At last, second baseman Barney "Bonnie" Serrell had his breakthrough season. Serrell finally was recognized for his masterful glove, his precise arm, his flair and his wicked lefthanded swing. This occurred in 2009, precisely 51 years after he played his final game.
Sometimes history needs a little nudge. For Negro Leagues baseball, it required tireless research by a volunteer historian/baseball enthusiast and a new product from the venerable Long Island-based Strat-O-Matic Game Co.
The former, Scott Simkus, provided data for the latter, which apparently has cleared the bases with a set of Negro League cards for its popular board game.
The result is a renaissance for an American institution that America barely knew it had.
Interest in Negro Leagues history has flourished in the four months since Strat-O-Matic produced the new cards (and a program for its computer game). Major newspapers and magazines have devoted thousands of words to the project. The attention has brought new fame for stars such as Superman Pennington, the one surviving player among 103 in the Strat-O-Matic set, and his friend Serrell.
Pennington, 83, sat down for a game of Strat-O-Matic with Simkus, a 39-year-old limousine dispatcher who lives outside Chicago. In an event reported by the Los Angeles Times, Pennington warned that he never could hit Satchel Paige. Sure enough, after his first roll of the dice, Superman's card yielded only a soft groundout against the pitching legend.
He was amazed by the whole thing, played out in his Iowa basement, Simkus said. "He told me that in all the years - more than 50 - he had been retired from baseball, nobody had ever asked him about Serrell, whom he believed was an outstanding, underrated player," Simkus said. "He was tickled we had included him as one of the all-time greats."
Serrell is a "1" defensive player, the best possible rating in Strat-O-Matic. According to the background booklet that accompanied the card set, Serrell was active from 1942 to 1958, playing for the Kansas City Monarchs and finishing in the Mexican League. He played alongside Ernie Banks, who went on to become a Hall of Famer with the Cubs, and Elston Howard, the 1963 American League Most Valuable Player with the Yankees.
"He played fancy, but that's the only way he could play," was the testimonial from Connie Johnson, who played in the Negro Leagues and major leagues.
Negro Leagues stars are more popular today than they were in their primes. Witness the Strat-O-Matic set, which has been a big seller. Its release came after that of "Satchel," a positively reviewed biography of Paige by Larry Tye. A published report last week said the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City expects to break even in 2010 after years of financial struggle.
Sixty-three years after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's racial barrier, the public has an appetite for the part of baseball that was deliberately hidden. As Tye writes, "Satchel Paige was a black man playing in an obscure universe." That universe is becoming more familiar.
"I'll be very frank with you. I was like everyone else,'' said Strat-O-Matic president Hal Richman, who invented the game more than 50 years ago. "I knew of Satchel Paige. I knew of Josh Gibson. But I didn't know who Oscar Charleston was, and he might have been the greatest player of all time. I didn't know who Chino Smith was."
Richman, 73, credited Simkus for having done "all the work" in culling 3,000 boxscores and 100 books for the information Strat-O-Matic needs. The game's impresario added that it was important to make the Negro Leagues cards thick, glossy, sepia-toned, just like the Hall of Fame set Strat-O-Matic released nine years ago.
"We probably would have done better financially had we not done that, but we felt it was the proper thing to do," Richman said recently in his Glen Head office.
He acknowledged that the publicity and revenue have been great for business, but he insists the rewards don't stop there. "I get tremendous satisfaction in knowing these players are being recognized," Richman said. "I actually think this is the best thing I've ever done with the company."
Simkus was stunned by a media blizzard once the cards came out, then a flood of calls and letters. One man wrote about playing a barnstorming tour and seeing Paige drive a station wagon filled with hunting and fishing gear. The daughter of the late Nate Moreland wrote about her father having played with Robinson as a Los Angeles teenager, then breaking into the white minor leagues after Robinson's trailblazing.
"A lot of people said, 'Thank you for doing this,' " Simkus said. "I feel like more people know more about the black leagues than they ever did. There is something about that card set, about putting these guys back on the field, that triggered all the excitement."