Baseball’s playoffs begin this week. A testimony that the game has not strayed too far from its past is that among this year’s favorites are two teams whose franchise names are linked to the early days: the Yankees and the Dodgers.

Of all the major sports, baseball is the game with the most history because it has been around the longest and because – more than any other game – it is the most entwined in the social movements of the nation.

It is the sport, after all, that first gave Black athletes a playing field. There are a lot of stories to tell including that of a little-remembered but nevertheless worthy native of Louisiana, Herbert Harold Simpson.

When we first became aware of Simpson it was too late. What caught our attention was his picture that accompanied an obituary notice in the January 14, 2015 issue of The New Orleans Advocate. The photo was of an elderly man with a kindly looking face. He was dressed in a baseball uniform and holding a bat as though waiting for a pitch.

Simpson’s playing days were no doubt long gone by the time that the undated picture was taken. According to the article, Simpson, a native of Hahnville, Louisiana, was the “last known survivor of the Seattle Steelheads ‘Negro League’ Baseball Team.” His playing career, all in the “Negro Leagues,” as they were called back then, spanned 30 years. According to BaseballReference.com, his last season was in 1954 with the Albuquerque Dukes when his batting average was a respectable .296.

Simpson was a lefty, both hitting and throwing.

Of all the numbers associated with a Black baseball player, the most relevant is 1947. That was the year that Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first of his race to make it to the big time. That opened opportunities for the guys of the Negro Leagues.

Gradually, all the teams became integrated, many experiencing an upgrade in quality, but not until 1959 did the Boston Red Sox sign their first Black ball player, an infielder named Pumpsie Green.

We’ll never know if Simpson could have made it to the big leagues. Both he and Robinson were contemporaries, being born in 1919 and 1920 respectively, but the Black players too often played in obscurity before being discovered.

Baseball is sometime criticized for taking so long to integrate at the highest level, but the game was a reflection of America and its attitude.

Plus, the nation had been preoccupied with a world war. According to his obituary, Simpson was a veteran of that war, adding to the long list of young men whose peak playing years were spent near battlefields.

Baseball would undergo many changes in the years ahead. Black Americans would provide some of the game’s biggest names including Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and Barry Bonds. By the 1970s, whenever pitcher Dock Ellis started for the Pittsburgh Pirates, that often made the team’s lineup all Black.

Still the game is fortunate to have had people such as Herbert Harold Simpson as part of its legacy. He too faced life’s curve balls, but knew that, with persistence and skill, sometimes you can hit them back.

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