'They paved the way': Past, present, future align as Tigers host MLB's largest Negro Leagues tribute

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — At Detroit Country Day, Saborn Campbell did a pair of research projects on the history of the Negro Leagues. He got a pair of A's.

And on Friday at Comerica Park, Campbell got a front-row seat at living history, particularly the past, present and future — he's the future — of Black baseball in the city of Detroit, as the Tigers kicked off their annual Negro Leagues Weekend celebration with a host of dignitaries, from the Stars and Tigers days.

Campbell, 18, was in awe during Friday's luncheon, ahead of being Friday night's "future" link for the team's annual Pass the Bat ceremony. Campbell, one of the top prep baseball players in the country, will join his brother, Jon, as a participant. Jon, now 20 and at Boston College, received the honor in 2018.

Former Tiger Jake Wood speaks during a Negro Leagues luncheon at Comerica Park on Friday, with current Tigers Akil Baddoo, from left, Niko Goodrum and Derek Hill listening.

"This is awesome, just being surrounded by Tigers greats and all these great players that played for the Negro Leagues that just really inspired me all my life," said Campbell, wearing his high school jersey.

"They've really impacted my baseball career.

"They paved the way."

This week marks the Tigers' 18th Negro Leagues celebration. It's the longest of its kind in Major League Baseball, and it's MLB's lone full-weekend celebration. On Friday, along with "Pass the Bat," Rosilyn Stearnes-Brown and Joyce Stearnes Thompson, daughters of Detroit Stars legend and Baseball Hall of Fame Norman "Turkey" Stearnes, were to sing the national anthem. On Saturday, former Negro Leagues players will participate in a Q&A, including Stars owner Minnie Forbes, Johnny Walker, Ron Teasley, Pedro Sierra, Eugene Scruggs, Sam Allen and Bill Hill. The first 10,000 fans through the gates receive a Detroit Stars fedora. On Sunday, the Tigers will honor the 60th anniversary of Jake Wood's major-league debut.

These are just some of the initiatives for what's becoming Negro Leagues week. On Wednesday, there was a screening of "The Other Boys of Summer." And on Tuesday, ground will be broken on renovations at historic Hamtramck Stadium, home of the Detroit Stars. The $2.6-million renovation is being funded, in part, by a recently approved $850,000 grant by the Wayne County Commission.

Back in their playing days, when the Tigers first started wearing the Detroit Stars jerseys, Kimera Bartee, Tony Clark and Damion Easley made it a point to take an off-day and visit Hamtramck Stadium. It's a rare Negro Leagues Stadium that still stands today.

"The history there ...," said Bartee, 49, now first-base coach for the Tigers.

Bartee also had another favorite part of the Negro Leagues celebration.

"I love the jersey," he said, with a smile. "Those Stars jerseys are just something special."

The Tigers will not wear the Stars jerseys this weekend, because of a supply-chain issue brought on by COVID-19. The home team is responsible for supplying specialized jerseys for both teams, and given all the uncertainty amid COVID-19, plus shipping issues brought on by the pandemic, the team wasn't able to get the jerseys in time. The team will wear patches on their home white uniforms, and said it plans on wearing the popular Stars jerseys again in 2022.

Bartee took part in Friday's panel discussion along with Tigers greats Willie Horton and Wood, fellow coach George Lombard and current players Akil Baddoo, Niko Goodrum and Derek Hill. Several Negro Leaguers also were in attendance in what's been a breakthrough year of merging MLB, which saw Jackie Robinson break the color barrier in 1947, with the Negro Leagues. MLB now recognizes stats from the Negro Leagues.

"That's a big deal," said Irvin Ashford Jr., chief community officer for Comerica Bank.

Detroit Country Day's Saborn Campbell attends Friday's luncheon and was to take part in Friday night's "Pass the Bat" ceremony.

But it's just a start, of course. Today, just 8% of major-leaguers are Black. The Tigers, who play in the Blackest big city in America, do their part to promote the game, with the Tiny Tigers of the Detroit Police Athletic League, among several other initiatives. They recently added a detailed chapter to tigers.com on Detroit baseball's history in the Black community. MLB has its RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, to promote the game in urban areas, like Detroit.

More most be done, however, everyone on the panel agreed.

And it starts with making the game more accessible, in the city, on the ball diamonds of Detroit. Today, the talent and the scouts often migrate toward travel ball, but travel ball is expensive. It's why, Wood believes, there are too many empty baseball diamonds in inner cities across the country.

"If it had cost my father one nickel," said Wood, 84, "I wouldn't be sitting here right now, believe me."

"We have to come together."

Wood grew up in New Jersey playing baseball "24-7," when the manhole cover in the street always served as home plate. Only a couple kids had gloves, but everybody would play. If the bat cracked, they fixed it with nails, because, "We sure wasn't gonna be able to buy a new one." 

Horton, 78, grew up in Detroit, playing stickball and "Strikeout." He recalled being allowed to skip school once in 1961, so he could see Wood play.

That was the theme of Friday's luncheon, and will be for the entire weekend: Paying homage and thanks to those that came before, while looking forward to seeing who comes next. Horton actually placed a phone call to Baddoo shortly after the Tigers took him in the Rule 5 draft late last year. He's called throughout the season, as well. Because of the pandemic, Friday was a rare face-to-face meeting between them.

"It gives me goosebumps," said Baddoo, who knew a little bit about Horton before Horton called, because Baddoo's dad was a big card collector. "These are the players I look up to."

Willie Horton greets Akil Baddoo during Friday's luncheon at Comerica Park.

There were lots of tributes Friday, to the likes of Robinson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Gates Brown and more.

"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the guys that came before me," said Lombard, 45, Tigers bench coach.

That statement resonates, too, for Campbell, who is early in his baseball journey — a journey that will take him to Stanford, eventually pro ball, and quite possibly the major leagues someday.

He's way too young to have seen most of Friday's speakers actually play the game.

But the straight-A student certainly has done his homework.

"My parents, they both preach to learn about the people that came before you," Campbell said. "I love baseball and I just can't wait to do what I do on the field and play at the next level.

"I really want to put my impact on the baseball world, especially the Negro community."

We're running a new-subscriber special. Support local journalism, and subscribe here.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984