In 1995, the Seattle Mariners took the field wearing replica uniforms of a team called the Steelheads, and just a tiny percent of the people in the ballpark had any idea why.
The Steelheads had once played in a second-tier black baseball league, the West Coast Negro League. The May issue of Seattle Magazine features a fine article about the Steelheads, by Ryan Whirty:
Still, former Steelie Sherwood Brewer told The Seattle Times that the indignities were worth it. “I had a lot of fun,” Brewer said, “and if I had to do it again, I’d start tomorrow.”
Brewer, along with many of the other players honored that night, has since passed away. Today, 92-year-old Herb Simpson is believed to be the only remaining Steelhead.
Simpson’s memory of his time in Seattle is fuzzy, and he doesn’t reveal too many details about life with the Steelies. But his modest house in hometown New Orleans is stocked with memorabilia from his playing days, including his Steelheads jersey, which he shows to visitors with pride. He is one of the final ties to this bygone era.
The Steelheads, and for that matter the entire West Coast Negro League, were put together by Abe Saperstein, famous impresario of the Harlem Globetrotters. In one sense, Saperstein's timing was perfect; this was 1946, when war production had swelled the black populations in essentially every major Western seaport, and teams were placed in Seattle, Portland, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. In another sense, Saperstein's timing was terrible; just a few months before, Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers -- well, technically with the Montreal Royals -- and the day Jackie signed, black baseball began to die.
In the event, the West Coast Negro League essentially lasted for only a couple of months, although the Steelheads continued for a time as purely a barnstorming outfit.
If you'll permit a quick editorial comment, I'll mention that not so long ago, I heard someone say that the black baseball leagues have been neglected, if not actually forgotten. To which my groaning shelves overloaded with books about the Negro Leagues and their players respond, "Groan."