By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
One day just wasn’t enough to celebrate the man who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
Patrons were invited to honk their car horns as they drove by the museum on 16th Street South, a block from Railroad Park and just beyond the left-field fence of the Regions Field baseball stadium. The loudest sounds came from vehicles of the Birmingham Fire Department, which sounded sirens as the firefighters looped the block a few times.
The Drive By Celebration was part of an annual nationwide celebration of Jackie Robinson Day, which takes place April 15. Self-guided tours were taken throughout the day and T-shirts commemorating the event were available for purchase.
There is also a commemorative Jackie Robinson Baseball Card that patrons can sign during their visit. Barry the Bear, the museum mascot, was on hand and rap artists Whois Hughley and 71 GangBeez performed.
Former Major League baseball player Ron “Papa Jack” Jackson is a member of the NSLM board. He credits Robinson with opening a door that yielded Jackson winning a World Series championship ring as the hitting coach for the 2004 champion Boston Red Sox.
“Jackie Robinson paved the way for me and all the other ballplayers that came back behind him,” Jackson said. “Like Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Rev. (William) Greason, Jim Zapp. I could just go on and on and on. That’s one reason why I want to help carry his legacy on to the young, next generation.”
Director Alicia Johnson-Williams said the Negro Southern League Museum usually gets its stretch of 16th Street closed for a street festival. That wasn’t possible with health safety concerns still present during the pandemic.
The drive-by event and subsequent Saturday activity launched several days of remembering Robinson.
“We’re really encouraging people to come and learn the history, to visit the museum,” Johnson-Williams said. “We’ll be giving away popcorn and people can participate in our scavenger hunt and win some prizes as a result of that. We’ll be doing more than what we typically do throughout the week to encourage people to come.”
The movie ’42’ will be shown throughout the week.
“We’re just going to be talking about Jackie Robinson, talking about Negro League history and encouraging people to come through the facility as we celebrate his legend,” Johnson-Williams said.
A pair of former Negro League players – 77-year-old Ernest Fann and 87-year-old Reaf Blue – were on hand Saturday to sign autographs and tell stories of their playing days. Blue played with the Birmingham Black Barons and the Atlanta Black Crackers. Fann’s Negro League career was with the Raleigh Tigers; he went on to play in the St. Louis Cardinals organization and with the Kansas City A’s.
Tamara Curtis and her son Romello Ivy were among the museum’s Saturday visitors. The 8-year-old isn’t much of a sports fan yet, she said, but he likes baseball.
“I wanted to bring my son over here so he could see some things that he’s not had the opportunity to see and just experience what the museum has to offer firsthand,” Curtis said. “He’s never played (baseball but) he does watch it a little bit.”
COVID-19 concerns kept Romello from his potential first season on the diamond last year. “He’s going to play this season,” his mother said.