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Sports

'Setting The Stage': Recalling A Historic Moment For Negro League Baseball In Denver

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Baltimore County Public Library
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CC BY 2.0
Exhibit at the Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro Leagues Baseball at the Owings Mills Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library.

Most people know the story of Jackie Robinson, who integrated Major League Baseball in 1947 and paved the way for future athletes of color to finally achieve the status and recognition they deserved.

But who paved the way for Jackie Robinson? According to Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, a chunk of that credit goes to the Denver Post when it hosted the nation’s first integrated tournament back in 1934. And another chunk goes to Oliver Marcelle, the former Negro League third baseman, who lobbied for it.

Colorado Edition producer Alana Schreiber spoke to Kendrick about the historic, yet largely unknown event, later dubbed "The Little World Series of the West."

“I think it was an indication that here was a cross-section of the population that maybe we had not paid attention to,” said Kendrick. “White fans got a chance to see this great Black talent play. And I think the reputation of these black ballplayers had preceded them anyway. They’re hearing how good these players were, but now they got a chance to see it for themselves.”

Formerly, only white ballplayers received invitations to the annual Denver Post tournament. But in 1934, thanks to Marcelle’s insistence, the popular Negro Leagues team The Kansas City Monarchs made their way to Denver and dazzled the crowd. One star player in the league, Satchel Paige, spent the tournament pitching for an all-white team, and ultimately won them first place.

“It was setting the stage,” said Kendrick. “It really was number one. It proved that Black and white players could play on the same field together and play with each other. As we move forward in subsequent years, there was a groundswell of support for this from white fans because people were recognizing there is a lot of talent in this league called the Negro Leagues and this talent seems to be just as good, maybe better than the talent that was playing in the major leagues.”

While it’s important to remember the impact of the Denver Post tournament, Kendrick reminds us that the legacies of so many Negro league ballplayers were lost to history. And he’s committed to resurrecting their stories.

“American historians did us all a tremendous disservice. They kept this wonderful chapter of baseball and Americana away from us," he said. "So, we don't know the story of legendary ballplayers like Oliver 'The Ghost' Marcelle, who should absolutely be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. And it is our job to make sure that they are remembered. Not only remembered, but celebrated, celebrated for what they did to help change the game of baseball, but more importantly, what they did to help change this country for the better.”

In 1991, one of those Negro league ballplayers was finally celebrated. The Colorado Rockies, along with the help of Louisiana’s minor league Zephyrs, ceremoniously unveiled a new headstone dedicated to the man who championed baseball’s first major integrated tournament. If you visit Denver’s Riverside cemetery today, you’ll find a grave marker that reads, “Oliver ‘The Ghost’ Marcelle — Brought professional Black baseball to Colorado.”

This story is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Feb. 15. You can find the full episode here.

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