NEW YORKInfluenced by the high demand for Negro League memorabilia, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced Monday that, for the 2004 season, the national pastime will return to its storied, segregated past.
"This is a historic day for baseball players and fans alike," Selig told an excited crowd of black reporters and players gathered around a radio in the lobby of his Park Avenue headquarters. "Today, we honor the memory of such great black players as Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, and Cool Papa Bell by giving the Negro Leagues a place in American sports once again."
Selig cited the abundance of Negro League documentaries, books, web sites, and museums as proof of the public's interest in revitalizing segregated baseball.
"Baseball is all about the fans," Selig said. "And the fans are all about paying big money for caps and T-shirts with the cool old Birmingham Black Barons logo on them. They love buying mahogany-framed prints of those neat black-and-white Kansas City Monarchs team photos, too."
The first successful Negro League was formed in 1920, and the leagues survived in some form until the early 1950s. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, black talent began to migrate to the major leagues.
"Some of the greatest baseball players in history were in the Negro Leagues," Selig said. "Even so, most of them were relative unknowns in their day. Well, now we have the advantage of working in reverse. By taking talented, pre-established All-Stars like Kenny Lofton, Sammy Sosa, and Gary Sheffield out of the Major Leagues, we make instant Negro League superstars."
Selig said the new Black National League and Black American League seasons will be played at the same time as those of regular, white Major League Baseball.
"I will personally ensure that the leagues for whites and blacks are equal in every way," Selig said. "As for the fans, they'll be getting twice as many games this summer. And we'll get surviving Negro League players, like former Philadelphia Stars pitcher Harold Gould, to throw out the first ball. Who would object to that?"
Selig said the Negro League games will not be geared toward an all-black audience.
"Only about 6 percent of fans attending Major League Baseball games last year were black," Selig said. "The demographic we're aiming for comprises diehard baseball fans and Negro-league memorabilia collectors, regardless of race or creed."
Selig explained that this demographic is composed predominantly of Caucasian men, and that Nielsen data indicates that the average baseball fan is 51 years old.
So far, baseball fans, particularly those residing in the Deep South, have embraced Selig's decision.
"This is going to be great," said Darryl Dupey, 54, of Birmingham, AL. "Dad always talked about seeing the Birmingham Black Barons face down teams like the Atlanta Black Crackers and the Chicago American Giants, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd get to see it myself. It's like a dream come true."
"This is a treasured piece of American history all over again," said Omar Whittlefield, owner of the new Chicago Black Stockings franchise. "During the first half of the 20th century, the color line kept black players from getting the recognition they deserved. Well, this time around, the players are going to be huge. I don't sell caps if they ain't!"
Unfortunately, some players have resisted joining the new league.
"Hell, no," said five-time All-Star Albert Belle, who was told to report for practice with the Tampa Bay Afro-Marlins next Wednesday. "Didn't we already go through this shit? No way I'm gonna be anyone's sepia-toned memory."
Barry Bonds, recently dismissed from the newly all-white San Francisco Giants, said he is unsure what he'll do.
"At this point, I don't know," Bonds said. "If I get a chance to play with Sheffield and a bunch of other great players on the Black Yankees, I have to admit that'd sorta be a dream come true. On the other hand, maybe it'd be time to retire."
While he acknowledged that his plan has its critics, Selig said the "shadow league" will revitalize baseball.
"A new generation will get to see the tragic majesty of Negro League play," Selig said. "Once again, baseball fans will be able to argue over whether or not a black player could make it in the majors, even if the player in question was already there. And maybe, just maybe, the brave Jackie Robinson of a new generation will dare to defy my color line and become a symbol of triumph. That'd really sell tickets."