A century later, baseball’s Negro Leagues are getting their due in a video game (2023)

Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece, What’s Going On, closes on a somber note with “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” For a song with the word “holler” in its title, the feel is subdued; it’s a lament about America’s impoverished urban cores and about socioeconomic issues affecting communities of color. The lyrics are spare, with Gaye singing in terse phrases, but the language is plain and the message impossible to miss: Crime is / increasing / Trigger-happy / policing.

It’s perhaps fitting that a song about the consequences of segregation helped the developers of MLB The Show 23, which launches March 28, figure out how to tell the story of the Negro Leagues. This year’s new mode, Storylines, brings the extraordinary but little-known history of pre-integration Black baseball into the video game for the first time.

The makers of MLB The Show could’ve, say, taken some Negro League stars and just thrown them into the game’s Diamond Dynasty mode. But at a time when the Negro Leagues are finally getting their due, a century after the founding of the first professional league for Black ballplayers, that kind of offering wouldn’t have done justice to their legacy.

“We needed to figure out: How do we, for a participatory medium, educate our player base on the Negro Leagues, and who these players were, in an appropriate manner for an [all-ages] game?” Ramone Russell, the public face of MLB The Show developer SIE San Diego Studio, told Polygon during a presentation of Storylines last week.

Teaming up with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, the developers settled on a hybrid approach. The Storylines mode comprises sequences of playable “moments” for eight Negro League greats, and those segments are packaged with video vignettes meant to educate MLB The Show 23 players about these athletes’ careers and lives. Playing through the mode, you’ll get an idea of what Negro League baseball looked like — the players, the stadiums, the crowds — and a sense of how special these eight ballplayers were. But the “story” part of Storylines happens off the field, and there’s a very good reason for that.

The eureka moment in the development of Storylines came approximately a year and a half ago, when Russell was trying to unlock the puzzle of how to pull off the mode.

“The first few months, the project didn’t really have a grounding, and I was like, This project has a soul — I don’t know what it is yet, but it has a soul,” said Russell, who handles product development communications and brand strategy for MLB The Show, and is also the creative force behind Storylines. “And one day, I was driving my car, and Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner City Blues’ came on, and then a lightbulb went off.”

Russell employed “Inner City Blues” as the foundation for a concept video of the Storylines mode, which he used to convey his vision to the development team and get the project greenlit. Then came the challenge of figuring out how the mode would work. One thought was to put players in Jackie Robinson’s cleats in 1947, when he broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Russell had to shut down that idea, because the developers couldn’t — and wouldn’t want to — depict the truth of that experience in a league-licensed video game with an ESRB rating of E for Everyone.

“You have to really think about these things in a different light. Because what does that look like?” said Russell, who is Black. He continued, “If you’re using Jackie Robinson, his rookie year on the Dodgers, banana peels are getting thrown on the field; he’s getting called the N-word. Are we going to do that in a video game? Hell no, we’re not going to do that.”

A century later, baseball’s Negro Leagues are getting their due in a video game (1)

  • Satchel Paige of the Kansas City Monarchs in MLB The Show 23’s Storylines mode. Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment
  • Satchel Paige of the Kansas City Monarchs in MLB The Show 23’s Storylines mode. Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment
  • Andrew “Rube” Foster of the Chicago American Giants in MLB The Show 23’s Storylines mode. Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment
  • Andrew “Rube” Foster of the Chicago American Giants in MLB The Show 23’s Storylines mode. Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment
  • Martín Dihigo of the Hilldale Giants in MLB The Show 23’s Storylines mode. Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment
  • John Donaldson of All Nations in MLB The Show 23’s Storylines mode. Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment
  • John Donaldson of All Nations in MLB The Show 23’s Storylines mode. Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment
  • Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs in MLB The Show 23’s Storylines mode. Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment
  • Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs in MLB The Show 23’s Storylines mode. Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment
  • Hilton Smith of the Kansas City Monarchs in MLB The Show 23’s Storylines mode. Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment
  • Hank Thompson of the Kansas City Monarchs in MLB The Show 23’s Storylines mode. Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment
  • Buck O’Neil of the Kansas City Monarchs in MLB The Show 23’s Storylines mode. Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

That’s not to say that Storylines elides the historical context of these athletes’ careers: that they played in the Negro Leagues not because they lacked the talent to make the major leagues, but simply because their skin wasn’t white. Telling those stories is a vital component of the mode, and it dovetails with a larger effort these days on the part of Major League Baseball.

“It’s 100% our responsibility to make sure that younger audiences, older audiences, know the history of the Negro Leagues; it’s a part of our American fabric,” April Brown, vice president of social responsibility at the league office, and one of the few Black women working at the executive level in pro sports, said in an interview with Polygon. Brown added, “We want to make sure that we amplify and highlight that history so that any young person can feel proud about it.”

Russell told Polygon he decided that MLB The Show 23 was “not going to tell these stories with a controller in your hand,” because that would be “participatory Black trauma in a video game.” Instead, the educational side of Storylines takes the form of more than 70 documentary-style videos featuring Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Kendrick, who has inadvertently earned a reputation as a Negro Leagues historian, “has this very unique ability to talk about the ugliness of the time, and the reasons why the Negro Leagues existed, but to do it in a celebratory manner,” according to Russell.

Storylines really does feel like a celebration once the action on the field begins. MLB The Show 23’s developers recreated six Negro League ballparks for the mode, including Kansas City’s Muehlebach Field and Chicago’s South Side Park. They had to peg the stadiums to a date range rather than a particular year, since there aren’t enough extant photos and information to confirm anything more specific than a time frame — one of the numerous and immense logistical hurdles they faced in making the Storylines mode. But they tried to be as authentic as they could nonetheless.

Muehlebach Field is actually where night baseball originated, in 1930; night games there in Storylines are illuminated by the light trucks that Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson devised. Everyone in the crowd is dressed in their Sunday best, since Negro League games took place on that day of the week, with fans heading straight from church to the ballpark. And the majority-Black crowds are integrated: Everyone sat together at Negro League contests, unlike at MLB games, where seating was segregated.

The debut of Storylines in MLB The Show 23 focuses on eight players: Martín Dihigo, John Donaldson, Andrew “Rube” Foster, John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Jackie Robinson, Hilton Smith, and Hank Thompson. The developers aimed for a mix of big names and lesser-known players, and also focused on diversity of position around the baseball diamond. If you’re wondering why a particular Negro League star is missing, Sony is calling this season 1 of the Storylines mode. “We need to save some heat for later,” said Russell, naming Hall of Fame slugger Josh Gibson as someone who will be featured in the future.

The Storylines moments that we saw during the presentation were short and simple. One involves getting an extra-base hit and knocking in a run with Robinson, who started his professional baseball career with the Monarchs in 1945. But Russell promised that about half of them will be “special moments,” offering fun and interesting twists on the typical MLB The Show experience.

“Satchel’s Pitch Types,” for instance, plays with the game’s pitching interface. For most hurlers, the X button cues up a fastball. But here, the pitch on the screen next to the X button is Paige’s 105 mph “bee ball” — so named because “it be where I want it to be when I want it to be there,” as Kendrick quotes Paige saying during the clip introducing this moment. MLB The Show’s commentary team, Boog Sciambi and Chris Singleton, recorded new audio specifically for Storylines; they actually use the names of Paige’s unique pitches, and provide more background on all of the players throughout the mode.

A century later, baseball’s Negro Leagues are getting their due in a video game (3) Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

From what we saw, Storylines seems like a lovingly crafted package that will serve as a terrific interactive history lesson on a topic that most baseball fans could stand to learn a thing or two about. And even if it’s just a thing or two, that will be meaningful.

In his initial conversations with Kendrick, Russell was “paralyzed,” he told Polygon, by the daunting task ahead of him. How could a video game truly capture the importance and impact of the Negro Leagues? Kendrick — who is blessed with a soothing voice that happens to be perfect for narrating documentaries — reassured Russell by bringing up his experience working as a consultant on 42, the 2013 Jackie Robinson biopic starring Chadwick Boseman, which focuses on just two years of Robinson’s life.

Russell said Kendrick told him that biopics and even documentaries are “a CliffsNotes version of a subject or an individual that hopefully sparks your interest to go learn more.” The hope is that MLB The Show 23 players will check out Storylines and then pick up a book, or watch a documentary, or visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

“If you’re a young Black boy or Black girl who might not have ever gone to a baseball game, but you learn about the history of baseball through [the Storylines mode] or other opportunities, you might say, ‘You know what? I’d love to go see a baseball game in real life,’ and might become a fan,” said MLB’s Brown. “So again, in terms of our responsibility with the history [of the Negro Leagues]: This is Black history. This is baseball history.”

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