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East-West Classic in Cooperstown Celebrates Baseball History

 Conor Liguori - World Baseball Network  |    May 28th, 2024 9:58am EDT

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Thirty former Major League Baseball players made the trip to Cooperstown, New York, this past weekend, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, to play in the East-West Classic at Doubleday Field. The game honors the history of black players and coaches in Negro League history.  

The East-West Classic was just one of the several events happening in Cooperstown during Memorial Day weekend, but it was the main attraction. Among those who played in the game included former MLB players Curtis Granderson, Ryan Howard, C.C. Sabathia, Dexter Fowler, Adam Jones, and Mo’ne Davis, a female pitcher who lit the world on fire at the 2014 Little League World Series.  

Before I reached my general admission seat in the right field bleachers, fans were cheering for the players warming up. Some players they may not have seen play in an MLB game for five to 10 years. Across their chests were the names of organizations that played in the Negro Leagues, including the Birmingham Black Barons, Homestead Grays, Indianapolis Clowns, and Kansas City Monarchs, among others.  

Curtis Granderson retired from MLB in 2020 and was a three-time All-Star. Sporting a gray and navy Newark Eagles jersey, Granderson deposited the first home run of the game into the right-field bleachers. He appeared to have as much fun as anyone on Saturday, often conversing with fans in the bleachers about his playing days and doing some dancing. 

Among the other heartwarming moments during the game included Hank Aaron’s wife, Billye, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to C.C. Sabathia with help from Ken Griffey Jr. Walking outside the stadium in the parking lot, Seattle Mariners Griffey Jr. jerseys were in abundance.  

Billye walked towards the mound and then decided that was too far, so she gave those in attendance a good laugh when she decided to walk about 40 feet closer to Sabathia crouching behind home plate. She threw a strike right down the middle.  

Griffey was among the 12 other managers and coaches in the East-West Classic. The 11 others were Harold Baines, Rollie Fingers, Jim Kaat, Fergie Jenkins, Fred McGriff, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, Jim Rice, Lee Smith, Joe Torre, and Dave Winfield. Sabathia was the team captain of the West, and Chris Young was the team captain of the East.  

The coaches sat in their respective dugouts and watched Adam Jones narrowly defeat Prince Fielder in a home run derby before the game. Ryan Howard won MVP after launching a go-ahead three-run home run in the fifth inning to put the East ahead 5-4. The game concluded after six innings, and the East held on to the one-run lead.  

However, the final score of the game held little importance. More critical was celebrating the history of current and former black players in MLB and the Negro Leagues. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum proudly accomplished that feat by opening a new exhibit titled “The Souls of the Game: Voices of Black Baseball.”   

The exhibit is located on the second floor of the museum. It features some of the most rare and historic memorabilia in the history of the Negro Leagues and black players in baseball. Admission to the museum was free on Saturday, courtesy of the Players Alliance, an organization dedicated to representing and increasing opportunities for black men and women in baseball.  

Walking through the exhibit can only be described as breathtaking, looking at uniforms and old newspapers that tell the story of integral African-American players and items such as Jackie Robinson, Lou Brock, and Adam Jones’ USA jersey from the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Other memorabilia included Negro League trophies and Cool Papa Bell’s cleats he used near the end of his 21-year career in professional baseball, spent primarily in the Negro Leagues.   

After spending nearly 45 minutes in the exhibit, I reached the new bronze Hank Aaron statue on the museum’s first floor. The statue shows him standing proudly with a Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves jersey and a bat in hand.  

Aaron’s legacy and importance in African-American baseball history cannot be understated, as he was the last former Negro League player active in MLB by his final season in 1976.  

He made his debut on April 13, 1954, and proceeded to make 25 All-Star appearances, lead the National League in home runs four times, and become the all-time leader in RBI (2,297), total bases (6,856), and extra-base hits (1,447).  

African-American players like Aaron and Jackie Robinson, among countless others in the Negro Leagues, are the reason the East-West Classic game is more than just a game.  

From my viewpoint in the bleachers, the game told a story of resilience. No matter your skin color, baseball is a sport played with pride and connects generations, cultures, and people of different backgrounds.  

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Conor Liguori - World Baseball Network