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Batter up: African-American baseball exhibit comes to St. Louis library

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 9, 2009 - As stars like Derek Jeter and Ryan Howard come to town for Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, a different sort of show is stepping to the plate at the St. Louis Public Library .

The exhibit -- "Pride & Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" -- chronicles the history of blacks playing the nation's pastime. Thirty-two panels display a 150-year progression, from the introduction of the game during the Civil War to the present day. 

The product of a partnership among National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and the American Library Association, the exhibit is barnstorming 51 libraries through 2013.

"This is something we love, we feel strongly about," said St. Louis Public Library program coordinator Rachel Smith. "We have a great collection of African-American baseball books, and we're a baseball city."

Featuring photos of players and memorabilia belonging to the Hall of Fame, the exhibit illustrates the progression of black baseball from hobby to profession and obscurity to main attraction. It presents baseball within the larger context of American history, both as an example of discrimination against African-Americans and a vehicle for social change.

It also offers details normally forgotten by conventional narratives. "After the Civil War, African-Americans had the opportunity to play ball with white players, even professionally," stated one panel. After the first few years, however, the prejudice that overtook the rest of American society permeated baseball as well: "Those opportunities diminished as Reconstruction ended and segregation became entrenched as part of American culture."

While focusing most of the first 16 panels on the story of segregated baseball, the exhibit also portrays baseball as a harbinger for racial equality in American society. Dedicating the next six panels to Jackie Robinson's story, the exhibit shows the integration of baseball, which began in 1947 with Robinson's addition to the Brooklyn Dodgers lineup. The breaking of baseball's color line occurred before and, the exhibit suggests, acted as a catalyst for subsequent integration, such as President Truman's executive order that integrated the armed forces a year later.

More than 60 years have passed since Robinson started with the Dodgers, but, the exhibit contends, African-Americans have yet to achieve full equality in the major leagues. Blacks did not enter the upper offices of baseball until 1993, when the Houston Astros hired Bob Watson as general manager. Today, "African-American participation is at its lowest level in almost 50 years," at 9 percent, the exhibit says.

To facilitate discussion, the library has organized three events to intersect with the exhibit. On Saturday, July 11, it will host an official opening and reception, followed by a discussion with Kansas City sports columnist Joe Posnanski of his book "The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America." Posnanski will be introduced by former Cardinals outfielder Ted Savage.

On July 18, historians Lawrence Hogan and Robert Cvornyek will present baseball in connection to music. "They are going to talk about big band musicians such as Lena Horne and her love of the game," Smith said, noting that Horne is one of many musicians who will be featured

Finally, on Aug. 15 the library will round the bases and head home with a panel entitled "Let's Talk Baseball" that will focus on the history of African-American baseball. In addition to Gerald Early, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, "we're going to have a couple baseball players," said Smith.

For St. Louisans who wonder whether the exhibit is trying to steal home plate from under the All-Star Game, Smith said, "It is coincidental that the All-Star Game is next week." But, she acknowledges, "it's going to be a busy week for baseball."

"Pride and Passion" is on display in the Central Library, 1301 Olive Street, and runs until Aug. 21.

Joe Milner, an intern with the St. Louis Beacon, will be a junior at Brown University.