St. Paul exhibit celebrates ‘Black Pioneers’
From Minnie Miñoso to Buck O’Neil, Triple-A St. Paul has an established track record of honoring the history of baseball and the key figures involved in the game’s integration. And in 2019, shortly before the club’s Minor League affiliation, the organization introduced a unique way to celebrate the local history
From Minnie Miñoso to Buck O’Neil, Triple-A St. Paul has an established track record of honoring the history of baseball and the key figures involved in the game’s integration.
And in 2019, shortly before the club’s Minor League affiliation, the organization introduced a unique way to celebrate the local history of the game and its Black trailblazers.
The City of Baseball Museum is among the most interesting features at any ballpark in the Minors.
Located along the third-base side of CHS Field, the full-scale museum is free to the public during games and features exhibits on more than just the history of the many clubs known as the Saints -- although that interesting journey is well-documented. There is also a “Black Pioneers” exhibit highlighting the contributions of African-American ballplayers who were either from St. Paul or played in the city at some point in their careers.
For much of the past decade, local historian Frank White has been an advisor for the Saints on a number of events honoring St. Paul natives in baseball, such as Toni Stone, the first woman to play in the Negro Leagues. Or players who built the sport’s history in St. Paul, like Hall of Famer Roy Campanella, who became the first African-American player in the American Association when he joined the Saints in 1948.
With this relationship already in place, Saints EVP and general manager Derek Sharrer asked White to help curate the Black Pioneers exhibit before construction even began on the museum.
“For me, it's just another opportunity to talk about some of those unknown Black baseball players from Minnesota,” White said in a phone interview last week.
Like the rest of the country, Minnesota was not immune to the racism that kept the game segregated in the early part of the 20th century. A Negro League team never actually played in the state, but the history of the St. Paul Colored Gophers -- or just Gophers, depending on who’s telling the story -- has been more widely acknowledged since the club’s history has been prominently featured within the museum’s exhibit.
“I think the Gophers are always the team that people want to know more about,” White said. “Maybe they've heard about the name and they don't really know.“
The Saints honored the founder of that club, Phil “Daddy” Reid, in a ceremony last July. And the museum provides a centralized location for any “new” information that may come to light -- plenty of which has been dug up by White himself.
“As I continue to research, and what people share, all of those things are like tremendous finds or they're like gold nuggets,” said White, who is in the process of writing a second book about St. Paul’s sports history. “It's just fun to do the research. Continue to find. I love that people that I know or even I don't know will share stuff with me, and I love telling the story.
“There's these little branches that go out. Sometimes they come up in conversation or people will send me an email and say, 'Do you know about this guy? He played against Satchel Paige up in Fergus Falls.'”
There is another exhibit within the City of Baseball Museum that lends itself to this kind of tireless research. The efforts at the museum don’t stop at highlighting players who passed through St. Paul -- like so many barnstorming acts. But the “On The Map” exhibit pinpoints exactly where in town players were born or grew up or where they stayed when they played in St. Paul.
Within this research, White discovered a personal thread to Stone by unraveling a series of events that was all too common to the African-American experience.
Just west of downtown lies the former Rondo neighborhood, which is heavily featured in both the Black Pioneers and On The Map exhibits at the museum. Black players stayed in “Old Rondo” when they played for or against the Saints or Gophers, and the neighborhood was the birthplace of Stone and another Minnesota baseball legend, Dave Winfield.
In his research, White discovered that Stone grew up in a home on Carroll Avenue, about a block away from his own grandmother. Neither of their homes are still standing, as much of the neighborhood was gutted during the construction of Interstate 94, which uprooted Winfield as a young boy in the 1960s.
“It went right through the Black neighborhood, like many places in the country, and it really was a disruption,” White said.
The highway made the task of pinpointing Stone’s family home extremely difficult. But eventually White got hold of a Sanborn insurance map and discovered that the place where Stone’s house once stood is now an elementary school, which, through White’s efforts, soon will feature a permanent display on Stone’s baseball exploits.
It’s these types of discoveries that will likely give these exhibits, which are really in their infancy, an ever-evolving nature.
The Saints brought some attention to the Black Pioneers last February, when they hosted a live discussion featuring White, Negro League Baseball museum president Bob Kendrick and baseball historian Dave Kaplan talking about the history of Black baseball in Minnesota. This discussion was a fascinating look at how many of the displays in the Black Pioneers exhibit were informed.
Among the artifacts featured in the exhibit, there is a baseball signed by Stone and a mannequin displaying a full Gophers uniform and cap along with dozens of photos and bits of information that tell a story not many would have known otherwise.
“I know they plan on adding more things into it as it goes forward. And it's nice to have a connection to it,” said White, who can be heard as a narrator over the museum’s sound system for some parts of the tour. “Hopefully, people when they're in town or for people that are in town will want to go, and for sure, see a Saints game, but while they're there, wander through the exhibit and take a look at the past.”
Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.