It was southwestern Florida circa 1925 -- celery country, "muck country, hot and itchy," remembered John "Buck" O'Neil, legendary first baseman of the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the finest teams of the Negro National League. He was 14 years old and already a strapping lad who could carry two crates of the local crop under each of his powerful arms, while grown men could carry only one. He looked at those celery boxes stacked higher even than his 6-foot-3 frame and said, "Damn, there's got to be something better than this." 6

He found something better in baseball, the "intelligent sport" that promised to his generation of ambitious but poor youth what baseketball promises to this one. It was baseball that drew O'Neil out of Sarasota, Fla., and sent him all over the world -- from Harlem, which, he said, "looked just like you thought heaven should," to Mexico; from the Philippines to southern towns so small his team drove to them because passenger trains would not stop.

But because it was 1925 and America had reneged on promises of equal opportunity for blacks, O'Neil's was the baseball of the Negro National League, formed in 1920 in response to the tacit but firm segregation of the major leagues.

Until their demise in the early 1950s, the four Negro leagues and approximately 30 teams rivaled the majors in every respect except salaries and prestige, filling stadiums across the country and filling the pockets of team owners of both races. Negro championship and World Series games drew teams and fans from the Negro National, Negro American, Negro Southern and Eastern Colored leagues, with the benefits trickling down to black hotels, boarding houses, entrepreneurs and clubs.

Last week, O'Neil and other guests from the Negro leagues came to the Smithsonian Institution to receive some overdue pats on the back and to christen a new exhibition dedicated to them at the National Museum of American History. The exhibition -- which will run through May 15 -- comprises only two cases lined with photographs, a glove, O'Neil's 1942 Negro World Series championship patch, a Hall of Famer's autographed baseballs and other memorabilia. But it reveals a generation of buried history.

The opening was an occasion to tell stories about the leagues, like this one, told by Walter "Buck" Leonard -- a first baseman with D.C.'s very own Washington Homestead Grays, who was admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972:

"In 1934, we got 60 cents a day to eat. You'd get it from the manager every morning. Well, then it was raised to 75 cents, then a dollar, then a $1.50. When they raised it to $2, I opened a bank account down the street." Leonard, who played professional black baseball for 23 years, is now a real estate broker in his native North Carolina.

D.C. postal worker Jim Cohen, former pitcher for the Indianapolis Clowns tells this story: "Once we were in Birmingham, Alabama. We had a clown who traveled with the team named Ed Hayman. Now he painted his face on the field -- and was he a show! But because he painted his face, they didn't know he was white. When the officials found out he was white, they made him get out of our hotel and into a white one. And they wouldn't let him into the ballpark because he was part of a colored team."

Stories like these, sometimes part-fiction to sweeten a bitter fact, abound because, at the leagues' height, they were always more than entertainment. Said Donn Rogosin, a cultural historian from the University of Texas at Austin, who helped organize the exhibition: "The story of the Negro leaguers is more than a story of athletic accomplishment. It was the building of this structure, which was almost the biggest black business in the United States." s

Most of the teams, said Rogosin, were owned by blacks, many of whom were numbers runners or small-time racketeers looking for respectability. Others, such as Washington's Cum Posey, owner of the Homestead Grays, were simply sharp businessmen and women, trying to make a nice dollar. Washington was then known as a good baseball town, where black fans easily filled up the stands of the old Griffith Stadium when the (white) Washington Senators were away, where black teams sometimes drew bigger crowds than white ones. And the Grays were a championship team, blessed with the talents of superstars such as centerfield Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, shortstop Sam Bankhead and outfielder James T. "Cool Papa" Bell.

So popular was this hometown team that press accounts of the time hinted that Clark Griffith, owner of Griffith Stadium, campaigned hard against integration because he made so much from segregated fans' money.

To black communities, however, the teams meant more than financial rewards: they were symbols of black excellence, cosmopolitanism and self-reliance.

"Joe Louis was only one man," Rogosin added, "but the Negro leagues were in every town in America," Rogosin, an unregenerate baseball fan, wanted to tell the story of the Negro leagues in a doctoral thesis before the best tellers, now in their 60s and 70s, were gone. "There was always the feeling of being a model," Rogosin said, "that if you proved that you were good, that you can compete, that your uniform was clean, that if you played against whites and won -- that you'd be accepted."

It was an acceptance that was to elude most of the Negro leaguers until after World War II, when Jackie Robinson cracked the National League color line by signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, closely followed by Larry Doby, who integrated the American League with the Cleveland Indians a year later.

Within a few years, Hall of Fame shortstop Monte Irvin went from the Black Newark Eagles to the New York Giants, and the brilliant, merchurial pitcher Satchel Paige, who had argued against integration because it would destroy the Negro leagues, took a pay cut to play for the Cleveland Indians at an age when most players are drawing retirement. These were the Negro leaguers' finest moments, Rogosin said, because they had proved that they could play with the best despite inferior coaching, low pay and difficult playing conditions.

But until then, theirs had been a story of perseverance and fatigue, of playing two games a day and sometimes three on Sundays before they hit the roads again, living on baloney sandwiches and raspberry soda and the dreams of making it to the majors. In the fall they barnstormed all over the continent playing -- and beating -- teams comprising white stars from the major leagues. When the weather turned cold they went to Cuba, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. w

"I remember playing a doubleheader on Sunday, jumping in the bus and playing a night game in Baltimore," said Jim Cohen, Indiannapolis pitcher, "and one Sunday we played a doubleheader in Kansas City, drove about 600 to 700 miles to Denver and played ball in Denver Monday night."

The bitterness increased with every victory against a white team, whose owners continued to tell black players they weren't "ready" for the big leagues. "We were organized," said Buck Leonard, who, with a lifetime .342 batting average, was known as the black Lou Gehrig. "We just weren't recognized."

Chet Brewer, famed pitcher with Kansas City Monarchs, told this story: "There was a time when a colored man bugged the white man to let him play. And he bugged him and bugged him and bugged him. And the white man said, 'Boy, get outta this dugout before I call the police.' But the colored boy wouldn't let him alone. So finally the white man puts him into a uniform, to embarrass him. Sent him in front of this big, mean relief pitcher and says to himself, 'This'll teach that boy.' Well, don't you know the first ball that big old white man threw, the colored boy hit right, out of the right field, with three bases filled. And (as) the colored boy takes off, the white (owner) says, 'Well, will you look at that Cuban go!' "

Brewer added, "They'd have a one-armed white man (in the majors) before they'd have a black man with two arms. And you know the only thing a one-armed man can do that's the same as a two-armed man can do is scratch the side that itches."

Memories of horror stories -- of getting out of town before dark when a black team bested a favored white one, of balls thrown to the head and sharpened spikes aimed at a black player's shins -- lurk behind some former players' cheerful facades. But many are forgotten now that Buck Leonard and Monte Irvin have made it to the Hall of Fame, now that Irvin works for the Baseball Commissioner's Office, now that Buck O'Neil is scouting for the Chicago Cubs. A few players, like Leonard, only hint at the bitterness of watching opportunities unfold when they were too old to take advantage, of watching as major league teams took 27 players from the Kansas City Monarchs. Leonard's Homestead Grays folded in 1950, after the best nine players had been raided by the majors. So he played his last three years in Mexico.

And sometimes, in the course of a peaceful afternoon, they wonder what might have been if things had opened up sooner. They wonder, for example, if the legendary Josh Gibson -- who once, according to Rogosin, hit more home funs in one season than the entire American League -- might have lived longer if the halcyon days of his playing career, like Jackie Robinson's, had been spent in the majors. The fabulous, enigmatic Gibson, the old-timers say, died not so much of alcoholism as of a broken heart.