Friday, October 21, 2011

The Negro League Baseball photographer

 What is your favorite moment in baseball history captured on photo or video?  Is it the over the shoulder catch by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series or Reggie Jackson hitting 3 home runs in game 6 of the 1977 Series?  Is it Jackie Robinson stealing home in the 1955 World Series?  As time goes on, those photo and video images will be even more important to preserve the history of what was once unquestionably our nation’s favorite pastime.

This week’s Negro League baseball history fact is about photographer Ernest C. Withers.  Proclaimed as the main photographer of the Civil Rights Movement, Withers’ camera gave the nation an eye into the trial of Emmitt Till’s accused murderers in 1954 and the violent demonstrations surrounding the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957.  He was a part of Dr. Martin Luther King’s inner circle during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)’s civil rights campaigns in the 1960s.  Withers took photos of the historic racial confrontations in both Birmingham and Selma, Alabama; and Memphis, Tennessee. 
Withers perfected the use of his camera lens through capturing the twilight years of Negro League baseball.  His interest in photography became serious in 1942 while serving in the Army.  After World War II, Withers returned to his hometown of Memphis and began taking photos in 1946 for the Negro American League Memphis Red Sox.   Negro League baseball at that time was the largest black owned and operated business in the nation.  However, first Jackie Robinson (with the Brooklyn Dodgers) and then Larry Doby (with the Cleveland Indians) crossed over the “invisible color line” to play in the Major Leagues the next season.  Their success opened the door to Major League baseball for other black players, but it marked the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues.
Wither’s camera captured the last photo of Negro League legend and Hall of Famer Josh Gibson in uniform.  It was during the 1946 Negro League East-West All Star game, less than a year before Gibson’s death.  There is the Withers team photo of the 1946 Chattanooga Choo Choos with 15 year old Willie Mays on the first row.  The classic shot of the 1948 Birmingham Barons celebrating in their locker room after winning the 1948 Negro American League Championship is also a Wither photo.  On the back row amongst those hardened veteran black players on the Barons is the innocent face of 19 year old Willie Mays.  Withers also snapped a photo of the legendary John “Buck” O’Neil, manager of the Kansas City Monarchs in 1948 talking to 19 year old Elston Howard.  It was Howard’s first game as a Monarch.  Other Negro League players caught in the eye of Wither’s camera include Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, Len Pearson, Bob Boyd, and Sam Hairston.  Irvin, Boyd, and Hairston went on to play in the Major Leagues.
Baseball as a sport has declined in popularity in many black communities, but Negro League baseball will forever connect African-Americans to the game.  The baseball photos of the late Ernest C. Withers will help to preserve that connection.
What is your favorite historic baseball photo or video?         

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