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America should be marking a baseball milestone. Instead it’s a nation struggling without its national pastime


My most memorable baseball game lasted 17 innings and almost ended a marriage.

It dragged on for so long, that Friday became Saturday.

It finally ended at 12.46am and we’d backed the losers.

Baseball thrives on statistics so it was easy to find the details of that game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Philadelphia Phillies online even 17 years later.

Baltimore stadium empty during Orioles MLB match
Who wouldn’t love a sport built around a diamond?(Reuters: Shannon Stapleton)

I love baseball but there’s a time limit to that devotion and that night we’d passed it around 9pm.

But I was overruled by my then husband and a friend visiting from Australia who felt we’d committed so much of the day and night to the game we should stick it out to the end.

It was an era when Washington DC didn’t have its own team and getting to a game meant a milk-run regional train trip to Baltimore about 70 kilometres north.

Trouble was, at 1am, there were no trains home, and I was still too new to life in the US as an ABC correspondent to realise no one takes public transport to a baseball game in Baltimore.

We made it back to DC by bus around 3am, a journey so challenging (the driver got lost and we circled Capitol Hill three times), that it almost overshadowed the agony of the excruciating game.

Almost. Because little could overshadow baseball for me. Even when it goes for hours longer than it should.

A baseball and cup of beer with a baseball stadium in the background.
It’s not just the sport itself, it’s everything that goes along with it.(Flickr: slgckgc)

America needs baseball more than ever

I first discovered the joy of the beautiful game 20 years ago when we’d been holidaying in Boston and got scalped tickets to a Red Sox versus New York Yankees matchup on a perfect summer’s night.

The baseball fans reading this will know immediately why that was a pretty special game to have as your first memory.

Red Sox v Yankees. One of the all-time great rivalries.

New York Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres against the Boston Red Sox in 2019.
It’s always a treat watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox.(USA Today: Andy Marlin)

I was hooked from then on. Who wouldn’t love a sport built around a diamond?

The rousing national anthem, the first pitch, the crack of bat on ball, the seventh inning stretch (a chance to stand and sing Take Me Out To The Ballgame), the walking vendors screaming “peaaaaanuts” and expertly manoeuvring beers and hotdogs along seats — and just as efficiently pocketing the tips.

They’d be playing baseball right now if it wasn’t for coronavirus.

They’ve been debating how and if a 2020 season can begin. No one wants to contemplate an entire year without baseball.

It is the nation’s pastime and they need it now more than ever.

A boy rests his head on a railing as he waits during a rain delay before the start of American League MLB baseball game.
Americans are now forced to wait, not knowing when play will resume.(Reuters: Jessica Rinaldi)

Even after the attacks on September 11 it was only 10 days before a baseball game was being played in New York.

They were still digging through the rubble of Ground Zero when the Atlanta Braves and the hometown Mets walked onto the field.

Those who were there recall it being like a panacea for a grieving nation.

The sound of a baseball bat hitting a ball is the heartbeat of America, the posters will tell you.

And Americans are keen for baseball to step up to the plate and once again be the cure-all.

A milestone a century in the making

This year was also meant to mark a historical milestone — a century since the Negro National League was formed.

The first recorded game of the league was played on May 2, 1920, which made last Saturday the 100 year anniversary.

The story of how black and Hispanic players created their own league is more than a story of sport. It takes you to the heart of the civil rights movement in America.

The Pittsburgh Crawfords line up for a photo next to the team bus in 1935.
The Pittsburgh Crawfords were Negro National League champions in 1935.(AP)

Minorities had been playing baseball for decades with some historians suggesting they played as slaves well before the civil war.

They’d been effectively locked out of the major (white) league competition and by 1920 there was enough support for an organisation of their own and more than half a dozen negro teams were formed.

Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, told Scott Rank on the podcast History Unplugged that they took the approach, “If you won’t let me play with you, I’ll create a league of my own”.

Segregation brought challenges.

If there wasn’t black press in towns where the teams played there was no coverage. They were ignored.

But that didn’t mean they weren’t garnering a legion of fans.

The players in the negro leagues are credited with increasing the game’s international popularity.

In 1927 a team of all-stars from the negro leagues, calling themselves the Royal Giants, played an exhibition match in Tokyo, experiencing the kind of freedom travelling and playing they’d never had back home.

It would be another 20 years before one of them would be accepted into the major leagues, playing with white ballplayers.

That man was Jackie Robinson.

Former US baseball player Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball.
Jackie Robinson was a true trailblazer in American baseball.(Supplied)

When he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947 Robinson broke the colour barrier.

“It wasn’t just part of the civil rights movement, it was the start of the civil rights movement,” Kendrick told History Unplugged.

Kendrick says when people visit the museum that he now heads in Kansas, they’re expecting the sad story of segregation, of black players being refused entry to the major leagues before integration in 1947.

“But it’s also about overcoming adversity, a story of triumph in the era of segregation,” he said.

Within two years of Robinson joining the national league he was named the sport’s most valuable player.

It was not easy. He couldn’t stay in the same hotels as his teammates or eat at the same restaurants, but he’d walk out onto the field and carry the same expectations, if not more.

As Kendrick told Scott Rank on History Unplugged:

“He was going to carry 21 million black people on his back because had he failed, an entire race of people would have failed in the minds of many.”

‘Don’t feel sorry for me’

Difficult as it might have been, 1947 was the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues.

Now that they had broken through the ranks of the major leagues, their own black and Hispanic teams started to fade away.

Many of their brilliant players should have made it into the major leagues but missed their time, finding themselves past their prime by the time they were allowed to join.

Buck O’Neil was one of them.

Former American baseball player Buck O'Neil in uniform.
Buck O’Neil’s story is emblematic of so many of his generation.(Supplied)

A player and manager, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W Bush.

When O’Neil was asked if he felt sorry he’d never played in the major leagues, he’d answer:

“No, don’t feel sorry for me, feel sorry for the people who didn’t get to see me play.”

You see a baseball diamond when you walk into the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum but chicken wire stops you walking onto it.

The wire is meant to be symbolic — a reminder of the huge numbers of players who never got a chance to walk onto their field of dreams.

Hopefully this year they’ll find a way to mark the significance of the role these players had not just to baseball but to the civil rights movement in the US.

And hopefully one day I’ll sit in a ballpark again, a hot dog in one hand, a cold beer in the other, eyes on the field as the afternoon rays fade.

LA Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw.
Oh, take me back to the ball game.(Getty Images: Sean M. Haffey)

The last game I got to was just a month before I wrapped up life in the US after nine years on and off reporting for the ABC.

It was 2015 and by then Washington DC had its own team — the Nationals — and a young star pitcher that I was keen to see in action one last time.

The skies were ominous but the atmosphere was joyous.

The rain came down though before the first ball was thrown and we all went home miserable.

Baseball can do that to you. A beautiful game that lifts you up, can test your patience and still leave you counting the days till you return.



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