Austin Road Students Get Special Lesson in Baseball, Civil Rights

Eric Newland, wearing a Homestead Grays jersey, shows the kids photos of the many famous baseball players from the Negro Leagues who he has interviewed and written about. Credits: Tabitha Pearson Marshall
Austin Road students Cece Haberling, Camila Vallejo, Jadyn Suni, Brie Abate, Frankie Bellanco, Ellie Zito, Angelina Lulgjuraj and Kiera McGrinder, gather around Newland. Credits: Tabitha Pearson Marshall

MAHOPAC, N.Y.— It started out as a simple reading lesson and before you knew it, Beth Dore’s fifth-grade class at Austin Road Elementary School was immersed in a discussion of the civil rights movement and the eroding of the color barrier and segregation in Major League Baseball.

“We have a reading program, where we read excerpts of stories and one was about Satchel Paige,” said Dore, referring to the legendary Negro League pitcher.

Dore said the students read about Paige as well as Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente. Clemente was Puerto Rican, but was considered a man of color. He got to play in the major leagues, while Paige—other than very late in his career—did not.

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“The kids had to compare them and that’s what brought up the conversation—racism, segregation,” Dore said. “Even though Clemente played in the ‘white’ league, he still had many of the same struggles as Paige. Both of them endured racism [at places such as] restaurants and hotels.”

That inspired Dore to bring a special guest speaker—Bedford resident Eric Newland. Newland is considered to be one of the foremost experts on the Negro Leagues. He produced and hosted 26 aired cable interviews, “Inside Baseball,” as well as producing public service announcements on muscular dystrophy that used various New York Yankee stars as spokesmen. He was the executive producer for the first video yearbook that Major League Baseball produced for the Yankees.

But Newland’s passion is the history of the Negro Leagues. He produced and conducted close to 50 video interviews with former Negro League players, writers, and historians and received the Robert Peterson Award for spreading the history of the Negro Leagues. In 2014, he partnered with George Dalton to create the Parallel Game LLC and actively produced the project as an entertainment, educational and historic narrative told through the lens of Negro League baseball.  “The Parallel Game” documentary was selected by Yofifest Film Festival and the 20-minute film made its public debut in September 2016.  Newland’s passion for baseball and the Negro Leagues is currently in development as an episodic television series. 

“He brought in memorabilia—authentic Negro League jerseys and ball caps and team photos,” Dore said. “This has been a passion project for him and he interviewed many, many players, including Satchel Paige’s catcher. The kids were inspired. They asked him tons of questions and were excited to have him here.”

But what stood out, Dore said, was the outrage and confusion the kids expressed over what these players had to endure.

“They don’t understand [racism]. They don’t have a baseline and they get angry,” she said. “They asked, why didn’t they stop [the racism]. Why didn’t they do something about it?”

Newland took them back to the beginning of civil rights movement and explained that these black players simply played for the love of the game and that many things they did revolutionized baseball. They stole bases, something that didn’t happen much in the white leagues, and the played night games.

“The kids were wowed by this; these are all things we now take for granted,” Dore said. “That led to a discussion of Ruby Bridges (the first black child to desegregate an all-white school) all the way up to Martin Luther King Jr. and what’s happened over the past 100 years.

“The kids were baffled; it doesn’t make any sense to them,” she continued. “It’s very interesting as a teacher to listen to kids who don’t have knowledge of the past. They were upset.”

Dore said Newland’s visit has inspired her class to want to learn more.

“They want to do research,” she said. “They are in awe of these people like Paige and Jackie Robinson who wanted to stand up against [racism]. They said they wouldn’t have let it happen and they would have stood up.”

Dore said it’s wonderful when one subject she’s teaching finds synergy with another and brings students down a whole new path she never anticipated.

“It’s great that it starts in reading and flows over into social studies,” she said. “Now, the conversation goes right into today’s current events with things like [Trump’s] wall and immigration,” she said.

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