Even an inkling of historical perspective tells us early-20th century America was not a wealth of opportunity for African-Americans. Jim Crow laws in the South, and general (if better-hidden) prejudices in the rest of the country kept black men and women from gaining much of a foothold in U.S. business at least until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. And yet, in that same early-20th century America, one black enterprise was thriving.
In baseball, black men were making a name for themselves -- as players, managers and owners. The Negro Leagues, the first of which took form in 1920, by most accounts rivaled Major League Baseball in talent by the 1940s [source: NLB]. They fielded the likes of Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Josh Gibson, Smokey Joe Williams and Jackie Robinson. There were dozens of teams, owned and run almost exclusively by African-Americans, playing at multiple levels in a half-dozen official leagues (and far more unofficial ones) all over the country [source: NLB]. They drew crowds. They played exhibition games against major league teams, and they often won [source: NLB].
Despite death threats from the stands, heckling laden with racial epithets, and days spent sleeping on busses instead of hotels in segregated towns, the Negro Leagues were a powerful force in pre-1950 baseball [source: Hill]. Integration in the majors would eventually make them obsolete, but before Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers made history, the top Negro Leagues, often referred to as the Negro Majors, were fielding some of the best baseball players of the century.
None of this happened overnight, of course. The story of what would come to be called the Negro Leagues begins, remarkably, only about two years after the end of American slavery.
The Year Baseball Turned White
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.
The Birth of the Negro Leagues
In 1920, Foster called a meeting of Midwestern team owners in Kansas City. There, seven all-black teams formed the first Negro National League, which opened with Foster's Chicago American Giants, the Chicago Giants (different team), the Cuban Stars, the Dayton Marcos, the Indianapolis ABCs, the Kansas City Monarchs and St. Louis Giants [source: NLB]. All except the Monarchs were black-owned [source: The Baseball Page].
The Negro Leagues, for their part, were integrated. They included several Latino teams, primarily Cuban-American, along with a white pitcher, Eddie Klep, who played briefly for the Cleveland Buckeyes in 1946. Klep was barred from taking the field with his black teammates when they played in the South [source: NLB].
After Foster got the ball rolling, other Negro Leagues quickly followed. Teams from Atlanta, Chattanooga, Birmingham, Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans came together in 1920 as the first Negro Southern League, which broke up the same year [source: NLBM]. The Eastern Colored League opened in 1923, and the American Negro League formed in 1928 [sources: NLB, NLB].
Black professional baseball saw success in the '20s. The first Negro League World Series took place in 1924 and continued annually until 1927 [source: BR]. But Foster's Midwestern league alone lasted the whole decade -- and just barely. The League took a hit in the opening years of Great Depression, and in 1931, following the financial collapse of '29 and Foster's death in 1930, the powerful Negro National League went out of business.
Two years later, a Pittsburgh businessman decided to bring it back.
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.
Rickey, Robinson and the Negro Leagues' Decline
Mainstream professional baseball had been whites-only for 55 years when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, who was with the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs at the time. It was 1945, and Dodgers executive Brach Rickey defied almost everyone in Major League Baseball to get Robinson on his top farm team [source: Jackie Robinson].
Robinson played in the minors in 1946 and moved to the majors the following year, taking the field in a Dodgers uniform for this first time on April 15, 1947. At the end of the season, he was named Rookie of the Year.
Next came Larry Doby (Cleveland Indians), Willard Brown (St. Louis Browns), Henry "Hank" Thompson (St. Louis Browns), Dan Bankhead (Brooklyn Dodgers), and Leroy "Satchel" Paige (Cleveland Indians) [source: The Baseball Page]. Paige was the first African-American pitcher in the majors and eventually became the oldest pitcher in major league history [source: Roberts]. He signed with the Indians in 1948, at the age of 42, and pitched in the majors until he was 59.
Change came quickly after 1948. By 1952, 150 black players were in major league uniforms, and by 1954, all but four major league teams were integrated [source: NLB]. The Boston Red Sox, the final hold-out, signed Elijah Green in 1959. Baseball integration was complete [source: The Baseball Page].
From the moment Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers, the Negro Leagues' fate was likely sealed. The majors signed the Negro Leagues' top players one by one, and by the early '50s, the fans had followed.
It was a bittersweet decline. The Negro Leagues represented something bigger than baseball in the broader context. They were a highly profitable enterprise owned and run entirely by African-Americans in a time when African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens, ignored in business, and just generally considered "less" in most of the country. Its importance to the black community at that time was inestimable [source: NLB].
The Negro National League disbanded in 1948. A few leagues continued to field black teams into the 1950s, but the quality of play just wasn't there. The Negro American League was the last to throw in the towel, in the early '60s [source: NLB]. All the stars had been gone for years.
The best African-American players had made it, finally, to the Big Leagues.
Author's Note: How the Negro Leagues Worked
One thing I found out while researching non-mainstream sports in the 1920s: Record-keeping was not quite what it is today.
I tried like heck to compile accurate lists of teams for each of the Negro Leagues' inaugural seasons, but ran into snags when I tried to confirm each list up with multiple sources. The Negro League Baseball Web site has most of the line-ups, but one, the 1933 Negro National League, was so different from other sources (which were different from other sources) that I finally gave up, lest I mislead.
Discrepancies are most likely due to the shuffling that often took place in the early days, weeks and months of new leagues. Teams were kicked out for violations, left to join other new leagues, or just disbanded, replaced by other teams that also played in their leagues' inaugural years.
So, if you're interested, check NegroLeagueBaseball.com for opening rosters, but look out for 1933. The Pittsburgh Crawfords team, by all other accounts, was definitely there from the beginning.
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