ON a fine September night in 1946, in a ballpark out on the marshy edge of Newark’s East Ward, the Newark Eagles — one of the two professional baseball teams, one black and one white, that shared Ruppert Stadium — trotted onto the field in jerseys so new and bright they looked almost incandescent under the lights.
The players were black, the uniforms white. The team’s co-owner, Effa Manley, had just spent $700 on a new set, about as much as she paid her best players each month. It was the Eagles’ first time in the Negro World Series, and she wanted them to look the part of champions.
The stands were packed with both dignitaries and ordinary fans, black and white alike, and the field was dense with players on their way to the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, Leon Day and Manager Biz Mackey for the Eagles; Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith and Willard Brown for the Kansas City Monarchs. Conspicuously missing was the Monarchs’ shortstop from the previous season, Jackie Robinson, who was playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm club in Montreal, and was on the verge of rendering moot this whole segregated enterprise.
Sitting in the stands was an old ballplayer, creeping up on 90, who lived at the Y.M.C.A. in nearby Orange, N.J., Ben Holmes. He had brought along a treasure from the earliest days of black baseball: a silver ball awarded in 1888 to the team he played third base for, the Cuban Giants, the first full-time professional black baseball team, when they won an earlier version of the black championship. The heavyweight champion Joe Louis threw out the silver ball to start the game, the opener of the World Series.
“The ’46 series, that’s really the crème de la crème,” said Lawrence D. Hogan, a history professor at Union County College, in Cranford, N.J., and the author of a definitive book on black baseball, “Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball” (National Geographic, 2006). He has trolled through old records and memorabilia for decades, but Holmes’s silver ball has remained elusive, as if it — like the Negro leagues themselves — disappeared from the earth soon after that series.
“There’s never been any sighting of that ball,” Dr. Hogan said. “It’s the holy grail of black baseball.”
Baseball is thriving today on the outskirts of New York, with a crop of minor-league teams and bustling new stadiums that grew quickly over the last decade or so. But these new teams were planted in fertile ground, inheritors of a rich regional tradition of black baseball — of an era when an archipelago of green diamonds stretched from Bacharach Park in Atlantic City to the Argyle Hotel in Babylon on Long Island to Bulkeley Stadium in Hartford. That was a time when much of America still believed that blacks and whites shouldn’t be neighbors or schoolmates, co-workers or teammates.