Mahlon Duckett, the Negro Leagues and Connections to the Past

(phillies.com)
Mahlon Duckett 1922-2015 (phillies.com)

Mahlon Duckett died on Sunday, age 92. He was the final surviving member of the Philadelphia Stars, the Negro National Leagues baseball team in Philly from 1933-1952. The news may not have been a blip on your radar, even if your newsfeed is filled with baseball.

But events like Duckett’s death are important and should be talked about. Duckett was a last living link to oft-forgotten history. It’s Philadelphia history, baseball history and American history. I wrote about it in a little obit for CSNPhilly.com. We mustn’t miss an opportunity to talk about it.

In Philadelphia history, Duckett was a link to the days when pro baseball was played in places other than South Philly. The Stars won a championship at Passon Field at 48th and Spruce in 1934, played a bulk of their franchise’s games at 44th and Parkside and played weekly games at Connie Mack Stadium.

(While looking at Philly’s baseball history, don’t forget a rich history of women’s professional baseball — the Philadelphia Bobbies. You may know the name Edith Houghton, who played for the Bobbies in the 1920s and went onto become the first female scout in MLB history for the hometown Phillies.)

In baseball history, Duckett was one of the ever-dwindling links to the Negro Leagues and a link to the times before Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier. The color barrier is often taken at face value, simply a thing that happened, but why it happened is rarely examined.

Robinson was not the first African American player to play in the MLB. That would be Fleetwood Walker in 1884 for the Toledo Blue Stockings. Basically, in short, many white players and managers could not handle playing against black players (there were others). The unofficial color barrier was put into place in 1889, and stayed in effect until Robinson broke it in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers (he broke it in the minors with the Montreal Royals in 1946). Larry Doby followed close behind in 1947, breaking the color barrier in the American League with the Indians.

During the time the color barrier was in effect and the Negro Leagues were humming along, many African American players were robbed of the opportunity to play in the much more visible and profitable MLB. Names like Josh Gibson, who is said to have hit over 800 home runs. Satchel Paige, who eventually would get a chance in the MLB but not until age 42. Buck O’Neil, Cool Papa Bell, the list goes on. They had opportunities stolen. In fact, those four were named the greatest Negro League players of all-time by the MLB on Tuesday night at the 2015 All-Star Game.

In American history, Duckett was a link to the racial tensions of the civil rights movement. Duckett lived, and worked all but one year that he spent with the Homestead Grays, in Philadelphia. He saw the struggles firsthand. Using America’s pastime as a vehicle, Duckett barnstormed and traveled to countless U.S. cities. But while baseball could have been a mutual language, a common ground, to interact with the country, too many in the country felt the color of his, and so many others’, skin said all that needed to be said. It’s a time that we still struggle to speak about openly and honestly to this day.

With the death of Mahlon Duckett, we may have lost an important link to history. Luckily through stories, photos and grainy video, some of that history lives on. And we must take every opportunity to talk about it.

For more, check out my obit on Mahlon Duckett on CSNPhilly.com.

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