If you have a history buff on your Christmas list, they will love Last Train To Cooperstown, profiles of the last Negro League inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Kevin L. Mitchell, author of Last Train To Cooperstown, stopped by to talk about his book and all things relating to baseball.
Why did you write Last Train to Cooperstown?
I wrote the book in response to the current decline of popularity for baseball by African-Americans. Due to social, economic, and other issues the attention of African American youth has been diverted from the game. Basketball and football are now the main sports they participate. The number of African-Americans playing Major League baseball is less than during the late 1950s through 1970s. With no Lebron James, Steph Curry, or Cam Newton high-profile type player in baseball, African American attendance at Major League baseball games has decreased.
The book’s purpose is to indicate that because of Negro League baseball’s rich history and its everlasting impact on the game, African-Americans have deep, grounded roots in baseball that cannot be severed by the current trends. The stories of the 2006 Hall of Fame Inductees from Negro League baseball in the book are reminders of those deep, everlasting roots. Readers will get a deeper understanding of Negro League baseball as not just a part of baseball history or African America history, but as being imbedded into the fabric of 20th Century American history.
How did you get interested in baseball?
I think my interest in the sport began to develop in 1957 when I was six years old. Baseball reigned during that time as the nation’s favorite sport. Henry Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves’ defeat of the New York Yankees in 1957 was my first TV World Series recollection. I played a form of stickball with my brother, Lephus Jr., in our backyard. My friend, Big Mike, and I would take turns using the handle of a cut off broom to hit a rubber ball my brother pitched to us. We turned the small yard into a make shift asymmetrical ball field. A red barrel used for burning trash served as first base. Air pollution had not yet become a concern in 1957 so open trash burning in the city was not illegal yet. When I hit a double, I would run to touch the red barrel and then head to second base; the southeast back corner of our garage where my father very seldom kept his car. When scoring from second on Big Mike’s single I would have to remember to touch third base, a post of our neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Shern’s wire fence.
With both of my older brothers and my father being baseball fans, I would watch baseball games on TV with them. There were no 24 hour Cable TV sports stations televising games. The Kansas City CBS affiliate TV station could not televise the weekend national Game of the Week due to the television blackout policy in the 1950s for cities with Major League teams. So we watched selected road games the Kansas City Athletics televised. Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, Hector Lopez, and Bob Cerv are the A’s players with which I first became familiar. I also would listen to my brothers and their friends talk about other Major League players, especially African American ones (Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, etc). Jackie Robinson had retired the previous year (1956), but my awareness of race relations at six years old was enough to allow me to know of him as the first “Negro” to play in the Major Leagues. However, I was too young to have a deeper understanding of his significance.
Why do you think African American kids have lost interest in baseball?
This could be the topic of someone’s dissertation because there are so many issues as to why African American kids have lost interest in the game. There are social, economic, racial, political, and other factors; and they are all intertwined. A change in the times and differences in the world surrounding different generations also must be considered.
In my opinion, baseball failed to keep up with the increasingly intense competition from football and basketball that developed in the 1980s for capturing the attention of African American kids. The competition was a subset of a changing world, one obviously now much different than when I was a kid interested in the sport.
Being of “baby boomer” age, I grew up doing the time when baseball reigned as America’s pastime with no other sport seriously vying for my attention. My love for the game began and was nurtured during the time called “baseball’s golden era”, the 1950s and 1960s when young white and black boys were passionate about the sport. My friends and I collected baseball cards and knew the names of the players on all the Major League teams. We had Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, and an increasing number of other African American players to emulate. We saw them play on TV, but mostly read about them in the newspaper and magazines. The All-Star Game and the World Series were baseball special events we looked forward to each year with excitement.
Pro football and basketball were growing sports we played, but they failed to capture our allegiance from baseball. They had not yet turned into the billion-dollar advertising and marketing giants targeting African American kids as they are today. The TV networks had not discovered the money bonanza in sports programming. There was no Sunday Night, Monday Night, or Thursday Night Football to get our attention. No 24-hour NFL Cable TV network. No ESPN to broadcast pro and college basketball games throughout the week. There was no Super Bowl, no “March Madness”, and no marathon broadcast of the NBA Playoffs which, not like today, ended in the spring and not mid-summer. It was a different time.
Being before Nike and the other athletic shoe companies, there were no basketball shoe advertising campaigns in front of us. It was a time before pro athletes, especially African American ones, were not endorsing products on TV. There were no “I want to be like Mike” commercials about Gatorade getting our attention. Gatorade did not come around until the late 1960s.
The competition from other sports for the attention of African American kids increased immensely in generations after mine. The world changed, no longer the 1960s. The popularity of football and basketball continued to grow, threatening baseball’s long standing number one sport status by the year 2000. The TV ratings for the Super Bowl and “March Madness” frequently surpassed that of the World Series.
When pro football and basketball began to intensely target the younger generation of African American kids in the 1980s, baseball’s marketing mentality remained in 1960 with a nine-year-old me. It was slow out of the starting blocks in marketing official apparel and gear. Unlike football and basketball, baseball did not use their African American star players to promote the sport. It may not have had a Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, or Jerry Rice; but it could have better utilized Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds (before the steroid issues), Derek Jeter, or Frank Thomas. By the time baseball understood what was happening, the other sports had the ears and eyes of African American kids.
What is your present involvement in youth baseball?
For the last four years I have been on the board of the Kansas City, Kansas Baseball Association (KCKBA), an organization that provides opportunities for kids in the inner city to play competitive baseball. We organize youth baseball teams to play in leagues such as the Kansas City, Missouri RBI, Wyandotte County Unified Government, and other leagues, in addition to having our own T-Ball league. Last season I helped coach two Machine Pitch league teams for kids aged 10 years old and younger.
How are the lives of the Negro League players in Last Train to Cooperstown an inspiration?
They were examples of pursuing excellence in what they did in spite of facing obstacles due to uncontrollable and imperfect circumstances. Racial discrimination robbed them of the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues; that was out of their control. Due to the economic restrictions that characterized Negro League baseball, they had to travel and play often in imperfect conditions. However, they did not use either as an excuse or rationalization to not do their best. As a result, even though the color of their skin kept them out of Major League baseball, the excellence they exhibited on the diamond earned them an undeniable place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame
Do you have plans for another book?
Yes! With the Civil Rights Movement’s initial beginnings as its backdrop, the book will tell of the demise of Negro League teams as the integration of Major League baseball by African American and dark-skinned Latino players gained unstoppable momentum in the 1950s.
You have a popular baseball blog – The Baseball Scroll and a website where you write about baseball history. Explain why you started them.
I started The Baseball Scroll (www.thebaseballscroll.blogspot.com)and the blog on my website (www.klmitchell.com) to constantly promote the unshakable historical connection of African-Americans to the sport of baseball. The content for both includes my personal reflections, as an African American, on baseball events of my youth, the history of Negro League baseball, and information about baseball’s “golden era” (1950s through early 1960s) pertaining to African American ball players. Hopefully, heralding the deep historical connection will revive the interest of African Americans in the game. My blogs also help me connect to other bloggers and baseball historians, both African American and white, who have the same objective.
How can someone get in touch with you for speaking engagements?
My website address is www.klmitchell.com and my direct email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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