Champaign honors former Negro Leaguers

By Jeremy Werner

The cities of Champaign and Urbana honored Champaign residents Ernie Westfield and J.W. Pirtle Saturday afternoon as part of the National Negro Baseball League Recognition Day to be held Tuesday.

Both honorees played in the Negro Leagues during the ’50s and ’60s, including stints with the Champaign Eagles until the Negro Leagues dissipated when Major League Baseball became fully integrated.

The hour-and-a-half long program held at the City of Champaign Council Chambers focused on honoring the former players and informing the children in attendance about the 80-plus year existence of professional Negro Baseball Leagues. Eleven grade-school children wore their maroon Little League caps and shirts for the occasion.

“It’s important to let the new kids that the future is there if they really want to go after it,” said Pirtle, a former Champaign City Council member. “They don’t know if you don’t do something like this because there’s not a lot of talk about (the Negro Leagues) nowadays. They can look on TV and see a baseball player, but they don’t know how they got there.”

Champaign resident Kimberly McCoy, 32, attended the event along with her three daughters: Sidney, 12; Tori, 9; and Madison, 8.

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“I wanted them to see former players from the Negro Leagues,” McCoy said. “You always hear about them, but you never get to see them in person … They opened the doors for a lot of people.”

Westfield said holding the event in Champaign was a “no-brainer.”

“(Champaign) represents a lot of history,” Westfield said. “A lot of the Negro League teams ended here in Champaign-Urbana. It ended here; we can do it here.”

During a question-and-answer session, many of the little leaguers asked questions about how fast each player could throw a ball or how many home runs they hit.

Westfield and Pirtle recounted their playing experiences, including stories about Negro League greats Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Pirtle said when he faced Hall-of-Fame inductee Paige he “got hit where I didn’t want to get hit” as he pointed to his groin.

The event was part of a nationwide effort to acknowledge the accomplishments of Negro League players to the progress of African-Americans. Seventeen Negro League players were initiated into the Hall of Fame in 2006. No more will be admitted.

“It’s just an American story that we went from having a group of people as slaves to now we have a black candidate for president,” Urbana mayor Laurel Prussing said. “It shows the huge shift in attitudes.”