The Negro leagues, as they were commonly called, featured outstanding African American baseball players throughout approximately the first half of the twentieth century. The Negro leagues attracted large crowds to their games as baseball became an important part of black culture and, during the 1930s and 1940s, the largest black-owned industry in the country. The desire for the same opportunity to achieve fame and fortune that white players enjoyed led eventually to integration of the major leagues in 1947. Once the major leagues were open to African American players, the Negro leagues went into a sharp decline as the best black players, given a choice, trained their sights on the majors. By the end of the 1960 season, the final Negro league had died.
The Negro leagues grew out of a longstanding passion for baseball on the part of African Americans that originated during slavery, when slaves played versions of the game with a ball made from a piece of cloth wrapped around boiled chicken feathers. From the beginning, baseball had been largely, though not entirely, segregated. The first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869, excluded blacks, as did the first professional league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, created in 1871.
Despite their exclusion from much of white baseball, at least a few African Americans played on predominantly white teams in the National Association of Base Ball Players, an association of amateur teams that was formed in 1858, even while all-black teams were developing in the 1860s. An occasional African American made it into white professional baseball, such as Bud Fowler, born, ironically, in Cooperstown, New York, site of the future National Baseball Hall of Fame. The most notable exception to the all-white rule was Moses Fleetwood Walker, a gifted athlete who caught in 1884 for Toledo of the American Base Ball Association, at the time a major league. Even the minimal integration that had occurred came to an end in 1887 when Cap Anson, the player-manager for the Chicago White Stockings, refused to compete against Newark of the International League, for whom Walker was playing. Newark benched Walker rather than lose the revenue from the game. By 1889, the last few African American players in organized ball were gone, and a gentlemen’s agreement to exclude blacks would remain in force until the signing of Jackie Robinson.
The result of this exclusion was not the end of African American interest in baseball but rather formation of all-black teams and leagues. A leading Negro league pioneer was Rube Foster, a great pitcher who received his nickname form outpitching the ace of the Philadelphia Athletics, Rube Waddell. Foster, the manager as well as a player for the Chicago Leland Giants, led his team in 1909 into the Park Owners Association, so named because teams were required to own their own ballparks. The following year, Foster formed his own team, the Chicago American Giants, which remained the most powerful team in the association and continued its dominance during the early years of the Negro National League, which was formed in 1920. Foster was the primary architect of the National League and served as its first president.
In 1923 a new league, the Eastern Colored League, was formed, permitting Negro League World Series play from 1924 through 1927. The new league disbanded in 1928, and the National League, hit hard by the Depression, folded in 1931. Negro league veteran Cum Posey organized the East-West League in 1932, and in the same year the Negro Southern League was declared a major league, but neither effort survived beyond that year.
Gus Greenlee led formation of a new Negro National League in 1933, and this league caught on. In the same year, the East-West All-Star Game was inaugurated and proved a huge attraction, even out-drawing the white All-Star contest by more than 15,000 spectators in 1944. The Negro American League was added in 1937, permitting restoration of a Negro League World Series. The Negro leagues during these years enjoyed tremendous success, featuring players the equal of any in the white major leagues and becoming the largest black-owned business in the United States. Baseball became, as poet James Weldon Johnson said, part of the black cultural expression. Black America took special delight in seeing Negro league teams defeat teams of white major leaguers in exhibition contests. John Holway’s research indicates that Negro league teams won a large majority of those contests. Certain Negro league teams proved especially successful. The Homestead Grays (1912-1950) won the National League pennant every year from 1937 to 1945 and again in 1948, along with the World Series in 1943-1944 and 1948. Cum Posey began as a Homestead player in the Grays’ inaugural season and eventually became the team’s owner. Catcher and legendary slugger Josh Gibson and first baseman Buck Leonard were among the top players on the team. After the National Baseball Hall of Fame started inducting stars of the Negro leagues, both men were enshrined, appropriately in the same year, 1972.
The Kansas City Monarchs (1920-1950) also featured many stars, none bigger than pitcher Satchel Paige, and won pennants steadily throughout its history. The Pittsburgh Crawfords, owned by Gus Greenlee, had a shorter life (1931-1938), but the mid-1930s team, featuring Paige, Gibson, and center fielder Cool Papa Bell, is often considered the greatest Negro league team of all time. The Newark Eagles (1936-1948), born as a fusion of two teams, the Brooklyn Eagles and Newark Dodgers, was owned by Abe and Effa Manley. Effa, reared in an African American home, actually was white but deliberately passed herself off throughout her life as a light-complexioned black woman. She was an astute businesswoman whose team won the Negro League World Series in 1946. Two of her top players were pitcher Leon Day and outfielder Larry Doby.
By 1946, however, the writing was on the wall for Negro league baseball. Jackie Robinson had been signed by the Dodgers and was playing for their top minor league team. The following year, Robinson integrated the National League, and later in the year Larry Doby did the same for the American League. The Negro National League survived only one year after Robinson’s breakthrough. The Negro American League realigned itself into two divisions and continued functioning through the 1960 season. Top African American players, though, aspired to the now integrated major leagues, and the quality of Negro league baseball declined in the 1950s. The end of Negro league baseball signaled great new opportunities for African American players, but opportunities for black owners, executives, and field managers remain limited even into the twenty-first century.
Mays, Willie Howard; Robinson, Jack Roosevelt
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