For a community starved for cultural events, the Brewers’ Negro League Tribute Game (NLTG) represents a summer Godsend. Well, maybe “Godsend” is a bit of an exaggeration. But the event stands out as one of a handful of inimitable Black-centric festivities we look forward to each summer.
Moreover, unlike other “must attend” summer celebrations, the NLTG is grounded in a unique observance of important historical significance. Since the premature death of African World Festival, we’ve tried to fill the void with the Juneteenth, Garfield Fest and the NLTG. That’s a sad commentary for a city that is 42% African American, particularly given that much smaller ethnicities host large festivals to specifically celebrate their heritages. In many respects, Garfield Fest and Juneteenth mimic some of the best attributes of African World Fest.
The African exhibits, entertainment and food that defined African World Festival were made all the more appreciable because of the fraternity and brotherhood displayed by attendees.
Likewise, the NLTG has also grown into an exceptional cultural experience.
Sponsored by the Milwaukee Brewers, the event grew out of a Negro League Wall of Fame erected at the old County Stadium.
The Brewers, under Bud Selig and later his daughter Wendy, pioneered the first tribute to the Negro Leagues, a talent laden fraternity of some of the greatest American athletes who were denied the opportunity to play in the “big” leagues because of the color of their skin (and some suggest their athletic prowess).
It wasn’t until Jackie Robinson was chosen to “integrate” major league baseball in 1947 that America was provided a glimpse of what it was missing.
The Negro Leagues continued for the next decade as the slow process of desegregation took place, but many of the most talented players never got a chance to showcase their skills on the national stage.
The Seligs sought to honor those heroes and pioneers with a wall of fame.
The wall was inadvertently put up for sale when the stadium was demolished to make room for Miller Park, but was retrieved by Negro League player Dennis Biddle and Bishop Sedgwick Daniels of Holy Redeemer COGIC 13 years ago.
Fortunately, the new Brewer ownership, headed by Mark Attanasio, saw the value of not only expanding the tribute, but also sponsoring tailgate and induction ceremonies that have taken on a life of their own.
This year’s honorees are Don Porter and Reggie Howard. They will be joined by a dozen other Negro Leaguers at a celebration at the Hilton Hotel on Friday, August 11 and will be honored by the Brewers the next day when the team hosts the Cincinnati Reds.
Both teams will wear the uniforms of their home Negro League teams. The Brewers will wear the uniforms of the Milwaukee Bears, our city’s representative in the Negro League back in 1923.
On Sunday the two players will be inducted into the Wall of Fame at ceremonies at Holy Redeemer.
But it is the game and the tailgate “party” that feeds the hunger of Black patrons.
The tailgate is held at Helfaer Field prior to the 6 p.m. game and includes continuous entertainment highlighting several local acts and a DJ.
Food and drinks are included in the ticket package, which this year will include an All Star kickball game at the mini-stadium.
It’s a fun time for all with an emphasis on family.
What makes the event all the more special is the presence of Negro Leaguers.
They represent true Black History, a page that is both disparaging and gratifying.
Even though the Negro League existed because of institutional racism, it provided Black America with a superior professional sporting event that rivaled anything offered in the major leagues.
History reveals some of the Negro Leaguers—think Satchel Paige, considered the best pitcher in history, and Josh Gibson, the best hitter of all time—would have rewritten major league statistics.
Robinson, it has been told, was far from the best Negro Leaguer to make it to the big leagues. Although he became Rookie of the Year and eventually made it to the Hall of Fame, he was chosen in part because of his education and ability to intellectually deflect racist taunts and threats on his life.
The trials and tribulations, adventures and festivities of the surviving players (only a handful are still alive) make for the type of conversations that enrich the heart and spirit.
Just the other day I attended a Pastor’s United meeting when one of the cleric’s proudly proclaimed his father, Warren Kirkendoll, played in the Negro Leagues. He’s 89 and a source of pride and inspiration.
I can relate, having had the opportunity to talk to dozens of Negro Leaguers over the years.
One of my favorite players is Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, one of four females to play in the Negro Leagues. Peanut was a pitcher, and although small in stature, she was an excellent pitcher and struck out some of the best during a short (no pun intended) career in which she compiled a 33-8 record.
Peanut was a warehouse of historical trivia, and even at her advanced age had an eye open for “adventure.” In fact, if I didn’t know better, I would have thought she hit on me during our hours together. Too bad I wasn’t young enough to keep up with her fastball.
I’ve attended all but one of the NLT games, and look forward to it every year. It’s truly a family event, and like Garfield Fest and Juneteenth, it provides a venue for a positive cultural exchange.
I take someone new every year. Over the past decade, that has included sons, grandsons and a few select friends.
Each has tried to bribe me for return visits. I’m hosting a lottery for the privilege this year.
Of course, most end up buying tickets and taking someone new to share the unique event.
Often, that means a significant other. As I said years ago, a (baseball) diamond becomes a girl’s best friend once she attends a Brewers’ game.
I take a lot of pride in telling people I was on the board that built Miller Park. I’m equally proud to tell the world our stadium is home to the premiere Negro League tribute game.
See you at the Ballpark.