Freedom’s Just Another Word for Something Else to Sell

“Everyone always has the fanciest reasons for what they do.”

–Lillian Hellman

The headline atop the Times sports page June 21 was a sanctimonious lie: “In Homage to Mays and the Negro Leagues, MLB Heads to Birmingham.” The online hed said “Baseball Returns to the ‘Hallowed Grounds’ of a Negro Leagues Stadium.”

Yes, a game between the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals has been scheduled for June 20, 2024 at Rickwood Field, where Willie Mays played for the Birmingham Black Barons before he joined the Giants. But no, the venue was not chosen by way of homage to Mays and the Negro Leagues (which disbanded in the wake of integration). MLB is a consortium of capitalists who see a large revenue stream to be tapped. It’s not just the money to be made by televising an otherwise ho-hum mid-season game to the nation and the world, but think of all those jerseys to be marketed! The Homestead Grays, The Detroit Wolves, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cab Calloway…

There could also be a game on or around Juneteenth between the Dallas and Houston teams honoring the politicians, government officials, and law enforcement agents in the great state of Texas who held off implementing the Emancipation Proclamation from September 22, 1862, when President Lincoln issued it, until June 19, 1865! MLB could market the game as an occasion for making emotional reparations.

John Lardner was a great sportswriter who, like his famous father, Ring, drank too much and died too young. In 1953 he wrote a piece questioning the practical value of  “spring training,” two months in a warm clime for which players did not get paid and risked injury while the owners made money from exhibition games. “One of the players’ major complaints against spring training,” Lardner wrote, “is night games. They dislike night ball at all times, but especially when they are meant to be acquiring health and strength in the winter and early spring.”

Explaining why the Dodgers, who trained in Vero Beach, would be playing exhibition games at night in Miami, vice-president Buzzy Bavasi explained, “It’s a difference between a seven-thousand crowd and a two-thousand crowd. How else are we going to get the money to pay these boys’ expenses?”

Lardner: “A further way to try to get money back, for Brooklyn, is to sell out towns where Jackie Robinson has not been  seen before. This spring there is a game scheduled in New Orleans, 1,000 miles out of the homebound line, to pick up exploited Robinson dollars from Negro fans there. Robinson is the greatest single baseball drawing card of the last five years, as Babe Ruth was before him. It never increased the happiness of Ruth or Robinson, or their teammates, as their clubs wandered about the land beating the bushes for virgin funds, to reflect that neither the ‘gate attractions’ nor the players were paid, in salary or percentage for those wearisome and sometimes physically dangerous junkets.”

Getting back to the Times’s reworking of the corporate media advisory: “MLB said that the date of the Rickwood Field game was intended to coincide with Juneteenth and that the game would feature a variety of activities to celebrate the history of the Negro leagues and Mays, the game’s greatest living player.”

Juneteenth, indeed!  I watched the news that day, oh boy, and didn’t hear a single mention of the fact that the great state of Texas held back news of the Emancipation Proclamation for more than two years!!!

The Times “homage” story by David Wallstein was not devoid of information:

“With a seating capacity of almost 11,000, Rickwood Field was built by the Birmingham industrialist Harvey Woodward, who was known as Rick, and it was modeled after Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and Shibe Park in Philadelphia. When it opened, on Aug. 18, 1910, businesses in Birmingham were shuttered to celebrate the grand occasion.

“In its early years, the park hosted exhibition games with teams from the American and National Leagues, including the Yankees, but Rickwood was home to the Barons, a Southern League institution that featured stars like Pie Traynor and Burleigh Grimes. In later years, Bo Jackson played for the Barons at Rickwood, as did Michael Jordan during his 1994 sojourn into baseball.

“A great deal of the most significant history at the park, however, came from the Black Barons, a Negro leagues team that featured stars like Mule Suttles and Satchel Paige, who won more games for Birmingham than he did for any other professional team.

“In 1948, the Black Barons — with Mays in tow — faced the Homestead Grays in the final Negro World Series. While the Grays won that Series, William Greason, who went on to be the first Black pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, picked up Birmingham’s lone victory. Greason, 98, still lives in Birmingham and is the pastor at Bethel Baptist Church, less than two miles from Rickwood Field.”

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at