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How the Negro Leagues Worked

The Year Baseball Turned White
Long before Jackie Robinson took the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers, 19th-century black baseball players had tested the color line.
Long before Jackie Robinson took the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers, 19th-century black baseball players had tested the color line.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

In April 1865, the U.S. Civil War ended, allowing federal troops to enforce the earlier Emancipation Proclamation and free African-Americans still enslaved in the former Confederacy. Just two years later, in 1867, an African-American baseball team out of Philadelphia applied to professional baseball's governing body at the time, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), to join the league. The NABBP rejected the appeal.

Common knowledge might suggest that rejection killed any chance of integrated baseball for the next 70-odd years until the well-known MLB debut of Jackie Robinson in the 1940s. In fact, common knowledge is a little bit off. American baseball had been integrated -- albeit briefly -- long before Robinson took the field. In 1886, two black men played in the Majors: Brothers Moses Fleetwood Walker and Welday Walker played for the Toledo Blue Stockings for one year, until the team went out of business. At that point, the Majors went back to being all white, but minor league teams in the International League, governed by same National Association of Base Ball Players, continued to field black players [source: The Baseball Page]. In 1886/87, there were at least four black men in the minors, including Moses Walker, Bud Fowler, Frank Grant and George Stovey [source: The Baseball Page].

And then, they were all gone.

In 1890, after years of dealing with hate mail and threats from racist fans, players, umpires and executives, the leaders of American baseball succumbed to the pressure and quietly agreed to ban African-Americans from playing on their teams [source: The Baseball Page]. The few black men playing in the organization's minor leagues were fired, and the next black player on an otherwise white professional team would indeed be Jackie Robinson.

But African-Americans still played. Both before and after 1890, hundreds of local, all-black teams barnstormed across the country, traveling by car or bus to a baseball diamond in some small town. It was, as far as these things go, pretty spontaneous: They rolled into town and they played ball -- against other "Negro" teams, or local white teams, or anyone who showed up with a ball and bat [source: NLBM].

In all this barnstorming, unofficial leagues began to take form. Players developed followings, and teams gained reputations as "major" or "minor"-quality clubs. Future Hall-of-Famer Andrew "Rube" Foster, who owned of one of the most prestigious barnstorming teams of the time, saw an opportunity [source: NLBM].

And in 1920, he acted on it.