MONTVILLE, NJ – Many have heard of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, but few have seen him play. Montville resident Richard Cimera has had that privilege.
Cimera attended a lecture on the Rise and Fall of Negro League Baseball at the Montville Township Public Library on Jan. 25, led by Jonathan Mercantini, Ph.D. of Kean University. During the question and answer period, 82-year-old Cimera shared his story.
“I saw Robinson play during his rookie season with the Dodgers in April of 1947,” he said. “It was one of his first games, when the Dodgers played the St. Louis Cardinals at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.
“My dad brought me, my brother and a friend from Clifton and we saw him play first base. I was 13 years old. The game was portrayed in the movie ‘42,’ because a batter spiked Jackie on the ankle with his cleat on purpose. The crowd just about went crazy booing that player. These are the things Jackie Robinson went through to play. He was a tremendous player – I think he got two hits that game – but he went through a lot. My father had never taken us to a game before that, and he never took us to a game after that. We were just so lucky to see that game.”
Mercantini discussed negro league baseball, which ran from 1848 to 1946. He said it was the single largest black-owned and –operated business in the U.S. in 1946, and brought in $2 million per year in revenue that year.
“They played their own brand of baseball and had their own style,” he said. “They thought of it as more improvisational, more daring, and assertive. They were more aggressive about base stealing. There was more entertainment, and they really tried to intimidate the pitcher.”
Between 1920 and 1950 the Negro National League was at its peak, he said, and games became like community centers for the black community.
“Politicians would attend church and then come to the games to campaign,” he said. “Hundreds and sometimes thousands would attend the Sunday afternoon double-headers.”
Mercantini said the East-West All Star Game was the biggest game of the year and would average 20,000 fans or more. More than 50,000 fans attended the 1943 game.
“This was because of the racism in the military,” Mercantini said. “There were fewer opportunities for African Americans to serve. They found jobs in the factories and had more disposable income, so they attended more baseball games.”
Mercantini talked about famous Negro National League players such as Josh Gibson, who was nicknamed the “Black Babe Ruth.”
“He was the only man to hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium,” Mercantini said.
Mercantini also talked about Jackie Robinson, saying that he was a star athlete and baseball was actually his worst sport, but he pursued it because it was the only one from which he could make money.
“Robinson was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army,” Mercantini said. “One time when he was riding a bus on base, the bus driver tried to force him to go to the back of the bus. He was arrested but fortunately exonerated.”
Mercantini described Branch Rickey’s interview with Robinson, in which Rickey was purposely verbally abusive.
“Rickey knew he needed someone with talent, but also the right temperament,” Mercantini said. “‘I want a ball player with guts enough not to fight back,’ Rickey told Robinson.”
Robinson was successful and black players “could challenge whites on the baseball field in a way they couldn’t challenge them anywhere else,” Mercantini said.
As more of the talented black players were poached from the Negro League teams to play in the integrated teams, the negro league suffered. The Monarchs received no compensation for Robinson when he left the team.
The Negro National League disbanded after the 1949 season.