A historical profile of the Negro Leagues, which consisted of various Black teams and Black baseball leagues that operated during the time of major league baseball’s color barrier. Black Baseball clubs and teams had existed before the major leagues so they were able to continue playing against each other despite being shut out. Under Rube Foster’s vision and guidance, the Negro Leagues experienced its first period of prosperity during what came to be referred to as the “golden age of Black baseball”. The Negro Leagues would continue to exist though ebbing and flowing at points until the integration of the major leagues.
While working at my first post-college job I was offered the opportunity to attend my first live sporting event, a baseball game. Baseball is referred to as America’s pastime but I don’t know any close friends or family members, myself included, who are fans of the sport. I had no particular interest in the game but welcomed the opportunity to have a new experience and visit the still relatively new Citi Field. It turned out to be a pretty good experience though I don’t think it did much for my lack of passion for the game.
Since that night, I hadn’t given more than a passing thought to baseball. That is until I read Forty Million Dollar Slaves by William C. Rhoden. The book focuses on the evolution of Black athletes in mainstream society. It discusses how rules were created in various sports to disadvantage or exclude Black athletes from mainstream sports. And how in exchange for acceptance and money, Black athletes are typically put on development tracks that train them to not be outspoken about social or racial issues. Overall, it’s an insightful book but it’s telling of the story of the Negro Leagues was most memorable to me. I enjoyed learning about how the leagues were built and how they, like many other independent Black organizations, met their demise following integration.
Erecting the Color Barrier in Major League Baseball
Modern Baseball developed in New York during the first half of the 1800s. It spread around the country as men from rival athletic clubs competed against each other while formalizing the rules of the game. New York alone had multiple all-Black clubs by the 1850s. As the sport grew in popularity Black, White, and integrated clubs played in single-race and integrated games. But a few years after the end of the Civil War members of the National Association of Amateur Baseball came to an unwritten gentleman’s agreement to deny membership for Black clubs and any teams with Black players.
As various professional baseball leagues were later founded the restrictions from the amateur leagues did not always apply. Moses Fleetwood Walker became the first Black player in the major leagues when he joined the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884. Other Black players also managed to join teams at this time though they had to contend with hostility from other players as well as team owners and organizers some of whom threatened to boycott games against teams that had Black players.
From the late 1880s to the turn of the century Black players faced continued pressure aimed at forcing them out of the major leagues. To get around this some Black players continued to play by passing themselves off as dark-skinned Latinos or Native Americans. But shortly after the turn of the century, there were no Black players in any of the White major leagues.
The Emergence of the Negro Leagues
Black Baseball clubs and teams had existed before the major leagues so they were able to continue playing against each other despite being shut out. In 1885, the Cuban Giants were founded in Babylon, New York as the first Black professional team. There were efforts to establish a professional Black league as early as the 1880s but none survived for any meaningful amount of time. For example, the National Colored Baseball League was established in 1887 as the first Black league. Despite managing to launch with eight teams the league faltered in a few weeks because of weak attendance. But clubs continued to organize games and even held national championships.
More attempts were made to organize leagues after the turn of the century. One championship game organized by the International League of Independent Baseball Clubs managed to attract 10,000 attendees to a championship between two Black teams but the league collapsed shortly thereafter. Various factors put Black leagues at a disadvantage but one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome was lack of ownership of stadiums.
White booking agents became incredibly powerful in Black baseball because they controlled access to stadiums, when teams played, and the flow of revenue. Most Black teams didn’t own their stadiums so they had to rely on White booking agents for access to stadiums that were large enough to hold their crowds.
Booking agents collected the revenue generated by ticket sales and then took their cut from the proceeds before distributing the remainder to team owners who would then pass on the money to players, managers, etc. This granted them control over the leagues, team owners, and players. Any player or team owner who threatened a booking agent’s authority could find themselves off the team or unable to procure a stadium where their team could play.
Rube Foster Organizes the Negro National League
Andrew “Rube” Foster made a name for himself in the early 1900s as the best pitcher in Black baseball. Foster played for the Waco Yellow Jackets and the Chicago Union Giants before joining the Cuban X-Giants and winning the Black World Series. His reputation as a pitcher extended beyond Black baseball as he faced off against star major league pitchers in exhibition games. But ultimately, Foster’s performance on the field would pale in comparison to his contributions as a team owner and manager.
In February 1920, Foster called for a meeting of Black team owners in Kansas City. He proposed his plan to launch the Negro National League (NNL) presenting the meeting attendees with a pre-planned charter. By this time, Foster had achieved financial success as the owner of the Chicago American Giants and could have continued to operate independently. But he saw how Black team owners and players were being taken advantage of by White booking agents and thought something should be done.
Foster had spent at least a year on public relations by writing articles and communicating with team owners. He worked to overcome their fears of giving up their independence to organize into a league. After the meeting, plans were put in place to launch the league with seven teams.
With Foster’s vision and organization, the NNL achieved the financial success that had eluded earlier Negro Leagues on the field. The NNL created a platform for the many Black players who would go on to become legends in baseball. The league’s success led to the creation of the Eastern Colored League and the Southern Negro League which were comprised of teams representing the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast respectively. Crowds flocked to games to see baseball players who looked like them and to cheer on their favorite teams. The leagues held an annual championship series featuring all-Black teams that attracted huge crowds.
Tough Times for the Negro Leagues
Unfortunately, Foster suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalized which resulted in his premature retirement as the league’s president in 1926 and his death in 1930. Things had not been perfect under his leadership but Foster helped to provide the guidance, stability, and discipline needed to keep the league on track. Players and teams would now prove themselves to be undependable. Players took advantage of their ability to move between teams by abandoning one team for another in pursuit of larger paychecks. Teams likewise would not show up for a scheduled game if an opportunity to play in a more financially rewarding game appeared. With the start of the Great Depression in the late 1920s, ticket sales slowed and some of the leagues and teams collapsed.
The Negro Leagues sputtered along with several starts and stops during the 1930s. A new Negro National League was established by Gus Greenlee, a numbers runner from Pittsburgh. In its initial form, the league had teams from the East and Midwest. Greenlee held an East-West All-Star game at Chicago’s Comiskey Park which drew tens of thousands. When the Negro American League was established in 1937, it was comprised of some of the teams from the original Negro National League. But, this new crop of team owners featured some individuals who had made their money from vice industries and thus were able to purchase their ballparks or at least more reliably procure venues.
World War II provided well-paying jobs for many Black people. With more disposable income, Black baseball fans attended more Negro League games. Black baseball became one of the leading Black controlled industries and generated an estimated $2 million per year in revenue. This reverse in fortunes boosted salaries for all players. Star pitcher Satchel Paige earned $30-40,000 a year playing for several independent teams. Players appeared in games across the country and some even played internationally. In addition to Gus Greenlee’s East-West All-Star Game, the Negro World Series was also relaunched and both events drew huge crowds. In 1942, several million fans attended Negro League baseball games.
Organized baseball had never publicly acknowledged the existence of a ban on Black players. But since the 1930s, Black sports columnists had been calling for an end to the color barrier in major league baseball. In an attempt to quiet down the complaints, a few major league teams held half-hearted tryouts for Black players.
Jackie Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia but moved to Pasadena, California as a toddler where he grew up to became a four-sport athlete and attended UCLA. After stints in the military and playing football he joined the Kansas City Monarchs as a rookie shortstop. Robinson participated in some of the early major league tryouts for Black players. In 1945, he signed a secret contract with the Dodgers organization after some back-and-forth with the team’s general manager. Robinson then spent a year playing in the minor leagues for the Montreal Royals, a Dodgers affiliated team. Jackie Robinson made his debut in major league baseball on April 15th, 1947 becoming the first Black major league player in over 60 years.
Three months later Larry Doby became the second Black player in the major leagues when he joined the Cleveland Indians. Additional Black players were brought into the major leagues with Satchel Paige becoming the oldest rookie when he joined the league at the age of 42. These extraordinary athletes brought their fast and entertaining style of play from the Negro Leagues to the majors changing the game forever.
More and more veteran stars and promising rookies left the Negro Leagues for the minor and major leagues. This created a vacuum in the Negro Leagues that team owners tried to fill by adding White and female players as attractions. The Negro Leagues began to die off as a result of the loss of so many great players. Financial issues led to the collapse of the Negro National League in 1948. But despite low attendance and a drastic decrease in talent the Negro American League continued to operate until 1960.
As explained in Forty Million Dollar Slaves, this was Rube Foster’s vision to a degree. He believed that Black talent was undeniable and major league baseball would eventually be integrated. But the Negro Leagues could be used to find, develop, and prepare Black baseball players for integration. Though his vision differed from reality in the sense that he thought the best teams from the Negro Leagues would be taken whole into the major or minor leagues. And that Black team owners and managers would continue to operate those teams. In reality, the teams were carved up and only the best players were taken to the major leagues while the other players, managers, and owners were discarded.
I’m still not interested in baseball but Rube Foster and some of the other league leaders’ vision, organization, and strategic thinking are incredibly inspiring. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was established in Kansas City, Missouri in 1990. I don’t think I’m particularly interested in learning about any of the players or game stats but it might be worth checking out if you’re a fan of the sport.
- Kelly, Matt. n.d. “The Negro National League Is Founded.” Baseball Hall of Fame. Accessed May 5, 2020. https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/stories/inside-pitch/negro-national-league-is-founded.
- Lewis, Femi. 2019. “Negro Baseball League Timeline.” ThoughtCo. ThoughtCo. December 12, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/negro-baseball-league-timeline-45421.
- “Negro League Baseball.” 2017. History.com. A&E Television Networks. April 13, 2017. https://www.history.com/topics/sports/negro-league-baseball.
- Peterson, Robert W. 2018. “Negro League.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. May 10, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/sports/Negro-league.
- Waggoner, Cassandra. 2007. “Negro Baseball Leagues (1920-1950).” Blackpast.org. December 3, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/negro-baseball-leagues-1920-1950/.
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