Most everyone knows that Jackie Robinson was
the first African-American to play major league baseball during
the modern era. Suprisingly, few people have given much thought
to how Robinson came to the attention of major league scouts,
where he played before signing with the Dodgers, or just what
the nature of baseball in the black community might have been
before professional baseball's integration.
In the following paragraphs we'll take a quick
trip through the years of baseball in black America that led up
to Robinson's 1947 debut in Brooklyn. Our tour is intended to
introduce those who are just learning about the Negro Leagues
to this fascinating era in the history of American sports and
There won't be much here to interest the baseball
afficianado -- just a brief introduction for those newly discovering
Negro League baseball.
1. The Baseball World Before 1890.
While it would be quite a stretch to say that
professional baseball in the North was integrated between the
end of the Civil War and 1890, quite a number of African-Americans
played alongside white athletes on minor league and major league
teams during the period. Although the original National Association
of Base Ball Players, formed in 1867, had banned black athletes,
by the late 1870s several African-American players were active
on the rosters of white, minor league teams. Most of these players
fell victim to regional prejudices and an unofficial color ban
after brief stays with white teams, but some notable exceptions
built long and solid careers in white professional baseball.
1884 the Stillwater, Minnesota club in the Northwestern league
signed John W. "Bud" Fowler, an African-American with
more than a decade's experience as an itinerate, professional
player. Fowler, a second-baseman by preference, played virtually
every position on the field for Stillwater, enhancing the reputation
that had brought him to the attention of white team owners. Fowler's
baseball career continued through the end of the 19th Century,
much of it spent on the rosters of minor league clubs in organized
1883 former Oberlin College star Moses "Fleetwood" Walker
began his professional career with Toledo in the Northwestern
League. A more than average hitter, Walker was among baseball's
finest catchers almost from the beginning of his career. When
the Toledo club joined the American Association in 1884 Walker
became the first black player to play with a major league franchise.
In 1886 both Walker and Fowler were in the white
minor leagues along with two other black stars, George Stovey
and Frank Grant. Doubtless, many other black players were playing
with teams in the "outlaw" leagues and independent barnstorming
clubs. At least in the North and Midwest the best black players
found a measure of tolerance, if not acceptance, in white baseball
until the end of the 1880s. But in 1890 this situation abruptly
As the season of 1890 began there were no black
players in the International League, the most prestigious of the
minor league circuits. Without making a formal announcement, a
gentlemen's agreement had been made which would bar black players
from participation for the next fifty-five years. Though black
players continued to find work in lesser leagues for a time, within
only a few short years no team in organized baseball would accept
black players. By the turn of the century the color barrier was
firmly in place.
2. Professional Black Baseball Comes To The
While Fowler, Walker, Grant and others were
working to find a spot (and keep it) in organized baseball, other
black players were pursuing careers with the more than 200 all-black
independent teams that performed throughout the country from the
early 1880s forward. Eastern teams like the powerful Cuban Giants,
Cuban X Giants and Harrisburg Giants played both independently
and in loosely organized leagues through the end of the century,
and in the early 1900s professional black baseball began to blossom
throughout America's heartland and even in the South.
The early years of the 20th Century saw an emergence
of several powerful black clubs in the Midwest. Teams like the
Chicago Giants, Indianapolis ABCs, St. Louis Giants and Kansas
City Monarchs rose to prominence and presented a legitimate challenge
to the claim of diamond supremacy made by Eastern clubs like the
Lincoln Giants in New York, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Cuban Stars
and Homestead (Pa.) Grays. In the South, black baseball was flourishing
in Birmingham's industrial leagues, and teams like the Nashville
Standard Giants and Birmingham Black Barons were establishing
solid regional reputations.
By the end of World War I black baseball had
become, perhaps, the number one entertainment attraction for urban
black populations throughout the country. It was at that time
that Andrew "Rube" Foster, owner of the Chicago American
Giants and black baseball's most influential personality, determined
that the time had arrived for a truly organized and stable Negro
league. Under Foster's leadership in 1920 the Negro National League
was born in Kansas City, fielding eight teams: Chicago American
Giants, Chicago Giants, Cuban Stars, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars,
Indianapolis ABCs, Kansas City Monarchs and St. Louis Giants.
In the same year Thomas T. Wilson, owner of
the Nashville Elite Giants, organized the Negro Southern League
with teams in Nashville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Montgomery
and New Orleans. Only three years later the Eastern Colored League
was formed in1923 featuring the Hilldale Club, Cuban Stars (East),
Brooklyn Royal Giants, Bacharach Giants, Lincoln Giants and Baltimore
The Negro National League continued on a sound
footing for most of the 1920s, ultimately succumbing to the financial
pressures of the Great Depression and dissolving after the 1931
season. The second Negro National League, organized by Pittsburgh
bar owner Gus Greenlee, quickly took up where Foster's league
left off and became the dominant force in black baseball from
1933 through 1949.
The Negro Southern League was in continuous
operation from 1920 through the 1940s and held the position as
black baseball's only operating major circuit for the 1931 season.
In 1937 the Negro American League was launched, bringing into
its fold the best clubs in the South and Midwest, and stood as
the opposing circuit to Greenlee's Negro National League until
the latter league disbanded after the 1949 season.
Despite the difficult econmic challenges posed
to the entire nation by the Depression, the three major Negro
League circuits weathered the storm and steadily built what was
to become one of the largest and most successful black-owned enterprises
in America. The existence and success of these leagues stood as
a testament to the determination and resolve of black America
to forge ahead in the face of racial segregation and social disadvantage.
The Golden Years Of Black Baseball
When Gus Greenlee organized the new Negro
National League in 1933 it was his firm intention to field the
most powerful baseball team in America. He may well have achieved
his goal. In 1935 his Pittsburgh Crawfords lineup showcased
the talents of no fewer than five future Hall-Of-Famers - Satchel
Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson and Oscar Charleston.
While the Crawfords were, undoubtedly, black
baseball's premier team during the mid-1930s, by the end of
the decade Cumberland Posey's Homestead Grays had wrested the
title from the Crawfords, winning 9 consecutive Negro National
League titles from the late 1930s through the mid-1940s. Featuring
former Crawfords stars Gibson and Bell, the Grays augmented
their lineup with Hall-Of-Fame talent such as that of power-hitting
firstbaseman Buck Leonard.
Contributing greatly to the ever-growing national
popularity of Negro League baseball during the 1930s and 1940s
was the East-West All-Star game played annually at Chicago's
Comiskey Park. Originally conceived as a promotional tool by
Gus Greenlee in 1933, the game quickly became black baseball's
most popular attraction and biggest money maker. From the first
game forward the East-West classic regularly packed Comiskey
Park while showcasing the Negro League's finest talent.
As World War II came to a close and the demands
for social justice swelled throughout the country, many felt
that it could not be long until baseball's color barrier would
come crashing down. Not only had African-Americans proven themselves
on the battlefield and seized an indisputable moral claim to
an equal share in American life, the stars of the black baseball
had proven their skills in venues like the East-West Classic
and countless exhibition games against major league stars. The
time for integration had come.
4. The Color Barrier Is Broken
Baseball's color barrier cracked on April
18, 1946 when Jackie Robinson, signed to the Dodgers organization
by owner Branch Rickey, made his first appearance with the
Montreal Royals in the International League. After a single
season with Montreal, Robinson joined the parent club and
helped propel the Dodgers to a National League pennant.
Along the way he also earned National League Rookie Of The
Robinson's success opened the floodgates
for a steady stream of black players into organized baseball.
Robinson was shortly joined in Brooklyn by Negro League
stars Roy Campanella, Joe Black and Don Newcombe, and Larry
Doby became the American League's first black star with
the Cleveland Indians. By 1952 there were 150 black players
in organized baseball, and the "cream of the crop"
had been lured from Negro League rosters to the integrated
minors and majors.
During the four years immediately following
Robinson's debut with the Dodgers virtually all of the Negro
Leagues' best talent had either left the league for opportunities
with integrated teams or had grown too old to attract the
attention of major league scouts. With this sudden and dramatic
departure of talent black team owners witnessed a financially
devastating decline in attendance at Negro League games.
The attention of black fans had forever turned to the integrated
major leagues, and the handwriting was on the wall for the
The Negro National League disbanded after
the 1949 season, never to return. After a long and successful
run black baseball's senior circuit was no longer a viable
commercial enterprise. Though the Negro American League
continued on throughout the 1950s, it had lost the bulk
of its talent and virtually all of its fan appeal. After
a decade of operating as a shadow of its former self, the
league closed its doors for good in 1962.
5. Only The Beginning Of The Story...
This brief narrative only capsulizes
the story of Negro League baseball. Delving further
into this fascinating era in American sports will
reveal a rich and colorful story which had profound
impact not only on our national pastime, but upon
America's social and moral development. It is a
story you won't want to miss!