Keepers of the Flame: Author Shares Legacy of Negro Leagues on Jackie Robinson Day

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - "It's a story worth telling," says Harriet Hamilton.

It's a story passed down, a story of race and restriction, about being held down and breaking through to the top.  It's a story about baseball.

The new movie '42' brings us the story of Jackie Robinson, but before Jackie, there were the Negro Leagues.

Baseball segregated by race, not skill, and these were the men who kept America's past time alive, when America refused to see them for who they were.

Though that doesn't mean the Negro Leagues were ignored.

Hamilton says, "They were considered heroes.  They were considered stars in the black community, wherever they went.  They were treated like star athletes are treated today."

Harriet Hamilton tells the stories of the Negro Leagues to her students at Alabama A&M University, where she teaches sports management.

She tells about a conference she remembers, and a message that sticks with her, "Buck O'Neil was the key speaker, and I'll never forget him saying, 'Don't pity us, because we had the best times of our lives playing.'"

Baseball could have flickered out in black communities, but a last line of defense kept it going.

Hamilton says, "They were the keeper of the flame, basically, and they took pride in that."

When it comes to those who kindled the fire with towering home runs and diving catches, Hamilton made herself an expert.  She's writing a book to preserve the tales.

She's been working on it since 1999, when a true icon of the leagues passed away - Henry Kimbro.

"When my father died, my mother encouraged me to do this," explains Hamilton.

Her father, Henry 'Jumbo' Kimbro, made a name for himself years before Jackie Robinson took off on the base paths of the major leagues.

Hamilton notes, "He was considered a very good player."

And he wasn't alone.

"We were a baseball family," says Hamilton.

Kimbro got it from his grandfather, and he passed it down to his kids.

Hamilton remembers, "When he began to teach my brother baseball, he also began to teach me."

Hamilton remembers struggling to play growing up because she was left-handed.  She couldn't use her father's gear.  Then one day, he brought home a left-handed glove, "He gave me that glove, and he just looked at me.  And he said, 'Now, play ball.'"

And she did - playing, coaching, teaching, and living up to her mission.

"Continue to tell the story, because the story is worth telling," says Hamilton.

It's not a story of pity or oppression.  It's a story about baseball.

Hamilton remembers her father, "He had a love for baseball.  He had a chance to play professional baseball, and there was no bad feelings about not playing in the major leagues.  He got a chance to play, and he said, 'I would have played for free.  That's how much I love baseball.'"