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How the Negro Leagues Worked


The Re-birth of the Negro Leagues

W.A. "Gus" Greenlee, a Pittsburgh bar owner, numbers runner and one-time bootlegger, acquired the Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team in 1931 [sources: Britannica, McKenna]. The team needed a league to showcase its talent, and so in 1933, Greenlee formed the second Negro National League [source: NLB]. He also organized the first East-West All-Star Game that year, which quickly became one of the Negro Leagues' most popular and profitable events [source: NLB].

Again, other leagues followed, most notably the Negro American League in 1937. It was the National and American leagues that came to be regarded by many as the "black majors" [source: NLB]. The National League Homestead Grays, fielding Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Buck Leonard, won the league championship game nine years straight [source: NLB].

For all the fuss about maintaining segregation in baseball, exhibition games between Negro League, major league and minor league teams happened regularly in the 1930s and '40s. They were well-attended by blacks and whites alike [source: NLB]. Racial slurs still occasionally rained from the stands, and plenty of hotels were still "whites only," but the Negro League teams won their share of the games, exhibiting talent that would ultimately make the top black players irresistible to the majors [source: NLB].

Through it all, barnstorming continued. Many players needed the extra income to maintain their careers in professional baseball, although in the 1940s, the best players were earning serious cash -- up to 10 times their take-home during the '20s [sources: Hill, Britannica]. Leroy "Satchel" Paige, best known for his unhittable pitches (he created the "hesitation pitch") and his audacious antics during games (he called outfielders in to watch him strike out a batter, sat in a rocking chair in the dugout, and said things like "I don't generally like running. I believe in training by rising gently up and down from the bench"), is believed to have been raking in $30,000 to $40,000 a year counting supplemental income from star appearances in non-League games [source: Britannica]. Adjusted for inflation, that would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars today [source: AFI].

It was in this environment, with Negro League players making it to star status, if on a smaller scale than the white pros, that a baseball executive named Branch Rickey decided to infuriate the upper echelons of his industry by integrating his team.