would take note of any player from every team we played against who had outstanding abilities and try to sign them," said Ron Teasley, who played for the Negro National League's New York Cubans in 1948.

The Negro Leagues lacked an extensive minor league system, so franchises hunted for players on semi-pro, college and pickup squads during a short preseason window. Players from the non-Negro Leagues rosters essentially used the games as tryouts.

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"We were scouted pretty thorough and gained a reputation," added Teasley, a 94-year-old Detroit native.

The recruitment-tour approach was far different than the MLB and minor league system, which allows hand-picked players to develop at a glacial pace.

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"MLB simply had more money, so they could have a sophisticated minor league system," said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. "They could do an organized and very structured spring training regimen.

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"It was lavish in some ways, particularly when you compare it to the Negro Leagues."

During the preseason, Negro Leagues teams often played against teams from historically Black colleges and universities, in addition to the the other non-Negro Leagues competition throughout the southern United States.

"When you heard a quality team was coming to town, you would try out for that team," said Larry Lester, chairman of the Society for American Baseball Research Negro Leagues Committee, which was formed to preserve the history of Blacks in baseball before the integration of the game.

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"You may have been in college or played for a local team and went to try out," Lester said.

Many Negro Leagues teams trained for just a week or two in April as they traveled through Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Florida and other southern states. The regular season started in May.

Hall of Fame pitcher Hilton Smith was one of the most notable Negro Leagues players to launch a career through a tryout.

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Smith earned a spot in the Negro Leagues in 1931, when he pitched in a game for the Austin Black Senators, a semi-pro team, against the Negro League's Chicago American Giants.

"[Austin] had a pitcher named Willie Owens who had played with Birmingham in the Negro League," Smith told John Holway, the author of Blackball Stars. "I went down and pitched against him one Saturday and beat 'em, I just beat 'em good.

"[Owens] went back to Austin and said, 'My goodness, there's a little kid there, he's something else.' So when the [Chicago] American Giants came down to play Austin the next weekend, Austin got me to pitch for them. I beat [the Giants] 5-4 in 11 innings."

That audition won Smith a spot in the rotation for Austin, a Texas Negro League team that was part of the feeder system for the Negro Southern League. A year later, Smith was elevated to the Monroe Monarchs in the Southern League.

He was signed by the Monroe Monarchs, for whom he pitched from 1932 to 1935, and had a brief stint with the New Orleans Black Creoles in 1933.

Smith then joined Satchel Paige's Kansas City Monarchs, for whom he pitched from 1937 to 1948. He posted a 57-25 record in official Negro Leagues games, but also had a .323 batting average. He was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001.

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HBCU players became a good source for talent for the Negro Leagues in the spring, as well.

Barred from teams at prominent sports schools and shunned by Major League Baseball because of the color barrier, players competed for the rosters of Negro Leagues teams.

"That was one of reasons they had disproportionate number of college-educated athletes in comparison to Major League teams," museum executive Kendrick said.

The racial bias at major colleges also opened the door for elite football, basketball and track athletes to play baseball in the Negro Leagues.

"It's amazing to think Jackie Robinson's weakest sport was baseball," Kendrick said. "He was a better basketball, football and track athlete, and some say a better tennis player."

Negro Leagues talent evaluation also deviated from MLB player evaluation. Black players had to have more dynamic skill sets because rosters were smaller. Players had to work more as mentors because of a less-extensive development program.

The scouting for dynamic and educated athletes led to Negro Leagues mentorships between players. Those mentors helped to form some of the greatest careers in MLB history.

"[Lorenzo] 'Piper' Davis taught Willie Mays how to hit the curveball," Kendrick said of Davis, a Birmingham Black Barons infielder. Mays was 17 years old when he joined the Black Barons in the Negro American League in 1948. By 1951, he made it to the New York Giants.

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