BELMAR — The baseball diamond at Memorial Park may look like an ordinary ballfield, but make no mistake, it’s where some of the greats played ball.
The field, located on Main Street between 11th and 12th avenues, is where some of the best players from baseball’s Negro Leagues came to play, leaving their mark on American history.
On Friday, that history was remembered as the borough, the Belmar HIstorical Society and students from Academy Charter High School in Lake Como gathered on home plate to make sure that history is never forgotten.
“The wonderful Negro League players who played on this field will not get a chance to hit here again, for they have passed on, so it is up to us to go to bat for them by honoring their legacy at this ceremony,” Tom Shields, history teacher at Academy Charter, said. It was the students’ idea to hold the ceremony, after discovering the local history, he added.
Students Petchih Innocent, Alondra Montesinos and Hendrick Remy read baseball poems to honor the memory of the former players.
Spencer Heulitt, president of the Belmar Historical Society, said that 12 players from the Negro League that played ball in Belmar have been inducted into the American Baseball Hall of Fame.
Martin Dihigo, player coach of the New York Cubans, played some games in Belmar in 1935. He was inducted into the American Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977.
Josh Gibson, nicknamed the Black Babe Ruth, played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords when he visited Belmar and hit “one of the longest home runs anywhere and anytime” against the Belmar Braves, according to the Belmar Historical Society. From home plate, the society believes, Mr. Gibson rocketed a ball across Main Street, to the rear of the Belmar Post Office, a distance of around 600 feet.
Mr. Gibson was inducted into the hall of fame in 1972 and, according to the hall website, is credited with hitting a 580-foot home run in Yankee Stadium in 1967. The ball, according to the entry, landed two feet from the top of the bleacher wall.
Other players who came to Belmar included Satchel Paige, inducted in 1971; Buster Clarkson, not inducted into the Hall of Fame, but went on to play for the Boston Braves; James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, inducted in 1974; and Roy Campanella, inducted in 1969.
“It gives me pride to know what occurred on this diamond,” Mr. Heulitt said. “With their performance in throwing as hard, hitting as far and fielding as well as anyone in their time, the Negro League players made a declaration, and that was ‘we are equal to the best and we matter.’”
Last December, Major League Baseball [MLB] recognized the career statics of the Negro Leagues, including the Negro National League, the Eastern Colored League, the American Negro League, the East-West League, the Negro Southern League, the Negro National League II and the Negro American League. According to Major League Baseball, the leagues combined to produce 35 hall of famers.
“The result of MLB’s decision is that Negro League legends such as Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell have achieved the Major League status denied to them in their living years by the injustice of segregation,” the league said in a statement last December
Belmar is rich in baseball history, according to the borough’s historical society.
According to the Belmar Historical Society, during the first half of the 20th century, the semi-professional Belmar Braves called Memorial field home. An autographed photo of the team, which dates back to 1928, was exhibited at borough hall in April.
The Belmar Braves were, at one point, sponsored by the Belmar First Aid Squad. Ledger sheets from 1934 show that games were attended by 46,898 people, and collected $20,288 through ticket sales.
“I first came to learn about these great athletes that played on this field through the Belmar Historical Society. I lived here for many years and never knew that took place,” Mayor Mark Walsifer said during the dedication ceremony on Friday. Next year, the mayor added, when the borough celebrates its 150th anniversary, this piece of borough history will be a part of the festivities.
“With the athletes that played here, it is really an exciting story for Belmar,” the mayor said.
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