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‘Game of Color’ spotlights black baseball greats

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Homestead Grays catcher Josh Gibson, called “the black Babe Ruth,” is pictured in 1942 at Forbes Field, Pittsburgh in a photo by Charles “Teenie” Harris. (Courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art)
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Sports and civil rights come together in a fun and fan-friendly exhibition celebrating African Americans in baseball, both before and after Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the major leagues smashed the game’s color barrier.

On view in the San Francisco Public Library’s Skylight Gallery, “A Game of Color: The African-American Experience in Baseball” contains dozens of autographed balls, personalized bats, jerseys, caps, photographs, clippings and artworks spanning more than half a century.

Presented by the Baseball Reliquary and the Institute for Baseball Studies, the exhibit highlights major events, trends and individuals — from the Negro leagues’ East-West All-Star Game to major-league stars like Hank Aaron and Dock Ellis — in baseball history and, in some cases, in the mythology unique to baseball as well.

Baseball’s Negro leagues, a source of national-pastime excitement as well as a vital business enterprise in black America from 1920 to 1946, receive considerable focus.

With major-league baseball operating under a “separate but equal” mentality that kept nonwhite players off its teams, the Negro leagues — established in response to the racism ingrained in organized baseball — were home to a wealth of talented African-Americans. Some are said to have ranked with music giants like Louis Armstrong in terms of renown.

Spotlighted Negro-league luminaries include catcher and slugger Josh Gibson, known as the black Babe Ruth, and pitcher and manager Rube Foster, who organized the Negro National League.

Jackie Robinson, who made history in 1947 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, receives substantial attention — as the player who integrated baseball, as an all-around civil-rights hero, and as one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary athletes.

Other featured pioneers include Emmett Ashford, the first African-American umpire to work in the major leagues; pro-integration journalist Lester Rodney; and ball-club owner Bill Veeck, who became Dodger executive Branch Rickey’s American League counterpart when he signed Larry Doby to the Cleveland Indians in 1947.

A section on 1960s and 1970s activism features players who addressed issues such as the dearth of black team managers and front-office staff. The above-mentioned Ellis, known for his flamboyant personality as well as his racial-equality advocacy, accounts for some particularly entertaining items. (Particularly memorable: a letter from then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn instructing Ellis not to wear curlers while in uniform.)

Showcases devoted to barnstorming games describe the Satchel Paige All-Stars and other teams that traveled the country and played non-league opponents. Rooted in black minstrelsy, barnstorming was, for many African-American professional players, an important means of earning a living in pre-integration times.

Baseball-themed art by Ben Sakoguchi is on view in “Game of Color” at the Main Library. (Courtesy photo)

Artwork on view includes selections from Ben Sakoguchi’s “Orange Crate Label Series” and a painting by Michael Guccione of Jackie Robinson that depicts Robinson as a modern-day saint.

Special events presented in conjunction with the exhibition include films (“Called Up: The Emmett Ashford Story” screens at 6 p.m. Feb. 7), talks and a baseball poetry reading.

IF YOU GO

A Game of Color: The African-American Experience in Baseball
Where: Main Library, sixth floor, 100 Larkin St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays and Saturdays; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays: noon to 6 p.m. Fridays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; closes March 18
Admission: Free
Contact: (415) 557-4400, www.sfpl.org

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