DOUGLAS — Former Negro Leagues players on Thursday lamented baseball's drop in popularity among blacks as a major motion picture was set to hit theaters about Jackie Robinson.
The biographical film about Robinson, “42,” opens Friday, and for many of the Negro Leagues players, the breakthrough of one of their own in 1947 as the first African American in Major League Baseball was the first time they ever saw a black player truly become a celebrity.
Robinson played shortstop one season for the Negro American League Kansas City Monarchs before Branch Rickey signed him to the big leagues.
“They were crazy about him,” said Ray “Boo Boy” Knox, 82, a former catcher for the Chicago American Giants and other teams.
At Prairie Shores Apartments on King Drive, Knox met with other Negro Leagues players to reminisce after visiting nearby Mayo Elementary School to chat with students and set up a mini-museum about the Negro Leagues.
Knox, who played from 1951 to 1952, and others said they would occasionally be stopped on the street and asked for an autograph, but no player ever achieved Robinson's level of fame playing in the Negro Leagues.
People today forget how popular baseball was in the late 1940s and early 1950s — especially among African Americans, he said.
“We drew more people than the White Sox did,” Knox recalled, describing how Comiskey Park would be packed with both African-American and white fans for American Giants games. “Back in the day, baseball was the biggest game for blacks.”
He said it was a much more humble game, too.
“We just wanted to play ball, and we were filling up parks,” Knox said, adding that he made less than $185 a month. “Back in the day, I played to be better than the next guy.”
Though he saw teammates make it to the major leagues, Knox said he quit before his big break because “I wasn’t making enough money to take care of my family.”
He ran a dry cleaning business for 53 years after leaving baseball in 1952.
Heron “Cuba Lee” O’Neal played for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1959 to 1961 making $125 per month with no sponsorship deals or advertising spots to bring in extra cash.
“You got your pay, and that was it,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal was picked up by a Chicago Cubs farm team in Florida for a brief stint in the minor leagues. He said it was a huge step up from the Negro Leagues.
“It was as different as night and day, the equipment, the fields,” O’Neal said. “When we played, we played on gravel with balls of rags all wrapped up.”
O’Neal’s career ended before he got a chance in the majors when he collided with a catcher’s facemask and broke his jaw as he was stealing home. He coaches Little League now and is retired after 19 years of working at City Hall.
“I had a pretty decent, good life,” O’Neal said.
The new film on Robinson may revive some interest in the aging players — at least that’s Gary Crawford’s hope. Crawford runs Negro League Legends, an organization that promotes the players and brings them to schools to talk about their experiences.
About 175 players from the Negro Leagues are still living, according to Crawford.
“My fingers and toes are crossed that the film does give these guys more exposure,” Crawford said. “Jackie’s passing has not caused all the other players to die.”