Q&A with Neftalie Williams, Research Director of The African American Experience in Major League Baseball Project

In early October I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about a new oral history project aimed at collecting and preserving the stories of African Americans in Major League Baseball. The project was launched in 2013 by Dr. Daniel Durbin, the Director of the Annenberg Institute of Sport, Media and Society (AISMS) at the University of Southern California. Neftalie Williams, joined the project last September, and currently serves as its Research Director.

Because the project will be of great interest to sport historians, I recently reached out to Williams to learn more. Williams was eager to share his experiences with the project and answer my questions. He was excited to share its progress and goals with our community, particularly after reading Josh Howard’s excellent piece on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ removal of their Negro League heritage from PNC Park. On Tuesday afternoon, we chatted about his experiences with the project, its timeline and goals, and his advice for scholars interested in embarking on similar endeavors. His passion for the project, the stories he is recording, and the individuals he has met is evident. Listening to him speak, you can hear the emotional attachment he’s made to the players he’s interviewed.

In this post, I want to try to something new and share our conversation. I have edited our Q&A session for length, readability, and clarity.


Andrew McGregor: Neftalie, thank for chatting with me today. I just got done watching the Kansas City Royals World Series parade, and, as a Kansas City native, baseball has always been close to my heart. I grew up with the Negro League Baseball Museum, Buck O’Neil, and hearing stories of Monarchs. When I first read about your project I was instantly excited and wanted to learn more.

Let’s get started with some of the basics: What is the project and what is the goal behind it?

Neftalie Williams: OK. No Problem. So the project is called: The African American Experience in Major League Baseball Project. And what it is, we’ve set out to do… we’d like to create an online media library, it’s an oral history of all the African American players up to 25 years after Jackie Robinson.

The hope is, once we have all of the voices, we’ll make them available to the public. People will see how important the African American voice was to the American past time. And right now as we know, the number of African American players are declining, so this is a good way to sort of remind future generation of their place within the game and what has occurred.

AM: Is this project completely independent? Do you have a connection with Major League Baseball, the Negro Leagues Museum, or is this just something that USC is putting together?

NW: No this is something that USC is doing. It is the Annenberg Institute of Sports Media and Society, which is AISMS. Just USC AISMS.

We’re not a part of Major League Baseball. I got lots of comments after the article came out in the LA Times. People were confused, and saying “well this is a great thing, why doesn’t Major League Baseball give you everyone’s number and let you do this.”

Yes, it is, but that’s not how these types of things work. You know, first of all, we do want them to protect the privacy of the players and so we totally respect that. We do feel that this is a great project and something that will continue to contribute to the legacy of MLB and even though the MLB helped contribute to this legacy by having the players, but we don’t feel that they have to, they don’t have to do anything. We also want to make sure that the players feel that they can really speak candidly. We just want it to be open to them however they want. And for this to be a site for scholars, if this is an MLB project per se, you’re a scholar, how would you feel about that?

AM: I can think about there being a little conflict of interest in some ways, or them trying to glorify players and focus on certain narratives that they want to market.

NW: Exactly, exactly. So we appreciate MLB, and we would love to work with them, in particular as long is it is on our terms, they we want to make sure this is good for historians and for the public, of course. As a matter of a fact, I just talked to the MLB players association last week and I have been speaking to Tony Clark a few weeks before. And Tony is, just, very much this is great project, all of those guys are great guys, and I really can stand firmly behind it. I think you’re doing a great job.

So our hope is that as time goes on, MLB says hey this really is good and we want to help as much as possible, which is starting to happen, but no matter what we’re an institution of higher learning. We want to make sure it’s not biased, we deliver the facts, the way that we can.

AM: So without those partnerships, how is the funding? Is there a link that people can go and donate? Or are you guys pretty well-funded already?

NW: No, no, we definitely, definitely still need donations because it is a long process and it is expensive to try to get to the guys. Even if we’d just love to try to get just one individual guy, but funding wise we need to be able to get at least 3-4 players in an area to make that be a little bit more cost-effective. So yea, we definitely do take donations and some of that information is on the AISMS website.

AM: Is it just you interviewing or do you accept other people who’ve maybe done oral histories in their own research and who might want to donate those?

NW: We want everything to stick to that format, but once this section is done, then maybe we would. That’s something we’d definitely entertain at some point. Our thought right now is to get everything done with all of the players and build the digital archive. Then it will be a digital archive, so there will be space for other people’s work to come in and we can sort of figure out the best place to house it over time.

AM: How has participation been? How many do you have done? How many do you foresee in the total project?

NM: There is 167. But 111 is exactly where I’m at right this second, that’s where I’m tracking. I came onto this project last year, last September. I did a lot in Kansas City, a lot in Houston, so I’ve done about 25 interview myself. We have still have a ways to go. But my hope is that we’ll be done with the project in the next two years.

AM: That’s exciting.

NW: Yea, I have to say it is a great way for those guys to be able to really reflect and for us to be able to get the benefit of all of their knowledge. That’s the biggest thing. I’m in baseball and the project for that reason, but my background is in skateboarding, skate diplomacy, and public diplomacy. And these guys are a wealth of knowledge, about where America was at that time and a good indication about where we could be. And so, I want to make sure that that’s there for everybody to see. And kids, kids need positive role models, and all of these guys they did something great to help bring the U.S. together.

You know for me, when I think about losing these guys — like I didn’t get to do Ernie’s interview before he passed away and Minnie I didn’t get to do his before he passed — those are just such huge losses. After I get each interview done with the guys they’re like “ahh, you should have had…, you need this voice and you need that voice” and it’s emotional for them, it’s emotional for me, you know the moment we find out we lost somebody else. For me it’s like this big piece of history that people should be able to get attached to, that will make them feel proud, make them learn, and sort of, you know, inspire them.

AM: Can you think of other projects or similar things that historians or other scholars can do? Similar voices that need to be saved?

NW: The fact that I’m in Skateboarding, the entity that I am closest to – the International Association of Skateboarding Companies – loves what I am doing on this project. And they’re thinking: “Hey Neftalie, we know you’re working on this but we’d love if you’d do this for skateboarding.” Because we have our history. It’s a young sport. Most of our guys are still alive and we need to document them.

The way we do it for the baseball project — it’s not biased – it’s if you played during this time, we want to interview you. That’s a great thing because some guys had more fame, some guys were only in the league for a minute, but it doesn’t matter. They like that somebody is excited and recognizes that they had this accomplishment and might actually have feelings about it.

So for me, I want to work on that in skateboarding as well because there’s so many people who helped contribute to the fact that skateboarding will probably be in the next summer Olympics or 2020 depending on which route it goes. A lot of those guys are still around and so I’m learning on the baseball project, and I want to bring it to the skateboarding world as well. So that’s an immediate project.

But then, for the people in traditional sports, we’re getting requests to do this sort of project in football, and other sports as well. You can also look at changes in the NBA. There’s definitely space for this to go across disciplines.

AM: As a follow-up, what advice or recommendations would you give other scholars interested in starting something like this?. It seems like there is a lot of administrative legwork to be done.

NW: There is, there definitely is. It is definitely something you have to be vested and invested in, that it’s for the greater good. You need to work on finding a good team behind you that 1) supports the projects and 2) gives you the space to figure out the best way to it. It’s tough, it’s not something to be like “I’m just going to start this project.”

I‘ve had people after the LA Times article call me and say “Hey I started working on research but it takes up so much time and it’s hard to find people. How are you getting it done?” The truth is, I’m getting it done very slowly by getting up every day and making sure I planned who am I targeting, where are they at, so it’s kind of a big endeavor. It’s a really hard project. You’re thinking like OK let’s get these guys together or if you can get them together, then you need to go interview them. What do you need to go interview them? There’s money, there’s time, and then there’s resource. You have to have some sort of basis. It really comes down to managing and figuring out what you can manage.

AM: Back to the project. Are you focused mostly on players, or are you looking at scouts, coaches, managers?

NW: No, we’re concentrating on players in particular because you can trace people’s time in minor leagues and the major leagues to get all of that, to sort of collect all of that data at the same time, and so right now we’re doing players. But as it goes on, we’ll try to move it out from there.

One of things people are saying is “Hey you’re doing the first 25 years but when are you doing the next 25 years after that’” because that is another change within the game. Which I know, like when I’ve talked to Willie Wilson, and when we’ve talked to like Frank White, the differences from the early guys to their time period is a big difference and something we’ve talked about and discussed. But first we want to commit to making sure the first part of the project is done, which is all of the players up to that timeline. We want to know the way that they played, the way that they thought, and they way the felt about their role in American history, and the way that the community felt about them. So that’s the first goal and then we’ll work to create the online media library, where everyone will be able to click on them and actually hear their voices, and hear them talk about their time in their own words.

As a historian you know, when a lot of these guys were interviewed at the time, America was still battling with its discrimination and racist overtones. One of things that happens is, that there are writers who might have painted players in a poor light. So what we want to do is make sure those players get a chance to talk about how it actually felt to be in the game. We all know that when you’re outside the game, you don’t know the game. You might know some of it, you might know the stats, but you don’t know what it feels like to be in that space. And so we want to make sure that we sort of pull that veil away from it. Away from what people wrote about, what they thought players felt or he should have felt. We may think “he didn’t like this player” or maybe “he didn’t get along with his coach” based on what was written. Instead, we just want to simply ask them, “hey what happened” so that people can make up their own minds. A lot of that has to do with when you look up a lot of the players in that time the only thing you have is sort of someone’s opinion about them.

And particular, one of the great things about this project is they know that. When I talk to them, that is exactly what they tell me. They say, “I don’t want to talk to these reporters. I’m playing the game. They don’t know what it’s like everyday.”  Or they say, “I’m not the kind of guy to talk about all of those things.”

It’s really great to be able to recognize that we’re pulling back those layers. That maybe it’s said that somebody is aloof or he was mean. Then the player will just tell you,“no that’s just not my personality. I just don’t want to talk to a bunch of people that I don’t know.” They say that “there were people on the team who did [talk to reporters], so I didn’t feel like I needed to do it.” And then “you find out later that you don’t participate or you have a bad attitude, and you think to yourself, I just want to play baseball. Why, what is all of this, that’s some else’s job.”

That is sort of a combination of a bunch of stories, but that’s what the general consensus is. I think that sometimes we forget that some players may not want to talk about it. They may not want to talk about it, and then that can be misconstrued. So what we’re setting out to do is let them tell talk about the game and their lives in their own words, and that’s it.

AM: That’s really great!  A lot of sport historians, we basically study what’s been written, so most of our work is really about the coverage of the game, and we have less and less access to interviews. Do you see this project as being a resource for scholars, as a resource for the general public, or a combination of both?

NW: I think it is going to be a combination of both. Because, just like you said, when you’re looking at the clippings, you’re looking at what’s said, you don’t have your primary source, you don’t have that. You only know what’s written at that time, and so you can only infer. And there’s been so many players where people have said “Oh you’re going to have a hard time interviewing that guy,” or “oh that guy’s mean,” or “I heard this.” Then you ask them, “Did you ask them, did you talk to them?”  “No, but I heard from other reporters and, I heard from another reporter who said that another reporter said he was mean.” And then when you get to the players, you just find out that they just didn’t like talking to people that they didn’t know. And that was it.

AM: You’ve said that a lot, that they just didn’t like talking to people they didn’t know. How have you been able to get these stories out of them. Is it just distance, or is it because they are comfortable with you?

NW: You know, I think it is a combination of things. I mean, the fact of the matter is that I am African American. And I think that I have distance. They have distance from the time. I have distance from the game in that sense. And then, no matter what, there are some commonalities of the African American experience as a whole.

If nothing else, they know that I am here because I want to contribute to our legacy, these are African American stories and that is what I care about, that is what is important to me. These guys did amazing, ground breaking work, and helped free up America. There are stories that are there, and those are the things that people need. People, young people, need narratives, they need to understand that. We hear all the time in media that youth feel that they don’t have anyone who represents them, or feel that they are underrepresented, or don’t have people that they can look up to. And so for me, as a personal side of this, these guys are great. People need to hear as many great stories as they can because there’s not a lot that gets reported on that’s just great. So I think that, that’s the personal side that I have in this. It’s that this is the right thing to do.

With my work, half of my time in life is in baseball and the other half is in skateboarding and building the skateboarding community. And so I respect the fact that these guys did all of this and that it trickles down to my industry and to my world. So that’s where that comes from. This understanding that I understand that you might not be able to say all of the things that you want to say in a particular instance, maybe you couldn’t say it then and now you want to say it now. Or they at least understand that I can relate to their feelings on things.

I wasn’t there at that time, but at least I give them an ear to talk about it. And I will tell you, some of the guys haven’t gotten to get things off of their chest. Guys are carrying it around. Sometimes people say “they are carrying around being upset from like, let’s say 1952 or 1969, and I don’t understand why they are still upset.” I’m telling you they’re not still upset, sometimes it is the first time anyone has ever asked them how they feel about something. That’s a big thing.

AM: Yea, as the memories come back, and you have a reaction you didn’t know you’d have.

NW: Right, and they don’t. And one of the other things that people think, there is plenty of other spaces for this. Just talk to your family, they have children, you can talk to your kids. But that’s not there, that’s not their role when you’re trying to be a Dad or you’re being a husband. That’s not, or not necessarily their role. So I feel like it gives them a moment to really reflect on how it felt. Especially now that they’re removed from the game. So yes, I’m a stranger and maybe at the time they didn’t particularly like talking, not even so much to strangers, maybe just not like talking that much. But now it’s different, it is on their terms, and I just ask them about their experience.

I think that that’s why they open up. I don’t have an agenda. I’m not trying to prove — there’s a perfect example of this — whether or not Dick Allen had a bad attitude or if something bad happened in the clubhouse. I’m just asking them how it was in their shoes. I think that provides information for the public, and provides information for historians, because then you at least have both sides of the argument.

AM: I know you’ve mentioned Dusty Baker, and you mentioned Frank White. Have they addressed or talked about any of current issues in baseball or is it more about their playing time?

NW: It’s different for each player. That’s one of the things that I really like about the project. We talk about what you want to talk about.

When I do the interviews with the guys, they talk about what baseball meant to them, what it meant to the community, what else they did when they were younger before they got into baseball. A lot of players will say, “it wasn’t even my main sport I just got into it because I thought it was cool, and I got into and I made it all the way to the Major Leagues.” But they still have their regular life, they’re regular time, the person they were before and after.

Mostly they just talk about baseball, where they were, and how they felt then, but they do recognize that it’s a linear progression. So sometimes they do pop in and say, “No, that’s not what happened.” There’s a lot of things that are misconstrued. They see it both ways. They talk about their time, but they will also comment if they feel it is something that’s important to comment on.

Some players say, “Hey there’s a decline in the number of African American players. We put in a lot of effort to integrate the game and then try to make the game better.” And so a lot them will say that it hurts their hearts that the number are declining. And so, that, that’s something that you’ll hear from the players.

Dusty, first of all, I’m incredibly excited to talk to him again. I sent him a text this morning. I just talked to him last week too, while all of this was going on about him taking over in Washington. I’m really excited about that because he is a good guy and because he has a lot of time in the game and deserves this chance to be back in baseball. We talked about those things in some of his interviews, because I interviewed him twice.

AM: How many comment on Negro League Baseball? A few of them probably played in both.

NW: Oh yes, we do talk about the Negro Leagues. It just depends on the player and how close they were in that time, or how close they were to the people who came up in them. But they all have reverence for the players before them. They all talk about Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell. That’s who they hold in esteem, the guys who came before them. The perfect example is Willie Wilson because Willie was just right outside of that. Willie is great. Like all of those guys, no matter how cool a person might think that they are inside, or their ego, they say those guys did it for us. And they carried all of those things. They carried black lives on their backs. And so for me, that’s something that’s really important. Those guys set the tone and played when there was no money, they played for the love it, and then those who came through the Negro Leagues and helped integrate baseball, you know, they just hold them all in reverence.

AM: Thanks for sharing all of this great information. I really enjoyed hearing about the project and look forward to when it is finished.

Neftalie Williams is Research and Development Director at the Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society, and lecturer at the University of Southern California. He servers as the Research Director for The African-American Experience in Major League Baseball project. His research is on sports diplomacy, with a focus on skate diplomacy. You can reach Neftalie Williams at nswillia@usc.edu.  

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African-American studies. He is also the founding co-editor of this blog. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter:@admcgregor85

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