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'Shades of Greatness' uses baseball to spark reflection

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 19, 2009 - What if Jackie Robinson never signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers? Artists in the "Shades of Greatness" exhibit pose this question while challenging audiences to take a different approach to art and to African-American history.

"Shades of Greatness," which opens at the William and Florence Schmidt Art Center in Belleville on Jan. 22, celebrates what Negro League players such as Robinson accomplished before Major League Baseball integrated in 1945. The exhibit, on loan from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, will be at the Schmidt Art Center on the campus of Southwestern Illinois College until March 7.

Visitors can preview the exhibit, commissioned by the NLBM, on Tuesday night at the "Diamonds are for Everyone" fundraiser. Proceeds from ticket sales ($50) for that event and an auction will go toward Schmidt Art Center's programs for children.

Ray Doswell, curator of the NLBM, said that the work in "Shades of Greatness" is not what people might expect. "Most people are used to sports art as, for lack of better words, giant baseball cards. We ask these artists to work on themes in history more so than people's pictures. The focus is on gender, leadership, entrepreneurship."

Doswell said the works in "Shades of Greatness" require the audience to question the course of race relations in the United States. He cites Rob Hatem's "Question Mark" as an example.

In "Question Mark," Hatem fashioned a bat out of a piece of wood that had been, whether through natural or human forces, formed into the shape of a question mark. A baseball sits underneath as punctuation.

"He (Hatem) wanted to pose a question about what would baseball have been like if it had not integrated. What would the record books look like without the contribution from African-American and Latin-American players," Doswell said.

After opening at the NLBM in Kansas City, "Shades of Greatness" has traveled throughout the country over the past five years. The Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville, Ky., the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit all hosted "Shades of Greatness" before it came to Belleville.

After she heard Doswell speak in Kansas City, Libby Reuter, curator of the Schmidt, proposed to the center's exhibit committee that "Shades of Greatness" come to Belleville.

Reuter said she wanted "an exhibit that would interest people who didn't know they were interested in art. This seemed like a great tie-in because there's a history aspect and a baseball aspect."

The committee agreed with Reuter and now, a full year later, "Shades of Greatness" is at Schmidt Art Center. The exhibit is meant to correspond with Black History Month, Reuter said, but its timeliness to President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration is an added bonus. Reuter hopes that, through the artwork, community members can gain a deeper appreciation of African-American history.

"Art records aspects of our culture. It's one way of doing history but it's not just a history of facts and dates, it's a history about feelings and society and the way people interact with each other," Reuter said.

In the age of Jim Crow laws and the "separate but equal" doctrine, if you were an African American or a Latin American who wanted to play high-level baseball, you played on a Negro Leagues team. The Brooklyn Dodgers recruited Robinson from a Negro National League team, the Kansas City Monarchs, in 1945. Robinson's contract with the Dodgers began the decline of NLB as the best African-American and Latin-American players integrated into the MLB. The NLB officially disbanded in the late 1950s.

As part of "Shades of Greatness," George Altman, the last surviving Negro League Baseball player in the St. Louis area will speak along with Doswell on Feb. 26 at the Main Complex Theatre in Belleville. Altman will also be an honored guest at the "Diamonds are for Everyone" event.

During "Shades of Greatness," Schmidt Art Center will also house an exhibit by local artist Harold Ernst Poth and jewelry created by metalworking students from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

Jennifer Gordon is a junior in the school of journalism at the University of Missouri Columbia.

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