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Bigger than the game



The sky was never anything other than gray, the field never as green as it ought to be at the Durham Bulls' sharp ballpark Sunday evening. But the color's not what counts, right? Just the goodness of the game, of baseball, America's easygoing conscience.

It wasn't always this way, however--the poignant program of Sunday's match against the Norfolk Tides reminded the teeming 2003 crowd that, just 55 years ago, baseball wasn't always so fair, this blind. In a brief ceremony before the game, the Bulls honored 18 former players of the Negro Leagues, the family of black baseball clubs that were in existence from 1920 to 1948, until which point the all-white Major Leagues played dumb.

The honored men, all in the 70s and 80s, lined up before the home team dugout and enjoyed the crowd's cheers. Some had played with certified legends, like Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, but they were all, undeniably, legends in baseball's own right--far more than mere box scores and grandfather tales.

For a half-century, white fans watched their beloved game oblivious to the dual world of black baseball--equally competitive and just as true to the celebrated fundamentals of the sport. In 1947, Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger, beginning the Major Leagues' integration, and from then on the only color that mattered was on a player's uniform. Memory of the Negro Leagues has lived on, and rightly so. The Negro League players were great athletes, as great as any contemporary white ballplayer, and for too long they were unrecognized as legends in America's proud pastime. Over 4,000 men played in black leagues, three dozen having since reached baseball's hallowed Hall of Fame.

In addition to their pre-game ceremony, the great old players signed autographs for an hour at the concourse. On the field, both Durham and Norfolk players wore an array of replica throwback jerseys of Negro League teams, from the New York Black Yankees to the Kansas City Monarchs and Durham's own Rams. Periodically the announcer shared facts about the various teams, informing us, for instance, that the 1931 Homestead Grays are considered the best black team ever.

And Sunday's game? The game is as usual, all its sideshow glories in full force. A dog jumps through a hula-hoop, a determined little girl races the Bulls mascot around the bases. Fans down hot dogs, peanuts and giant beers while clamoring for foul balls with singular frenzy. The Bulls went up 3-1 in the fifth inning after Jeff Liefer homered, wearing a pinstriped Detroit Stars uniform. At 6:15, just over an hour into the game, the drizzle forces a rain delay. An hour later the game was officially abandoned, a Bulls victory, with one out and no one on base at the top of the sixth.

The Bulls will be back in Durham on Friday, July 25, to face the Indianapolis Indians, but it didn't much matter Sunday as it poured and thoughts of the noble Negro League lingered. It was a pity that the day's game was cut short, because the crack of the bat and the hosanna of the home run had seemed as vital as ever. It was easy to see how the divine simplicity of the game hadn't been killed by color barriers, how it helped marry a divided America, how it was for so long a panacea during the nation's many hardships.

The Negro League players honored Sunday are living examples of why we love sport, for its heroes, for its moments of pure nobility and straightforward victory, all within the rarely straightforward boundaries of infields, baselines and sidelines. The lines are always white, of course, but the game is so much more.

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