By Mark Schremmer
Globe Sports Writer
The film “42” is the story of how Jackie Robinson crossed the color barrier in Major League Baseball and opened the door for countless superstars, including Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
It is a heroic tale that deserves to be remembered. However, the complete story begins long before Robinson ever suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Hundreds of deserving ballplayers were segregated in Negro Leagues baseball.
Some of those players were from right here in the Four States.
And they have their own heroic stories.
George Sweatt, who was born in 1893 in Humboldt, Kan., was a pioneer in his own right. He worked at the Monarch Cement plant in Humboldt and played baseball with the Iola Go-Devils until he joined the U.S. Army’s all-black 816th Pioneer Infantry Division, which served in France during World War I.
After the war, Sweatt attended what is now Pittsburg State University and became the Gorillas’ first African-American student-athlete to letter in basketball, football and track and field. He was a standout sprinter and also set the school record in the shot put. Sweatt lettered in football in 1921 and in basketball in 1920 and 1922.
While in college, he started to play for the Kansas City Monarchs, the premier Negro Leagues team of the time. He earned his teaching certificate in 1922 and taught the sixth grade and physical education at a segregated school in Coffeyville.
“Sweatt was kind of an academic and a ballplayer,” Negro Leagues baseball historian and author Phil Dixon said. “He also was a schoolteacher in Coffeyville. He would leave the team early enough so he could go teach. He was a tremendous individual.”
Nicknamed “Never,” “Sharkey” and “The Teacher,” Sweatt was a versatile player who took the field in all three outfield spots and every infield position except shortstop. From the limited statistics available, baseballreference.com lists Sweatt as a .263 career hitter. His best season came in 1923 when he hit .310.
“He didn’t have any super standout numbers,” Dixon said. “I don’t know if he was totally dedicated to baseball. But he was a good substitute, and they liked him well enough to let him play partial seasons every year. But you couldn’t really build a franchise around him.”
Still, Sweatt is one of only two players to appear in all four Negro Leagues World Series from 1924-27.
In Game 7 of the 1924 Negro Leagues World Series, Sweatt hit a two-out triple in the 12th inning. He was injured on the play, but the pinch-runner scored the winning run.
In 1926, Sweatt was traded to the Chicago American Giants for eventual National Baseball Hall of Famer Cristobal Torriente.
“The trade looked like one of baseball’s most ridiculous — a player destined for the Hall of Fame for a utility outfielder named George ‘Never’ Sweatt. In time, the deal would prove legitimate,” Dixon wrote in his book, “Wilber ‘Bullet’ Rogan and the Kansas City Monarchs.”
Sweatt helped the Giants to World Series titles in 1926 and 1927.
After the 1927 season, Sweatt retired from baseball when he wasn’t offered a raise. He stayed in Chicago and started a career with the U.S. Postal Service. From 1928-33, he spent his weekends managing the Chicago Giants.
Sweatt retired from the Postal Service in 1957 and died in 1983.
Thirty years after his death, Sweatt is still receiving acknowledgment for his accomplishments. George A. Sweatt Park was dedicated in Humboldt following his death. Pittsburg State University placed Sweatt into its athletic hall of fame in 2005, and he was inducted into the Kansas Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011.
So when you watch “42,” which premieres nationwide April 12, reflect on the life of Jackie Robinson but also take some time to think about the players before him.
Players like George Sweatt.