After more than 70 years in the spotlight, the Negro Baseball League disbanded in the early 1950s, but that didn't stop it from becoming one of the most influential sports leagues.
The legendary Negro Baseball League and the city of Indianapolis are gearing up for the Historical Marker Dedication taking place at Washington Park downtown July 22 at 4:30 p.m., then at Victory Field July 22 at 6:45 p.m., where the players will be honored after a picnic buffet.
Ira McKnight, a co-MVP winner of the 1957 East-West All-Star game, will be attending as a guest speaker at the Negro League Conference the same weekend and will also be attending the Historical Marker Dedication.
McKnight played outfield and catcher for the 1951-52 Memphis Red Sox, 1953-54 South Bend (Ind.) Globetrotters and also 1956-61 Kansas City Monarchs. To many fans, he was "arguably the best catcher that major league baseball fans never got a chance to see."
"I smile everyday," McKnight said in an interview in 2008. "I look at my hands and smile. I got to play baseball. I got to play with and against great baseball players. I wouldn't trade it for anything. Not even for perfect hands."
McKnight was only one of many baseball greats in the Negro Baseball League. Starting out in 1876, the league began as a haven for baseball talent, as Black players were banned from the International League, the most prestigious of the minor league circuits, beginning in 1890. By the beginning of the century, the color barrier was in full effect.
Many powerful Black teams began springing up all around the Midwest in the early 20th century, such as the Chicago Giants, St. Louis Giants, Kansas City Monarchs and Indianapolis ABCs. They began establishing solid regional reputations.
According to the Negro League Baseball Players Association, the first color barrier was shattered in April of 1946 when Jackie Robinson was signed to the Dodgers. Virtually within five short years of Robinson's debut, all the major talent left in the Negro Baseball League had vanished and left for the majors or the integrated teams.
Indianapolis played a significant role in the Negro Baseball League. The Indianapolis Clowns dominated in the 1950s, claiming titles in 1950, 1951, 1952 and 1954. Baseball legend Henry "Hank" Aaron made his big debut with the Clowns in 1952 at the young age of 18. Although many sources claim they were the best of the Circle City's teams, the Clowns were not the first.
The Indianapolis ABCs were sponsored by the American Brewing Co. and first became popular in 1915. The team was brought to Indianapolis in 1914 from Birmingham, Ala., and claimed the "Colored World Championship" in 1916. The Negro National League inducted the ABCs as members in 1920 and soon after Indianapolis hosted the league's initial contest on May 2, 1920.
The ABCs had some of baseball's most talented players, including Oscar Charleston, Binge DeMoss, Cannonball Dick Redding and William "Dizzy" Dismukes. Charleston, an Indianapolis native, was the most well known of the ABCs.
According to the NLBPA, he was referred to as "The Hoosier Comet," he had a career that lasted nearly four decades. In 1922, he became a player and manager, a first in the Eastern Colored League, and then in the United States League. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.
Another great, William "Willie" Owens, grew up in Indianapolis and was a shortstop for the ABCs from 1925 to 1933. He also played with several other Negro League teams. After retiring from baseball he became a professional pool player, owned a pool hall and tavern in Indianapolis and lived a long life until age 98, when he died in 1999.