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How the Negro Leagues Worked

Rickey, Robinson and the Negro Leagues' Decline

"Hammerin' Hank" Aaron, the homerun king, pictured here late in his career with the Atlanta Braves, started as a teen in the Negro Leagues. He was the last regular MLB player to have started in the Negro Leagues.
"Hammerin' Hank" Aaron, the homerun king, pictured here late in his career with the Atlanta Braves, started as a teen in the Negro Leagues. He was the last regular MLB player to have started in the Negro Leagues.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

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 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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  • Hill, Justice B. "Traveling show." MLB. (Jan. 29, 2013)
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