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Portsmouth Baseball Historian's Collection Sheds Light on 'Negro Leagues' Era
08/14/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

If asked to think of some of the great American baseball players from the first half of the 20th century, most people will probably say Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, or Ted Williams. But what about Satchell Paige? Josh Gibson? or James "Cool Papa" Bell? These were all African-American players, and as such, were not able to compete in the Major Leagues. Instead, they played in the so-called Negro Leagues. But, says Portsmouth, New Hampshire baseball historian Joe Caliro, that doesn't mean the black players were not good enough to play in the majors. Tom Porter has more.

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Portsmouth baseball historian Joe Caliro with his collection of Negro League memorabilia on display at the Portland Public Library.

"Their records were so good that the commissioner of the leagues decided it wasn't a good idea to play these teams because they kept getting defeated and showing up some of the white teams," says Joe Caliro.

IMG_0697Caliro, who lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is an expert in America's Negro baseball leagues that flourished in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, during the days of segregated sport. It was, he explains, an era that only started to end when Jackie Robinson famously broke the color bar in 1947, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"Over the years I've collected a lot of Negro League memorabilia," Caliro says, "And frankly the players that played, and the balls that I have signed, most of them are gone. And I think it's an important part of American history that a lot of people don't know about."

It's a part of history that was on display Wednesday afternoon at the Portland Public Library, where Caliro gave a public lecture about the Negro Leagues, and put his 400-plus items of memorabilia on display.

IMG_0691Caliro says there were several Negro Leagues, but the teams best-known here in northern New England were the so-called "barnstorming teams" that traveled up the East Coast.

"The ones that played in this particular part - in Maine - were primarily out of Boston, and they kept changing their name, I think, so the crowd would think they were seeing a new team," Caliro says. "So at one time they were the Boston Royals, and then they were the Philadelphia Royals, and a pitcher by the name of Jackman became a local hero, actually."

Will "Cannonball" Jackman was originally from Texas but settled in Boston, and often traveled to Maine during the pre-war years. Caliro describes him as an outstanding pitcher. "I'll tell you how good a pitcher he was: One year his record was 53 and 4," he says.

"Another player that I have that is of interest to the state of Maine is a guy named Wilbur Young, who pitched with one arm," Caliro says. "And he pitched in Biddeford, because a friend of mine saw him in Biddeford when he was a young lad."

Other characters include Don Newcombe, who also helped break the color bar; Josh Gibson, who was described as the "Black Babe Ruth;" and the legendary pitcher, Satchell Paige.

"My favorite is Cool Papa Bell," Caliro says. "They consider him the fastest man to ever play baseball. This guy was just absolutely amazing. There's a lot of folklore in stories that go with the Negro Leagues, but one that is actually true: He scored all the way from first base on a bunt. This guy was just amazingly fast."

IMG_0683Caliro says some Negro League teams played exhibition matches against white teams from the major leagues. But most Negro League players, he says, earned only about the same pay as the average mill worker before the Depression.

"They were probably making anywhere from $100 to $300 a month to play," he says. "Now, the superstars would maybe make $1,000 or more. Many of them, though, decided to go into South America and other places to play - Mexico, the Dominican Republic, etcetera, where they would get $300, $400 to $500 a month, plus perks, like a free car or rent at a home, or something like that."

The change in attitudes bought about by World War II helped end segregation in baseball. And, says Caliro, with this change, the clubs' owners sensed a chance to make money, "because there were some big, real good ball players that they could get. Well, Branch Rickey was the first one to approach it, and of course, he signed Jackie Robinson.

But what most people don't know, says Caliro, is that the season before Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Branch Rickey signed up two other Negro League players - Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella - to play for Brooklyn's farm team, the Nashua Dodgers, making New Hampshire home to the first integrated baseball team in the nation.

Joe Caliro's exhibit on the Negro Leagues was only on display for a few hours this afternoon at the Portland Public Library.

Photos:  Tom Porter


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