The players' "brave example, first set 100 years ago, changed America’s pastime for the better," Obama wrote on Twitter

By Sean Neumann
June 29, 2020 12:58 PM
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From left: former Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George W. Bush
Eugene Gologursky/Getty; Getty; Wesley Hitt/Getty

As sports fans prepare for a shortened Major League Baseball season — of some kind — three former presidents joined on Monday in tipping their caps to baseball's Black legends for the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues.

George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all shared videos of themselves nodding their hats and celebrating their favorite players from the Negro Leagues, which were founded in 1920 and continued on for more than a decade after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's racist color barrier in 1947.

"Today, I'm tipping my hat to everybody in the Negro Leagues who left a century-long legacy of talent, spirit and dignity on our country," Obama, 58, said in a video message posted to Twitter.

The #TipYourCap2020 campaign featured politicians, athletes and celebrities paying tribute to the Negro Leagues' centennial anniversary.

Obama gave specific shoutouts to players such as pitcher Satchel Paige, slugger Josh Gibson and quick-footed center fielder "Cool Papa" Bell while donning a Chicago White Sox hat in honor of the city where he began his career.

Clinton also tipped a Chicago cap in honor of wife and former first lady Hillary Clinton's hometown, but his was a Chicago Cubs cap for former Negro League player and Major League Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, who died in 2015.

“This cap is for Hillary, too, when finally, the Cubs won the championship [in 2016]," Clinton, 73, said. "Long before that, the Negro Leagues made baseball better and America better."

The Negro Leagues folded in the early 1960s, according to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. They were first formed by "barnstorming" Black baseball clubs who traveled the country playing exhibitions, primarily in the Midwest and the South.

Because of Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation and racism, Black ball players weren't allowed to play in the white Major Leagues until Robinson famously stepped on the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers during the '47 season.

For decades, racism prevented some of the greatest baseball players in the U.S. from playing in the Major Leagues — including Gibson and Paige, who only spent the tail end of his Hall of Fame career in the MLB.

In his video message on Monday, Bush, wearing a Texas Rangers for the team he once partially owned, tipped his hat in honor of other Negro Leagues legends like Willie Mays, who he said was his favorite player growing up.

"It turned out Willie Mays played in the Negro Leagues for a brief period of time," Bush, 73, said. "I can just imagine what baseball would've been like had the predecessors to Willie Mays been able to play Major League Baseball."

The Negro Leagues "maintained a high level of professional skill and became centerpieces for economic development in many black communities," according to the leagues' official museum, but it faded out of popularity after the mainstream Major Leagues accepted Robinson and other Black players and gradually desegregated its rosters.

Still, inequities persist decades later: As the MLB celebrated Robinson's 100th birthday during the 2019 season, the league's roster had less than eight percent Black players — 68 out of 882, according to USA Today.

The #TipYourCap2020 campaign featured hat-tips from sports legends like former NBA player Michael Jordan and former New York Yankees outfielder Reggie Jackson, one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. Late-night host Stephen Colbert also paid tribute.

"On the centenary of the Negro Leagues, I just want to tip my hat with great respect to all the men who were denied entry into Major League Baseball and prevented from sharing their God-given gifts, hard work, and love of the game with all of America" Colbert said. "Wherever you are gentlemen, play ball!"

Obama wrote that the players' "brave example, first set 100 years ago, changed America’s pastime for the better — opening it up for new generations of players and fans alike."