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Shohei Ohtani’s double-duty feats are a reminder: The Negro Leagues are still overlooked

Shohei Ohtani has been a two-way star for the Los Angeles Angels. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

In the Linden Hill section of Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago rests a headstone etched with the figure of a pitcher throwing a baseball to the figure of a catcher. The honored deceased is Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe: born July 7, 1902, died Aug. 11, 2005.

His parents didn’t nickname him Double Duty. New York baseball columnist Damon Runyon did. Why?

During a 1932 doubleheader that pitted Radcliffe’s Pittsburgh Crawfords against the New York Black Yankees at Yankee Stadium, Runyon witnessed Radcliffe hit a grand slam and catch Satchel Paige’s shutout in the twi-night opener, only to turn around and throw a shutout of his own in the second game.

The lore of Double Duty should be reincarnated with the rise of Shohei Ohtani, baseball’s latest two-way star.

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But to hear most tell it, the Los Angeles Angels’ sometimes-starting pitcher and other times outfielder — who, with a 4-1 record on the mound and a major league-leading 33 home runs at the plate, was named the American League’s starting pitcher and leadoff hitter in Tuesday’s All-Star Game and was a participant in Monday’s Home Run Derby — evokes memories of Babe Ruth, who pitched and played the outfield before settling in as an everyday field player for his slugging. Indeed, Sports Illustrated anointed Ohtani a once-in-a-century player.

Radcliffe did double duty as a pitcher and catcher his entire career, from about 1930 to 1946, 11 years after Ruth retired. But Radcliffe did so in the Negro Leagues.

In the wake of yet another national racial reckoning, this time after George Floyd’s extrajudicial murder, Major League Baseball announced before this season that it would for the first time consider Negro Leagues statistics and history — Black history — as valid as its own. But that Ohtani would be compared reflexively by most of us in the media to Ruth — skipping over the career not only of Radcliffe but of other Negro Leagues stars who routinely pitched and played the field, such as Hall of Famer “Bullet” Joe Rogan — reminds how baked-in the continued delegitimization of Negro Leaguers’ accomplishments is. An asterisk still hovers over their achievements, while none does for White players who also played only among themselves and not against all of the best players of their time. And White baseball players, unlike their Black peers, segregated themselves by choice and decree. Negro Leagues ballplayers continue to deserve better.

Rogan’s Hall of Fame entry notes, for example, that he won 120 games and batted .338 to go with a .521 slugging percentage and a .934 on-base-plus-slugging percentage over his career. Fifty of his hits were home runs.

Not that Rogan, who starred for the Kansas City Monarchs, needed the validation of excelling against White baseball stars. But the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum noted for that when Rogan faced a major league all-star team in an integrated California winter league, he got the win while striking out Hall of Fame outfielder Al Simmons three times and getting two hits himself. The Chicago Defender, the famed Black newspaper, wrote: “The All-Stars had to look at the blinding speed of Rogan and they melted before it. Rogan was never faster in his life and the Stars merely blinked at many of his offerings as they streaked across the plate.”

“You have to understand that Negro Leagues rosters were not as large as major league rosters,” Bob Kendrick, the president of the museum, located in Kansas City, Mo., told me by phone this month. “So that versatility became vitally important just as much out of necessity as anything. Really, with the exception of Satchel, most of the pitchers in the Negro Leagues were going to play multiple positions.”

But in the run-up to the All-Star Game, we who tell baseball’s story continue to suggest Ohtani is a unicorn.

History does not at all support that observation — unless, of course, you participate in purposefully overlooking Black history. Such is the scorched-earth path toward ignorance down which some Republicans want to lead students by attempting to punish the teaching of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project on the role and legacy of enslaved Africans in this country.

Maybe baseball needs a 1920 Project, to study the game from the year the Negro Leagues commenced. Or, better still, an 1887 Project, to examine the game from the year it adopted, in cowardly secret, one of those mischaracterized gentlemen’s agreements to keep the progeny of enslaved Africans from participating with everyone else.

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The truth is that Ohtani’s two-way feats are more appropriately compared to what Negro Leagues players did regularly than what Ruth did for the first part of his career. Ohtani reminds of Negro Leagues players who were not specialized, which is what Ruth became as a batter. The 27-year-old is reminiscent of Negro Leagues players who were encouraged to showcase the full array of their athletic abilities — and were celebrated for doing so. Rogan, for example, was credited with stealing 106 bases — including 26 in 1929, when he was 35. Ruth never stole more than 17 in a season. Ohtani, midway through his fourth season, has 41 career steals.

So Ohtani isn’t someone we’ve missed in baseball since Ruth. He isn’t a once-in-a-century talent. He is a multitalented athlete, in a generation when baseball may have more than ever, and one whose manager, Joe Maddon, has allowed him to shine, maybe out of compulsion. With arguably the game’s best player, outfielder Mike Trout, sidelined by injury, Maddon was left with a short-circuited Angels offense. Ohtani has been leaned upon as a batter to help flip the switch — not unlike Radcliffe was in 1929 when his Detroit Stars’ pitching staff was shortened by injuries and he answered the call for an extra arm. That’s when “Double Duty” was born, if not dubbed.

Ohtani is part of that lineage of do-everything stars, tied mostly to Negro Leagues players rather than Ruth. They include Leon Day, born in Alexandria, Va., who in 1937 posted a 13-0 record with a 3.02 ERA while batting .320 with eight home runs for the Newark Eagles. Then there was Afro-Cuban Martín Dihigo, the first Cuban-born Hall of Famer and another two-way star, whom fellow Hall of Famer Buck Leonard called “the best ballplayer of all time, Black or White.”

“That’s the athlete you saw in the Negro Leagues,” Kendrick said.

Including one nicknamed for doing what Ohtani has accomplished this year.