Negro League Night in York

We will start with a ending, and end with a beginning, as Gandalf says in Rankin-Bass’ underrated yet weird animated adaptation of Return of the King. I went to a York Revolution baseball game last night and came home with a Ross Detwiler game-used jersey.

The Revolution were having a Negro League Night. From the promotional email they sent earlier in the week:

The Revs will don commemorative York Monarchs jerseys in tribute to the Colored Monarchs of the Diamonds, the Negro League team that played in York in 1890 and the inspiration behind the name of PeoplesBank Park’s new Monarch Suite on the skybox level. […] Plus, the first 1,000 fans will receive a commemorative baseball card honoring Solomon White, the legendary Monarchs second baseman and namesake of the new Solomon Suite on the skybox level

This caught my interest — King Solomon “Sol” White was a significant person in Negro League history, from his playing days to managing and developing players to writing the first significant history of black baseball (History of Colored Base Ball), and he was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. Saturday morning I decided I’d go.

I’m not an expert on the Negro Leagues, merely an enthusiastic amateur.

More than any other sport, except maybe European soccer, baseball embraces its history as a living thing, and today’s game lives in conversation with the past. (Which, I think, there are such debates about whether the National League should adopt the designated hitter or whether the experiment in the minors of starting a runner on base in extra innings is a good idea or a travesty, because these things and other rules changes disrupt the continuity with the past.) Part of that history is that baseball was segregated and some of baseball’s greatest talents never received the recognition they would have deserved had their skin been another color nor had the opportunity to match their skills against their peers.

Yet white baseball and black baseball weren’t entirely separate. Even Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis’ edict against exhibition games between white and black teams (either professional or barnstorming) didn’t entirely end the practice. (If I ever write a book on baseball, it will be about one such exhibition between a white and a black team, which I was absolutely fascinated by when I learned of it, but it only merits a line or two in most histories, if that.) Beyond the Shadow of the Senators, the book on the Homestead Grays, makes the interesting observation that, Clark Griffith, the owner of the Senators, needed the Homestead Grays for the Senators to be profitable; he provided them equipment, including uniforms besides just bats and balls, and in exchange he got a cut of the box office take, which went into the upkeep of Griffith Stadium, and without them in the late 1930s and 1940s he would have gone bust.

Somewhere in my baseball library — I can’t find the book at the moment to quote it exactly — there was a passage about how the Negro Leagues were the United States’ largest black-owned, -operated, and -employed business pre-World War II. The passage noted, rightly, that the segregation of baseball needed to end, even if erasing baseball’s color line brought an entire industry to an end.

I’ve often said that if I had a time machine I’d want to visit some of the classic ballparks. The Polo Grounds, circa 1930 when the “horseshoe” was complete. Wrigley Field, in the early 1930s before the bleachers and the scoreboard. Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, but I’d rather see a Negro League game, preferably one with the Homestead Grays and Josh Gibson, than a Pirates game. Sorry, Brooklyn Dodgers fans, Ebbets doesn’t make my list. I’ve never really understood the mystique of Ebbets.

Baseball history is fascinating, and the Negro Leagues is one of those chapters that piques my interest. I probably couldn’t name a dozen players, but, to be fair, I’d struggle to name a dozen players on today’s Chicago Cubs or Washington Nationals. Still, a team photo of the Homestead Grays proudly hangs on the wall of my office, and I have a Homestead Grays hat I sometimes wear.

I can mourn the injustice of baseball’s historic segregation yet appreciate and celebrate the efforts by those who work to keep the memory of baseball’s overlooked, even forgotten, players alive. The Revolution were keeping that memory alive, if only for one night, and that’s why I wanted to be there

I arrived half an hour before the gates opened to ensure I’d get the baseball card giveaway — and I was the seventh-ish person in line. In short, I needn’t have worried, even with having to buy a ticket at the box office.

The Sol White baseball card, in my baseball card binder with the baseball cards from the anniversary Blu-Ray of A League of Their Own.

The Revolution weren’t simply wearing York Colored Monarchs throwback jerseys. They were also auctioning them off: “Bid on the jersey worn by your favorite player in an auction sponsored by PeoplesBank to benefit the William C. Goodridge Freedom Center and Underground Railroad Museum.”

I wouldn’t normally do something like this, but I decided I’d place a bid on one of the jerseys. I took a look at the options, saw that Detwiler’s jersey was one of the jerseys up for bid, and said to myself, “Okay, I’ll do that.” I have fond memories of Detwiler pitching for the Nationals, like his performance in the NLDS in 2012, the auction was for a good cause, and the York Monarchs jerseys honestly looked sharp. Detwiler also pitched on Labor Day against the Cubs that year; I was at that game, then visited Congressional Cemetery the first time after the game and located the grave of my great-great-grandfather, William Gardner. Bid placed, and I thought nothing more of it, until 8 o’clock when my phone buzzed with a notification — I’d won Detwiler’s jersey in the auction. No one else bid on it — the same reason a painting by Bryce Harper’s brother Bryan hangs in my office — and lest I give off the impression that I wasn’t thrilled, I was actually quite excited by this.

Ross Detwiler, roughly center, with the Revolution as they take off their game-worn jerseys post-game

It turns out I was supposed to go down to the field and pick up the jersey from Detwiler personally, but I’m either an idiot or wasn’t paying attention and missed the opportunity entirely. That said, that’s probably for the best, as I would have geeked out and geebled like an eejit and been totally-not-cool. I picked up the jersey from fan services post-game.

The jersey auction raised nearly two thousand dollars for the museum, by the way. I’m glad I was able to contribute in some way.

I hadn’t been to a Revolution game in a while — none last year, so probably 2017, (Being called a “traitor” by an usher at the 2015 Fan Fest left a sour taste in my mouth, to be honest.) I try to stay current with the team, I do listen to Revs games on WOYK, their radio outlet, and I like Darrell Henry as a baseball broadcaster quite a bit.

There were displays of Negro League memorabilia and photographs set up around the concourse. This display came from the Simmons Museum of Negro League Baseball in Owings Mills, which I keep meaning to visit and have not yet found the time. I talked with them for a few minutes, and I really was geeking out even though I was trying not to.

Since I hadn’t been to Peoples Bank Park in a while, I took some time before the game to walk around the stadium. It’s a nice park, but I’ve always found it somewhat generic. I don’t mean that as a criticism. It’s a perfectly fine place to watch a baseball game. But nothing about it really stands out in my mind, not even the Arch Nemesis in left field (a wall taller than Boston’s Green Monster). It’s like a more polished version of Harry Grove Stadium in Frederick, which has the same genericism in my mind.

The York Monarchs throwback jerseys looked classy, and while jerseys in 1890 would have had neither numbers nor names on the back, these throwbacks had the players numbers and, instead of the names of the Revolution players, the names of York Monarchs players who played the same position. Frankly, I thought they looked better than the standard Revs kit, either the blue and yellow jersey tops or the plain whites.

Pre-game, after the ceremonial first pitches, a “living history” re-enactor from the Freedom Center and Underground Railroad Museum came out and spoke to the audience for several minutes in character. This photo is not the best due to the angle of the sun.

Also, pre-game there was a musical performance by the York YWCA Temple Guard.

One neat thing was that the Revolution took the field before the National Anthem through a tunnel of little league teams from New Oxford. (When I think of New Oxford, I think of the traffic circle and driving a moving van through that traffic circle in 2002 when I moved to North Carolina.) Then the players joined the Revs on field for the National Anthem.

Unfortunately, the flagpole was damaged in Friday night’s heavy winds, so an American flag was rigged up in right field near Cannonball Charlie, who fires off a cannon at the start of every game, after every game if the Revolution win, and any time the Revolution hit a home run.

Two former Washington Nationals players were in the starting line-up for the visiting Long Island Ducks — Steve Lombardozzi at second base, Matt den Dekker in left. That’s typical of teams in the Atlantic League. These aren’t affiliated teams, and the players aren’t prospects like in the affiliated minors. These are former major leaguers looking for another chance, cast-offs who were never quite good enough to get the call, and never-had-the-chance players. One frequent reaction I have when listening to a game on the radio is, “Oh, yeah, I remember that name” or “Isn’t that someone I saw in Harrisburg a few years ago?” The odds are long, but they have the skills, they have the dream, and they are not giving up their shot. I find that admirable.

Revolution starter Matthew Grimes, was generally effective. He gave up a run in the second and two more in the third, and that was due mainly to some shaky defense behind him. Against Long Island’s starting pitcher, the Revolution couldn’t muster much of anything at all.

As the sun went down, clouds rolled in. The forecast called for rain overnight — and rain it did — and when the sun fell behind the grandstand and a breeze kicked through it would feel downright cold.

The on-field host donned a colonial-era costume in later innings — earlier, he had been wearing a yellow jacket — and he was fun. He was sarcastic and snarky and brought a lot of energy to what was a rather listless crowd at times. Revolution games, in the past, had an energy I’d find in a major league game. Even Harrisburg Senators games are downright sleepy compared to the crowd at a Revolution game. But last night, for whatever reason — early season, a chilly night — the crowd in York was very mellow.

Mark Mason walking to the mound to take a pitcher out in the seventh

The York Revolution could not buy an out.

They were down 3-0 going into the seventh. Revolution manager Mark Mason turned to his bullpen. I couldn’t tell you off-hand who he brought in — I’d stopped keeping the detailed notes I do by that point — but he wasn’t effective. He allowed three runs, then let another man on base, and he was pulled for a new reliever, who promptly let another man on base, then gave up a 3-run bomb to right. The, and another pitching change, and two more runs came in on top of that. After that interminable inning — it felt like a long time — the surmountable 3 run deficit turned into an nigh-impregnable 11 run deficit.

The eighth wasn’t that much better. More relievers, more runs. It’s deeply unfair to dumpster fires to compare York’s bullpen’s efforts last night to actual dumpster fires.

Even at the bottom of the ninth, down fourteen runs, the on-field host hadn’t lost faith. “We can do that. It’s only fourteen runs. We can do fourteen runs. It’s only a couple of field goals.”

And in the ninth inning, York showed some fire. A one-out double, a sacrifice that advanced a runner to third — the first time York had had a runner on third all night, if memory serves.

But there was no comeback. The Revolution fell to the Ducks, 14-0.

As my dad would day, “They can’t even beat their own grandmothers.” A little harsh, but after that seventh inning, when Long Island was scoring at will, the sentiment felt true.

There were post-game fireworks. I retreated to the concourse — not for reasons of safety; loud noises, like fireworks (or Cannonball Charlie’s cannon), make me jumpy — and watched from there. And, of course, I picked up the jersey I’d won in the auction before leaving the stadium, then took a Revolution lawn sign on my way out.

This weird person keeps showing up in all of my photos

All in all, it was a nice evening. It was moderately warm while the sun was still above the grandstand, but I knew that temperatures would drop and prepared for that and brought a hoodie. While I thought about wearing a Homestead Grays cap in honor of Negro Leagues Night, remembering the “traitor” incident (and suspecting that few in York would recognize the Grays hat), I dusted off a Revolution hat that I’d not worn in a while, one that I’m kinda fond of because it has the official Minor League Baseball logo stitched into the band, which it’s not supposed to at all.

Tickets cost more than they did in the past (and were a bit more expensive than what I pay in Harrisburg), the pretzel dogs were not as good as I remembered, and the Revs, of course, lost by a ridonculous score. Nonetheless, I had a nice time and I have a piece of baseball memorabilia — the Detwiler jersey — that I will cherish.

As for ending this with a beginning, for Gandalf, that was the dawn of the Fourth Age. For the York Revolution, it’s the start of the 2019 campaign; Friday night was opening day, and last night’s game was the second of the season. For me, it’s my first Revs game in a while, and this summer I’ll make more of an effort to attend occasionally.

New beginnings. 🙂

Published by Allyn

A writer, editor, journalist, sometimes coder, occasional historian, and all-around scholar, Allyn Gibson is the writer for Diamond Comic Distributors' monthly PREVIEWS catalog, used by comic book shops and throughout the comics industry, and the editor for its monthly order forms. In his over ten years in the industry, Allyn has interviewed comics creators and pop culture celebrities, covered conventions, analyzed industry revenue trends, and written copy for comics, toys, and other pop culture merchandise. Allyn is also known for his short fiction (including the Star Trek story "Make-Believe,"the Doctor Who short story "The Spindle of Necessity," and the ReDeus story "The Ginger Kid"). Allyn has been blogging regularly with WordPress since 2004.

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