AILSA CHANG, HOST:
As protests over racial injustice in the U.S. continue, Major League Baseball is marking the anniversary of the Negro Leagues. Created a hundred years ago, the leagues showcased Black baseball players, players who couldn't play on the major teams because of the color of their skin. Only a few members of the leagues are alive to celebrate the centennial. Michigan Radio's Doug Tribou spoke to the only surviving team owner and others about the legacy of the legendary leagues.
DOUG TRIBOU, BYLINE: In 1920, owners of independent Black baseball teams from the Midwest gathered in Kansas City, Mo. At that meeting, they created the Negro National League.
BOB KENDRICK: They had no idea they were making history. They didn't care about making history.
TRIBOU: Bob Kendrick heads the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum there. He says, faced with segregation, Black owners and players kept pushing for organized baseball.
KENDRICK: These athletes never cried about the social injustice. They went out and did something about it. So you won't let me play with you. Then I'll create my own.
TRIBOU: And they did. Today, stars like Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But thousands of Black and Latino players endured bigotry and racist taunts.
MINNIE FORBES: It was terrible for the players at that time.
TRIBOU: Minnie Forbes owned the Detroit Stars from 1956 to 1958. She lives in Grand Rapids, Mich.
FORBES: The players traveled, and they had nowhere to stay because of the discrimination. So they slept in the buses. And they couldn't go in places to eat, so one person would go to the back door and get the food for all the players.
TRIBOU: Pedro Sierra pitched in the Negro Leagues for several seasons in the 1950s. He grew up in Cuba and says it was tough to adjust to segregation and racism he saw in the U.S.
PEDRO SIERRA: It wasn't easy to see all the problems with the race. I knew about it. I heard about it, but I hadn't experienced it.
TRIBOU: Today, Sierra lives in New Jersey. In 1954, he signed with the Indianapolis Clowns at the age of 16. His salary was less than 5% of what white players were earning.
SIERRA: The Clowns are paid a hundred dollars a month.
TRIBOU: A month (laughter).
SIERRA: Yeah, a hundred dollars a month. And now I look back and I say, oh, my God.
TRIBOU: Jackie Robinson played briefly in the Negro Leagues. Then in 1947, he broke baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In Cleveland, Larry Doby became the first Black player in the American League. The coming seasons brought many more signings. But Minnie Forbes sympathizes with the many athletes who were good enough to play in the major leagues but never got a shot.
FORBES: Unfortunately, some of the good players, by the time that the time came, they were too old to play.
TRIBOU: The last league folded in the early 1960s. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum estimates there are about 100 former players still alive. Forbes is 88 and worries about being one of the last left to tell this story.
FORBES: And I just wonder if I'm worthy of representing, speaking about the Negro League because when I got involved, things was easier for me than it was for the one before me.
TRIBOU: Minnie Forbes will keep sharing her stories with younger generations, and others will, too. Major League Baseball has a day to honor the leagues set for next month. The museum has pushed back its year-long celebration of the centennial to next year and renamed it Negro Leagues 101.
For NPR News, I'm Doug Tribou in Ann Arbor, Mich.
(SOUNDBITE OF A FOREST MIGHTY BLACK'S "REBIRTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.