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In celebration of Black History Month
The Negro leagues were a collection of professional baseball leagues made up of predominantly black teams. The first attempt at a black league, the National Colored Base Ball League failed after just two weeks due to a lack of attendance. Several leagues came and went, some successful, some not. The leagues reached their heyday in the late 1930s and early 1940s. During World War II, millions of black Americans were working in defense plants and, making good money, they packed league games in every city. The leagues’ ultimate demise started in 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. After that, first a trickle and then a flood of players from the Negro leagues were signed by Major League Baseball teams. By 1949, the Negro American League was the only "major" Negro League circuit still in operation, and by 1955 the last of the Negro League teams folded.
Octavius Catto, black baseball pioneer Negro league baseball was a direct result of baseball’s color line. The first black-versus-black baseball game was held on September 28, 1860 at Elysian Fields in Brooklyn, New York. The Weeksville of New York beat the Colored Union Club 11-0. At this point in time, baseball was hardly a sport, let alone organized. It was mostly deemed a recreation around which social gatherings were held. The rules were also greatly different from those of the game as played currently.
By 1865, shortly after the end of the American Civil War and during the Reconstruction period that followed, a black baseball scene formed in the East and Mid-Atlantic states.
Comprised of mostly ex-soldiers and promoted by some well-known black officers, teams such as the Jamaica Monitor Club, Albany Bachelors, Philadelphia Excelsiors and the Chicago Uniques started playing each other and any other team that would play against them.
By the end of the 1860s, the black baseball mecca was Philadelphia. Two former cricket players, James H. Francis and Francis Wood, formed the Pythians who, because permits were difficult to get for black baseball games, played in Camden, Pennsylvania at the landing of the Federal Street Ferry. Octavius Catto, the promoter of the Pythians, decided to apply for official recognition of the Pythians by the National Association of Base Ball Players during its annual convention in December 1867. The association passed a resolution that excluded "any club which may be composed of one or more colored players."
Blackball continued to thrive despite the segregation, with the few black teams of the day playing not only each other, but white teams as well. On October 10, 1871, Catto was leaving the Institute for Colored Youth when he was murdered by a white man. With his death came the death of the best Negro team of the time, the Pythians.
Moses Fleetwood Walker, possibly the first African-American professional baseball player with the formation of the National Association of Professional Baseball Players in 1871, amateur baseball became a thing of the past. Research shows that the first professional black baseball player may have been William Edward White, who played one game in 1879 for the Providence Grays of the National League. Also accepted as the first black professional player is Bud Fowler who played for Stillwater, Minnesota club of the minor league Northwestern League in 1884. Several African-American players did manage to attain big league status. Among the very first was Moses Fleetwood Walker who played for the Toledo Blue Stockings during their first year in the American Association. Walker lasted until mid-season when an injury gave the team an excuse to release him. Then, in 1886, Frank Grant joined the Buffalo Bisons of the International League, hitting .340, third highest in the league.
The first black professional baseball team was formed in 1885 when former waiters and porters from the Argyle Hotel in Babylon, New York were spotted by a white businessman from Trenton, New Jersey, Walter Cook. Cook named the team the Cuban Giants so that he could attract more white fans. Shortly after the Giants’ formation, the Jacksonville, Florida newspaper, the Leader, assembled the first Negro league, the Southern League of Base Ballists. The Southern League was comprised of ten teams: the Memphis Eclipse, the Georgia Champions of Atlanta, the Savannah Broads, the Memphis Eurekas, the Savannah Lafayettes, the Charleston Fultons, the Jacksonville Athletics, the New Orleans Unions, the Florida Clippers of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Macedonias. The league played its first game on June 7, a game between the Eclipse and the Unions in New Orleans, Louisiana. The league, deep in debt, lasted only one year.
The success of the Cubans led to the creation of the second Negro league in 1887 called the National Colored Base Ball League. The league was founded with nine teams: Boston Resolutes; New York Gorham; Philadelphia Pythians; Washington Capital Cities; Pittsburgh Keystones; Norfolk Red Stockings; Cincinnati Crowns; Lord Baltimores and the Louisville Fall Cities. The Giants and the Keystones took first and second place in the first two years, with the Giants crowned as inaugural champions in 1888. Walter S. Brown, a black Baltimore businessman and league president, applied for and was granted official minor league status by the National League. This move "prevented" any other team from signing any of the players from the League, but also locked the players in the league to their teams because of the reserve clause. One month into the season, the Resolutes folded. A week later, there were only three teams left.
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 (the renamed Cuban Giants), Royal Giants, the Baltimore Giants and the Cuban X-Giants, the latter a powerhouse in the early 1900s. The "Cuban" teams, with the exception of the New York 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, as Cuba was on very friendly terms with the US during those years.
The few players left on the white minor league teams were constantly dodging verbal and physical abuse from both competitors and fans. Then Rutherford B. Hayes signed the Compromise of 1877, and all the legal obstacles were removed from the South enacting the Jim Crow laws. To make matters worse, on July 14, 1887, Cap Anson’s Chicago White Stockings were scheduled to play the Newark Giants of the International League who had Walker and George Stovey on its roster. After Anson marched his team onto the field, military style as was his custom, he demanded that the blacks not play. Newark capitulated, and later that same day league owners voted to refuse future contracts to blacks, citing the "hazards" imposed by such athletes. The American Association and National League quickly followed suit. In 1888, the Middle States League was formed and it admitted two all-black teams to its otherwise all-white league, the Cuban Giants and their arch-rivals, the New York Gorhams. Despite the animosity between the two clubs, they managed to form a traveling team, the Colored All Americans. This enabled them to make money barnstorming while fulfilling their league obligations. In 1890, the Giants returned to their independent, barnstorming identity, and by 1892, they were the only black team in the East still in operation on a full-time basis.
Chicago Union Giants in 1905, also in 1888, Frank Leland got some of Chicago’s black businessmen to sponsor the black amateur Union Base Ball Club. Chicago’s city government, Leland obtained a permit and lease to play at the South Side Park, a 5,000 seat facility. Eventually his team went pro and became the Chicago Unions.
After his stint with the Gorhams, Bud Fowler caught on with a team out of Findlay, Ohio. While his team was playing in Adrian, Michigan, Fowler was persuaded by two white local businessmen, L. W. Hoch and Rolla Taylor to help them start a team financed by the Page Woven Wire Fence Company, the Page Fence Giants. The Page Fence Giants went on to become a powerhouse team that had no home field. Barnstorming through the Midwest, they would play all-comers. Their success became the prototype for black baseball for years to come.
After the 1898 season, the Page Fence Giant were forced to fold because of finances. Alvin H. Garrett, a black businessman in Chicago, and John W. Patterson, the left fielder for the Page Fence Giants, reformed the team under the name of the Columbia Giants. In 1901 the Giants folded because of a lack of a place to play. Leland bought the Giants and merged it with his Unions (despite not a single Giant player ending up on the roster) and named them the Chicago Union Giants.
The Philadelphia Giants, owned by Walter Schlichter, a white businessman, rose to prominence in 1903 when they lost to the Cuban X-Giants in their version of the "Colored Championship". Leading the way for the Cubans was a young pitcher by the name of Andrew "Rube" Foster. The following season, Schlichter, in the finest blackball tradition, hired Foster away from the Cubans, and beat them in their 1904 rematch. Philadelphia remained on top of the blackball world until Foster left the team in 1907 to play and manage the Leland Giants (Frank Leland renamed his Chicago Union Giants the Leland Giants in 1905).
Around the same time, Nat Strong, a white businessmen, started using his ownership of baseball fields in the New York City area to become the leading promoter of blackball on the East coast. Just about any game played in New York, Strong would get a cut. Strong eventually used his leverage to put the Brooklyn Royal Giants almost out of business, and then he bought the club and turned it into a barnstorming team.
When Foster joined the Leland Giants, he demanded that he be put in charge in not only the on field activities, but the bookings as well. Foster immediately turned the Giants into the team to beat. He indoctrinated them to take the extra base, to play hit and run on nearly every pitch and to rattle the opposing pitcher by taking them deep into the count. He studied the mechanics of his pitchers and could spot the smallest flaw, turning his average pitchers into learned craftsmen. Foster also was able to turn around the business end of the team as well, by demanding and getting 40 percent of the gate instead of the 10 percent that Frank Leland was getting.
By the end of the 1909, Foster demanded that Leland step back from all baseball operations or Foster would leave. When Leland wouldn’t give up complete control, Foster quit, and in a heated court battle, got to keep the rights to the Leland Giants’ name. Leland took the players and started a new team named the Chicago Giants, while Foster took the Leland Giants and started to encroach on Nat Strong’s territory.
As early as 1910, Foster started talking about reviving the concept of an all-black league. The one thing he was insistent on that black teams should be owned by black men. This put him in direct competition with Strong. After the 1912, Foster renamed his team the Chicago American Giants to appeal to a larger fan base. During the same year, J.L. Wilkerson started the All Nations traveling team. The All Nations team would eventually become one of the most well known and popular teams of the Negro leagues, the Kansas City Monarchs.
On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I. Manpower needed by the defense plants and industry accelerated the migration of blacks from the South to the North. This meant a larger fan base that had more money to draw from. By the end of the war in 1919, Foster was again ready to start a Negro baseball league.
On February 13 and 14, 1920, talks where held in Kansas City, Missouri that established the Negro National League and its governing body the National Association of Colored Professional Base Ball Clubs. The league was initially comprised of eight teams: Chicago American Giants, Chicago Giants, Cuban Stars, Dayton Macros, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis ABC’s, Kansas City Monarchs and St. Louis Giants. Foster was named league president and control every aspect of the league, including who played where and when and what equipment was used (all of which had to be purchased from Foster). Foster, as booking agent of the league, took a 10 percent cut of all gate receipts.
On May 20, 1920, The Indianapolis ABCs beat the Chicago American Giants in the first game played in the inaugural season of the Negro National League. But, because of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, the National Guard still occupied the Giants’ home field, Schorling’s Park (formerly South Side Park). This forced Foster to cancel all the Giants’ home games for almost a month and threatened to become a huge embarrassment for the league. In 1921, the Negro Southern League, a regional black semipro league, joined Foster’s National Association of Colored Professional Base Ball Clubs. As a dues paying member of the association, it received the same protection from raiding parties as any team in the Negro National League.
Foster then admitted John Connors’ Atlantic City Bacharach Giants as an associate member to move further into Nat Strong’s territory. Connors, wanting to return the favor of helping him against Strong, raided Ed Bolden’s Hilldale team. Bolden saw little choice but to team up with Foster’s nemesis, Nat Strong. Within days of calling a truce with Strong, Bolden made an about face and signed up as an associate member of Foster’s Negro National League.
On December 16, 1922, Bolden once again shifted sides and, with Strong, formed the Eastern Colored League as an alternative to Foster’s Negro National League. The league started with six teams: Atlantic City Bacharach Giants, Baltimore Black Sox, Brooklyn Royal Giants, New York Cuban Stars, Hilldale, and New York Lincoln Giants. The National League was having trouble maintaining continuity among its franchises. Three teams folded and had to be replaced after the 1921 season, two others after the 1922 season and two more after the 1923 season. Foster kept replacing the defunct teams, calling teams up from the Negro Southern League. Finally Foster and Bolden met and agreed to an annual Negro League World Series beginning in 1924.
1925 saw the St. Louis Stars come of age in the Negro National League. They finished in second place during the second half of the year due in large part to their pitcher turned center fielder, Cool Papa Bell, and their shortstop, Willie Wells. After a gas leak nearly asphyxiated Foster, he was ruled insane because of his erratic behavior and committed to Kankakee Asylum. The last Negro League World Series between Foster’s Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League occurred in 1927. While Foster was out of the picture, the owners of the National League elected William C. Hueston as new league president. In 1927, Bolden suffered a similar fate as Foster, by committing himself to a hospital because the pressure was too great.
In 1927, the Eastern League folded, but was quickly reformed into the American Negro League. The teams in the new American Negro League were the same ones from the Eastern League, with the exception of the Brooklyn Royal Giants which had folded and the addition of the Homestead Grays. The American Negro League lasted just one season. The Negro National League folded after the 1931 season. Some of its teams joined the only Negro league left, the Negro Southern League.
Just as Negro league baseball seemed was at its lowest point and was about to fade into history, along came Cumberland Posey and his Homestead Grays. Posey used the popularity of the Grays as a foundation of a new Negro league in 1932, the East-West League. Joining his Homestead Grays, were the Cleveland Stars, Newark Browns, Washington Pilots, Detroit Wolves, Hillsdale Daises, Baltimore Black Sox, and the Midwest edition of the Cuban Stars. By May 1932, the Detroit Wolves were about to collapse and instead of letting the team go, Posey kept pumping money into it. By June the Wolves had disintegrated and all the rest of the teams, except for the Grays, were beyond help, so Posey had to terminate the league.
Across town from Posey, Gus Greenlee, a reputed gangster and numbers runner, had just purchased the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Greenlee’s main interest in baseball was to use it as a way to launder money from his numbers games. But, after learning about Posey’s money making machine in Homestead, he became obsessed with the sport and his Crawfords. On August 6, 1931, Satchel Paige made his first appearance as a Crawford. With Paige on his team, Greenlee took a huge risk by investing 0,000 in a new ballpark to be called Greenlee Field. On opening day, April 30, 1932, the pitcher-catcher battery was made up of the two most marketable icons in all of blackball: Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.
In 1933, Greenlee, riding the popularity of his Crawfords, decided to be the next man to start a Negro league. In February 1933, Greenlee and delegates from six other teams met at Greenlee’s Crawford Grill to ratify the constitution of the National Organization of Professional Baseball Clubs. The name of the new league was the same as the old league, Negro National League. The members of the new league were the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Columbus Blue Birds, Indianapolis ABCs, Baltimore Black Sox, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Cole’s American Giants (formerly the Chicago American Giants and Nashville Elite Giants. Greenlee also came up with the idea to duplicate the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, except, unlike the big league method, in which the sportswriters chose the players, the fans voted on the participants.
The new version of the Negro National League did well enough that it admitted two more teams for the 1934 season, the Philadelphia Stars and Newark Dodgers. The league continued to thrive despite the departure of its number one star, Paige, who chose to play for more money in Bismarck, North Dakota. Paige returned to the Crawfords for the 1936 season, much to the delight of Greenlee.
In 1937, Greenlee gave his blessing for J.L. Wilkerson to create a new Negro league in the Midwest, the Negro American League. The teams that made up the league were the Chicago American Giants (shifting to its appropriate geographical conference), Birmingham Black Barons, Cincinnati Tigers, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis Athletics, Kansas City Monarchs, Memphis Red Sox and St. Louis Stars. But before the beginning of the season, Paige signed to play in the Dominican Republic and took six other men with him, including Gibson and Bell. As a result, the league banned its number one player, Paige. Midway through the 1937 season, Greenlee was ousted as president in a coup led by Posey. After the season, the league rescinded the bans on the players that left and Greenlee ended up selling Paige’s contract to Effa Manley’s Newark Eagles. Instead of playing for the Eagles, Paige jumped to the Mexican League. In a meeting with other team owners, the Eagles threatened to pull out of the league, and take several teams with them, if the Paige issue wasn’t resolved. The Eagles signed two players from the Toledo Crawfords in exchange for letting go of the rights to Paige, narrowly averting disaster for the Negro National League. In late September 1940, Paige made his debut with the Kansas City Monarchs.
With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States was thrust into World War II, and unlike World War I, black society in general vowed it would not be shut out of American war effort and its unifying effects at home. Just like the major leagues, the Negro leagues saw its share of stars miss one or more seasons fighting overseas, but, whereas the white major leagues was barely recognizable due to the absence of its stars, the Negro leagues reached its plateau. Things were going so well for the Negro leagues that Abe Saperstein, of the Harlem Globetrotters fame, started a new Negro circuit, the Negro Midwest League, a minor league similar to the Negro Southern League.
The Negro League World Series was revived in 1942, this time pitting the winners of the eastern Negro National League against the winners of the midwestern Negro American League, and continued until 1948, with the NNL winning four championships and the NAL three.
The Great Paige/Gibson Confrontation
A frequently-told legend of Black Baseball involves Game Two of the 1942 World Series on September 8, focusing upon two of Blackball’s most famous legends, Satchel Paige of the Kansas City Monarchs and Josh Gibson of the Homestead Grays in a legendary matchup. Unfortunately, a great deal of it is just that: legend and not truth.
According to the legend as frequently told in one form, Paige came into the game in the seventh inning with a 2-0 lead. He gave up a triple to leadoff batter Jerry Benjamin. With one man on and two out, Paige intentionally walked the next two batters, Vic Harris and Luke Easterling, so he could face the most feared hitter in all of baseball, Gibson, with the bases loaded. Paige threw two fastballs that Gibson fouled off, and then a third that Gibson completely missed. The story is also told as having happened in the ninth inning with the winning runs on base.
According to recent SABR research, Paige entered the game in the sixth inning, protecting a 2-0 lead for fellow Hall of Famer Hilton Smith, and after the lead had been extended to 5-0 in the eighth inning, Paige tired and surrendered four runs in the bottom of the inning, but ended the inning by getting Gibson for the final out. The Monarchs scored three more runs in the ninth to make the final score 8-4, with Smith earning the victory and Paige earning a save. While it is known that Paige struck two or three men out (accounts differ) during the game, there is no contemporary evidence that Gibson was himself a strikeout victim. What is known for certain is that neither of the two men who batted directly in front of Gibson (who was the cleanup batter in the Grays’ lineup) walked during that game. While is is possible that Paige struck out Gibson with the bases loaded to end the eighth inning, he did not walk the two batters in front of him, intentionally or not, to get to him.
The first account of this legend was told by Paige himself in his autobiography "Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever", about twenty years after the alleged incident and fifteen years after Gibson’s death, but contemporary evidence of it is sorely lacking. Buck O’Neil’s re-telling of the story is likely based upon Paige’s telling in the book, with a number of embellishments added over the years. As with much of Baseball’s Apocrypha, this one has a grain of truth to give it some weight, but has likely been embellished over the years.
In 1944, Bill Veeck tried to buy the Philadelphia Phillies with the intention of signing black ballplayers immediately. When Judge Landis, Baseball Commissioner, commissioner of Major League Baseball, was informed of Veeck’s plan, he had the National League buy the team and award it to William Cox. (Although this story has long been part of accepted baseball lore, in recent years, its veracity has been disputed by some researchers.)
In March 1945, the white majors created the Major League Committee on Baseball Integration. Its members included Joseph P. Rainey, Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey. Because MacPhail, who was an outspoken critic of integration, kept stalling, the committee never met. Under the guise of starting an all-black league, Rickey sent scouts all around the United States, Mexico and Puerto Rico, looking for the perfect candidate to break the color line. His list eventually was narrowed down to three, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson.
On August 28, 1945, Jackie Robinson met with Rickey in Brooklyn where Rickey gave Robinson a "test" by berating him and shouting racial epithets that Robinson would hear from day one in the white game. Having passed the test, Robinson signed the contract which stipulated that from then on, Robinson had no "written or moral obligations" to any other club. By the inclusion of this clause, precedent was set that would raze the Negro leagues as a functional commercial enterprise.
To throw off the press and keep his intentions hidden, Rickey got heavily involved in Gus Greenlee’s newest foray into black baseball, the United States League. Greenlee started the league in 1945 as a way to get back at the owners of the Negro National League teams for throwing him out. Rickey saw the opportunity as a way to convince people that he was interested in cleaning up blackball, not integrating it. In midsummer of 1945, Rickey, almost ready with his Robinson plan, pulled out of the league. The league folded after the end of the 1946 season.
Pressured by civil rights groups, the Fair Employment Practices Act was passed by the New York State Legislature in 1945. This followed the passing of the Quinn-Ives Act banning discrimination in hiring. At the same time, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia formed the Mayor’s Commission on Baseball to study integration of the major leagues. This all led to Rickey announcing the signing of Robinson much earlier than he would have liked. On October 23, 1945, Montreal Royals president Hector Racine announced that, "We are signing this boy."
Early in 1946, Rickey signed four more black players, Campanella, Newcombe, John Wright and Roy Partlow, this time to much less fanfare. 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. By 1948, only the Dodgers and Veeck’s Cleveland Indians had integrated. While Robinson was quickly becoming a star, it was the performance of Larry Doby in 1948 that convinced most owners that black players had the ability to compete in the major leagues.
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. After the 1948 season the Negro National league folded when the Grays withdrew to go back to barnstorming, Eagles moved to Houston, Texas and the New York Black Yankees folded. The Grays ended up folding after the 1949 season having lost ,000 trying to barnstorm. Many black players were signed to minor league contracts only to move from one bush league team to another, rarely getting the chance to play in the majors despite their success in the minors. The Negro American League played its last game in 1958.
The last of the Negro league teams the Indianapolis Clowns continued to play exhibition games into the 1980s as a curiosity and sideshow rather than a serious baseball team.
Negro National League (first), 1920–1931
Eastern Colored League, 1923–1928; the NNL and ECL champions met in a World Series from 1924 to 1927.
American Negro League lasted just one season 1929 created from some of the ECL teams.
East-West League played part of one season in 1932.
Negro Southern League was a minor league that played from 1920 into the 1940s; in 1932 it incorporated some teams from the first Negro National League and functioned for one year as a major league.
Negro National League (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 Negro League World Series from 1942 through 1948.
In his 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 Major League 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 Ray Dandridge, as well as choosing Rube Foster on the basis of meritorious service (though many feel he deserved selection as a player as well).
From 1995 to 2001, the Hall made a renewed effort to select additional luminaries from the Negro Leagues; honorees during this period include Leon Day, Bill Foster, Bullet Joe Rogan, Hilton Smith, Turkey Stearnes, Willie Wells, and Smokey Joe Williams.
Other members of the Hall who played in both the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues include Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Willie Mays, and Jackie Robinson. However, their play in the Negro Leagues was usually a minor factor in their selection — Aaron, Banks and Mays played only briefly in the Negro Leagues, and not during the years when these leagues were at peak quality due to the fact that many of the best black players had moved to the integrated minor leagues; Campanella (1969) and Robinson (1962) were selected before the Hall began considering performance in the Negro Leagues.