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Canaries to celebrate Negro Leagues baseball and South Dakota’s role in it on Friday

Published: Jun. 22, 2022 at 6:40 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Just ahead of Saturday’s Juneteenth Celebration in Sioux Falls, the Canaries will host Negro Leagues Celebration Night at The Birdcage on Friday.

The Birds will play the Kansas City Monarchs, which were re-named a couple years ago to honor one of the original Negro Leagues baseball teams.

Turns out, there’s a long history between the two squads, and some of the all-time legends of the sport played all over South Dakota during baseball’s heyday in the 1920′s, 30′s, and 40′s.

The Canaries and Monarchs first played in 1931, when Birds owner Rex Stucker not only scheduled the team’s first all-black opponent, but also signed the Canaries’ first black player, Jake “Congo” Collins, a Washington High School graduate who experienced the typical racism and segregation of that era.

”When they would go to another city, sometimes he couldn’t stay with the team,” said Negro Leagues historian and author Phil Dixon, a co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, who added many players and full all-black teams would sleep on team buses in cities where no blacks were allowed in any hotels.

“He’d have to go to what they called the colored section or stay in a black hotel. Some places, he couldn’t eat with the team.”

There were “sundown towns” in South Dakota where Collins couldn’t be seen at night without persecution, and plenty of things he couldn’t do in his own city.

”(Black people couldn’t) do anything and everything,” said Julian Beaudoin, the director of the South Dakota African-American History Museum in downtown Sioux Falls.

“Worship, eat, use the restroom, even walk downtown. Sixth Street actually served as the separation between where blacks could go downtown and where they could not go.”

After two seasons playing for his hometown team, Collins had to leave the Canaries when they joined the segregated Northern League in 1933.

But for over 30 years, starting in 1915, fans in Sioux Falls and other South Dakota cities still got to see Hall of Famers like Josh Donaldson, Satchel Page, and James “Cool Papa” Bell — noted by historians as the fastest player in the history of baseball — when all-black teams with players who weren’t allowed to play in the majors would play all-white local teams for one night only.

These “barnstorming tours” were huge draws, and money makers. Dixon said in places like Oxford, Nebraska (population 770), the crowds would be triple the size of the population, and the games would raise funds for all kinds of all-white organizations, like local high school bands.

”People in their hearts knew that these black ball players were good enough to be in the major leagues,” Dixon said. “And this did a lot to promote the game of baseball, and black players aren’t generally give that recognition for how they promoted the great game of baseball.”

The Negro Leagues fizzled in the early 1960′s, over a decade after Jackie Robinson become the majors’ first black player in 1947 and MLB teams started integrating. But Dixon hopes the Negro Leagues’ rich history, and how they were a painful reminder of America’s racist past, will live on, which is why he has devoted his life’s work to promoting and preserving them.

“Hey, we made it happen, so now it’s something we can talk about, and celebrate it, and we can learn from it so we don’t repeat those same mistakes again,” Dixon said.

Dixon will be in Sioux Falls on Friday and Saturday.

He’ll start by speaking to students at ACE Academy, a two-year-old private school centered in Sioux Falls that provides a smaller, non-traditional learning environment centered on diversity and inclusion.

On Friday evening, Dixon will be at The Birdcage signing copies of his 10th book about the Negro Leagues — “John ‘Buck’ O’Neill: The Rookie.”

Dixon will also play the national anthem on his trumpet before the game, and on Saturday will play “Lift Every Voice,” the black national anthem, on his trumpet at the city’s Juneteenth Celebration.

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