Hall of Fame Examines 150 Years of Black Baseball History

A new exhibition begins long before the creation of the Negro Leagues and ends with the triumphs and challenges of today’s players

Ozzie Smith
Ozzie Smith, a 2002 Hall of Fame inductee and member of the show's advisory committee, previews "The Souls of the Game." Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

It wasn’t until 1962 that Jackie Robinson became the first Black player inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Now, that same Hall of Fame has opened an entire exhibition dedicated to celebrating the rich, challenging history of Black baseball players.

Through artifacts, documents, first-person accounts, photos and videos, “The Souls of the Game: Voices of Black Baseball” traces 150 years of history—beginning in the late 1800s, decades before the formation of the all-Black Negro Leagues, and continuing all the way up to the achievements and challenges of Black baseball players today.

“It has been documented that we’ve been playing baseball going back to the period of being enslaved,” Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, and a member of the exhibition’s advisory committee, tells the New York Times Jonathan Abrams. “Baseball has always been an important part of the African American experience in this country. It’s just the fact that it wasn’t documented in the pages of American history books.”

Another member of the show’s advisory committee is 2002 Hall of Fame inductee Ozzie Smith. Nicknamed the “Wizard of Oz” or sometimes just “the Wizard,” Smith was a shortstop for the San Diego Padres and the St. Louis Cardinals. According to a statement from the Hall of Fame museum, he spoke at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 24.

“As a Black man, I’ve been proud to see the Hall of Fame take the time, the effort and the initiative to develop this project and to celebrate the accomplishments of those who came before and after me, as well as the challenges we have faced and continue to face,” said Smith. “I’m proud to be included in this exhibit as one of the voices of Black baseball. And just like many of you, I am committed to ensuring that more and more young Black people fall in love with the game like all of us did.”

Ribbon-cutting ceremony
The Hall of Fame held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the exhibition on May 24. Mary DeCicco / MLB Photos via Getty Images

The percentage of Black players in Major League Baseball has reached a historic low. During the 2023 season, Black athletes made up only 6.2 percent of players, according to a report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. That’s the lowest number since the study started in 1991. At the 2022 World Series, there were no American-born Black players for the first time in over 70 years.

That said, an increasing number of Black players have been among the top draft picks in recent years, including 10 of the top 50 in last year’s draft, as the Times reports.

In 2020, Major League Baseball announced that it would officially recognize players from the Negro Leagues as Major League players. Just last month, statistics from the Negro Leagues were finally incorporated into the MLB’s record book, a meaningful move that reframed long-held records. For example, Josh Gibson, a Negro Leagues player, beat out Ty Cobb’s status as the athlete with the highest career batting average.

“The Souls of the Game” dives into the establishment of baseball’s color line, the formation of the Negro Leagues in 1920 and the dissolution of the color line in 1947, when Robinson began to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Larry Doby joined the Cleveland Indians. These milestones were hard-fought triumphs for Black baseball players, though they also triggered the collapse of the Negro Leagues, something the exhibition sheds light on.

“It is absolutely a bittersweet kind of story,” Kendrick tells the Times. “Those owners and the older players in the Negro Leagues essentially took one for the team. It reminds us that there is always a cost for what is deemed progress. And Black economy paid a dear cost for this progress.”

The exhibition’s title is an homage to W. E. B. Du Bois’ seminal 1903 essay collection The Souls of Black Folk, which Gerald Early, an essayist and curatorial consultant for the exhibition, calls “one of the most important books by a Black person written in the 20th century,” per the statement.

In addition to its wealth of artifacts and stories from the past, “The Souls of the Game” emphasizes the present and future of Black baseball, highlighting the accomplishments of contemporary players like Los Angeles Dodgers player Mookie Betts, whose 2022 All-Star game shirt is on display. The shirt has a simple message on it: “We need more Black people at the stadium.”

The exhibition “continues the conversation,” Curtis Granderson, a three-time All-Star, tells the Times. “And that’s what you want to have. You want to have the conversation go from one generation to the next.”

The Souls of the Game: Voices of Black Baseball” is now on view at the ​​National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.

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