Central Illinois remembers Negro Baseball League

By K. L. Waller

They played in a league of their own.

The Urbana and Champaign city councils are making strides to create a new Negro League Day in honor and memory of the Negro League baseball teams and their players.

In Central Illinois especially, the Negro League was an extremely popular and important sport for residents and players alike, said Robert Lewis, ward 3 of Urbana.

The first successful organized Negro League was established in 1920 by Andrew “Rube” Foster. In the Urbana-Champaign areas, both black and white residents would come together to bet on and enjoy the games, said Ernest Westfield, one of the many players to grace some of Central Illinois’ baseball diamonds.

Nicknamed “Tennessee Ernie,” Westfield has dedicated most of his life to the sport of baseball and the remembrance of the famous all-black league.

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    As a result of his work and dedication, the White House has invited him to their annual Tee Ball game.

    “In 1958, I was signed by Buck O’ Neil and the Chicago Cubs organization to play baseball with its Carlsbad minor league team,” he said.

    “After my release, I signed with the Birmingham Black Barons and went on to be the starting pitcher for the very last East-West All Star game at Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1960.”

    Westfield is spearheading the movement to try to remind different cities and states about the Negro League and how influential they were.

    What was once a very active league of black players is now close to a faint memory for some, Westfield said.

    “Our goal is to mainly keep history alive,” he said. “People need to know who paved the way for future generations and understand that those athletes suffered a lot for the game.”

    City officials agree. Lewis said the communities are losing a lot of history and should recognize the sacrifice those players made.

    “People really need to know the contributions those African Americans made to our communities,” he said.

    “I introduced the idea to the 110th Congress in Washington, D.C and they have also taken on this official recognition.”

    Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said that although the two cities are still in the development stages of permanently dedicating a day to the Negro League celebration, the history will still be honored in the community in the coming months.

    “Something like this is unique to our community’s history,” she said. “This year we will try and incorporate this celebration with the celebration of Urbana’s 175th birthday, so I believe people will be very interested to hear everything there is to know about our city.”

    Other activities for this future holiday will be handled by the city park districts. Zicki Mayes, executive director of the Urbana Park District, said this idea is terrific for young athletes.

    “One idea is to have special little league baseball games on the holiday,” she said.

    “As a park district we can have events for Black History month and have a follow-up on whatever day is chosen as the official holiday.”

    Westfield said this holiday is important to the youth more than anyone else and wants the young athletes to remember why they are free to play the game.

    “This resolution is really to honor those who struggled just to make it to first base,” he said. “But now, I can say they are on their way home.”