Negro League baseballIn the early days of Major League Baseball, which coincided with the Reconstruction period following the American Civil War, there was no official color line. African-American ballplayers such as Bud Fowler, Frank Grant, Fleet Walker and Welday Walker adorned professional rosters during the 1870s and 1880s. The Walker brothers made it to the major leagues, in fact, playing with Toledo in the American Association. However, as segregation and Jim Crow laws appeared and gained force (often through violent means), even teams that formerly welcomed African-American players found themselves pressured, by peers or financial concerns, to drop those players.
Several attempts to found "Negro" leagues (to use the term that was in use at the time) met with limited success. Perhaps the first full-fledged professional team were the Cuban Giants, formed in Babylon, New Jersey but relocated to Trenton in 1886. Their success led to the formation of a league, called either the Negro National League or the League of Colored Baseball Clubs, the following year. This league was founded with nine teams: Boston Resolutes; New York Gorham; Philadelphia Pythians; Washington Capital Cities; Pittsburgh Keystones; Norfolk (Virginia) Red Stockings; Cincinnati Crowns; Lord Baltimores and the Louisville Fall Cities, with the Giants and the Keystones taking first and second place in the first two years, with the Giants crowned as inaugral champions in 1888.
It should be noted that, due in no small part to the popularity and success of the original Cuban Giants many similarly named teams came into existence, including the Genuine Cuban Giants, Royal Giants, the Baltimore Giants and the Cuban X-Giants, the latter a powerhouse in the early twentieth century. The "Cuban" teams, with the exception of the Cuban Stars and the Havana Giants, were all composed of African-Americans rather than Cubans, but the name was thought to increase their acceptance with white patrons.
The game was also popular in black colleges, leading to the founding in of the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The period 1890-1914 saw a state of perpetual turmoil, with many leagues and teams coming and going within a space of a few years, mirroring the problems with "upstart leagues" in white baseball.
Following World War I, however, a number of factors contributed to the founding of a new Negro National League, which was to be successful. After the war, America saw an increase in racial tensions, which led to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, violent attacks on black-owned businesses and institutions, and renewed barring of African-Americans from white institutions. In response to this, Marcus Garvey advocated black separatism and urged the development of black-only businesses and institutions.
Against this background emerged a remarkable and energetic man, Rube Foster, a talented ballplayer himself who had been unable to play professional baseball in the United States. Foster founded the Negro National League in 1920.
Significant Negro Leagues:
- Negro National League (the first), 1920-1931
- Eastern Colored League, 1923-1928; the NNL and ECL champions met in a World Series in 1926 and 1927.
- Negro National League (the second), 1933-1948.
- Negro American League, 1937-1960 or so. (After 1950, the league and its teams operated after a fashion, mostly as barnstorming units, but historians have a hard time deciding when the league actually came to an end.) The National and American Leagues met in a World Series from 1937 through 1948.
The end of the Negro Leagues
After the integration of the major leagues in 1947, as marked by the appearance of Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers that April, interest in Negro League baseball waned. Young players with enough talent were signed by major league teams, often without regard for any contracts that might have been signed with Negro League clubs. Negro League owners who complained about this practice were in a no-win situation: they could not protect their own interests without seeming to interfere with the advancement of players to the majors.
Some proposals were floated to bring the Negro Leagues into "organized baseball" as developmental leagues for black players, but this was seen as contrary to the goal of full integration of the sport. So the Negro Leagues, at one time one of the largest and most prosperous black-owned business ventures, were allowed to fade into oblivion.
One of the last of the Negro League teams was the Indianapolis Clowns, which continued to play exhibition games well into the 1970s.
The Negro Leagues and the Hall of Fame
In his United States Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech in 1966, Ted Williams made a strong plea for inclusion of Negro League stars in the Hall. After the publication of Robert Peterson's landmark book Only the Ball was White in 1970, the Hall of Fame found itself under renewed pressure to find a way to honor Negro League players who would have been in the Hall had they not been barred from the major leagues due to the color of their skin.
At first, the Hall of Fame planned a "separate but equal" display, which was criticized by the press, the fans and the players it was intended to honor. The Hall relented and agreed to admit Negro League players on an equal basis with their white counterparts in 1971. A special Negro League committee selected Satchel Paige in 1971, followed by (in alphabetical order) Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Martin Dihigo, Josh Gibson, Monte Irvin, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard and John Henry Lloyd. (Of the nine, only Irvin and Paige spent any time in the major leagues.) The Veterans Committee later selected additional players, including Ray Dandridge, Hilton Smith and Smoky Joe Williams, as well as choosing Rube Foster on the basis of meritorious service (though many feel he deserved selection as a player as well).
Other United States Baseball Hall of Famers who played in both the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues include Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Willie Mays, Leon Day, Monte irvin, and Jackie Robinson.
Books about the Negro Leagues
- Only the Ball was White by Robert Peterson (1970)
- Josh and Satch by John Holway; parallel biographies of Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige
- The Biographical Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball edited by James Riley (new edition 2001)
- Blackball Stars as told to John Holway; a collection of first-person accounts of the Negro Leagues by the men who played in them
- I Was Right On Time by Buck O'Neil
- Maybe I'll Pitch Forever by Satchel Paige
- Some Are Called Clowns by Bill Heward & Dimitri Gat (1974). The first white player with the Indianapolis Clowns tells of his 1973 season of barnstorming.
Books on black baseball pre-1920:
- A History of Colored Base Ball by Sol White. First printed in 1907 as Sol White's Official Base Ball Guide, now reprinted by the University of Nebraska ISBN 0803297831
- Negro Leagues Baseball Museum web site (Wikipedia entry for Negro Leagues Baseball Museum)