Baseball has always been America's favorite pastime. Many Illinois Times readers have heard of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb, as they were household names in the 1920s and 1930s. The names James "Cool Papa" Bell, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Oscar Charleston and Satchel Paige were also household names, but in totally different households. These legendary baseball players were in fact household names in Black households. They were star players in the Negro Baseball Leagues. I like to refer to them as "brothers who played but never got paid."
Formation of the Negro Leagues
Unfortunately, the eastern league never materialized. Nevertheless, the Negro National League (NNL) was established. Its teams were Foster's Chicago American Giants, the Indianapolis ABCs, Chicago Giants, Kansas City (Missouri) Monarchs, Detroit Stars, St. Louis Giants, Dayton (Ohio) Marcos and the Cuban Stars, who had no home city. A few weeks later the Negro Southern League was organized with clubs in the large cities of the South; however, it was regarded as a sporadic circuit during its on-again, off-again life over the next 30 years.
In December 1923 another Black major league with six teams was established in eastern cities. Officially named the Mutual Association of Eastern Colored Baseball Clubs, it was known more familiarly as the Eastern Colored League (ECL). Members were the Brooklyn (New York) Royal Giants, Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City, New Jersey, Baltimore Black Sox, Hilldale Club of Philadelphia, the Cuban Stars (no relation to the Cuban Stars of the NNL) and Lincoln Giants of New York City.
From 1924 through 1927, the NNL and ECL champions met in a Negro World Series. The NNL's Chicago American Giants won two championships and the Kansas City Monarchs won one, as did the Hilldale Club, representing the ECL. The ECL fell to money problems in the spring of 1928. The NNL, void of the management, judgment and vision of Foster, who was hospitalized for mental illness in 1926, stumbled on until 1931 before disbanding as the Great Depression grew and left most fans unable to support the teams financially. Two of its solvent franchises, Chicago and Indianapolis, joined the Negro Southern League in 1932. That year another Black league, called the East-West League, was started for eastern teams by Cumberland W. Posey, veteran manager of the Homestead Grays, a ball club based in Pittsburgh. The new league barely made it off the ground. By early June its Detroit team had dropped out, the schedule was curtailed, and salaries were slashed. The league did not last the summer.
The following year the NNL was reborn. Its moving spirit was another Pittsburgher, W.A. (Gus) Greenlee, a numbers-game owner and tavern operator who had entered baseball in 1931 as organizer of the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The new NNL had teams in both the East and the Midwest but became an Eastern league in 1937 when the Negro American League (NAL) was formed with teams in Chicago, Kansas City (Missouri), Cincinnati, Detroit, Memphis (Tennessee), St. Louis, Indianapolis and Birmingham (Alabama).
Although the new leagues had frequent franchise shifts, they were more stable than the teams of the 1920s. During World War II, which brought prosperity to most Blacks as well as whites, Negro baseball became a $2 million-a-year business – probably the most lucrative, Black-dominated enterprise in the United States at that time. Salaries for journeymen players, which had been about $150 a month during the 1920s, soared to $400 a month or more during the war. Stars could earn $1,000 a month. Satchel Paige, the most famous player, pitcher and showman of the Negro leagues, earned $30,000 to $40,000 a year through special deals calling for him to pitch one to three innings for scores of independent teams, both Black and white, each season. Apart from Satchel Paige, these salaries pale in comparison to what white Major League baseball players were making, which was up to $2,000 per month in addition to endorsement deals that white star players such as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Ty Cobb had that earned them thousands of dollars.
The Negro World Series was resumed in 1942 between champions of the Negro National and Negro American leagues and continued until the NNL disbanded in 1948. Among the most noted Negro league teams was the Homestead Grays, based in both Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., which won nine pennants during 1937-45 and included the great hitters Josh Gibson (catcher), James ("Cool Papa") Bell (outfielder), and Buck Leonard (first baseman). In the mid-1930s another legendary team, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, included five future Baseball Hall of Fame members: Gibson, Bell, Paige, manager Oscar Charleston and clutch-hitting third baseman William Julius ("Judy") Johnson. Josh Gibson came to be known as the "black Babe Ruth" and was said to have hit over 800 career home runs. He was so dominant a hitter that some people rightly referred to Babe Ruth as the "white Josh Gibson." There was also another folklore tale about Cool Papa Bell being so fast that he could turn off the light in a room and be in the bed before the room got dark.
The World Series, however, was far overshadowed by the East-West All-Star Game, pitting the best players of the NNL against those of the NAL, from 1933 to 1950. It annually attracted as many as 50,000 spectators to Comiskey Park in Chicago and became the biggest social event as well as the chief sports attraction for Blacks. Only heavyweight boxing matches featuring the Black champion Joe Louis held the attention of more Blacks.
Major League Baseball integration
Major league baseball's so-called "gentlemen's agreement" banning Black players from the big leagues was genteel in name only. The Black weekly press, particularly sports columnists Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier and Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American, were vocal about Black players integrating the Major Leagues during the late 1930s and World War II. The constant pressure put on by the press over the continued exclusion of Blacks from organized baseball led to sham tryouts of Black players by the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox and expressions of interest in Black players by other major league clubs.
Brooklyn Dodger President Branch Rickey, a one-time big-league catcher and manager, had a secret plan to find and sign a Black American player. It came to pass on Oct. 23, 1945, when Jackie Robinson, a first-year shortstop for the Black Kansas City Monarchs, officially signed a contract with the Dodgers. It was a known fact that Robinson was not the best of the Negro League baseball players at the time but was chosen by Rickey as one that had the temperament to endure the taunts that would be hurled at him by fans throughout the league. Prior to signing Robinson to a contract, Rickey met with Robinson in his office and began a tirade of racial epitaphs aimed at Robinson to see his reaction. Rickey stated, “I wasn’t looking for a Black player that had the strength to fight back, but a Black player that had the strength not to fight back.”
Robinson spent the 1946 season with the minor league Montreal Royals. In 1947 Robinson was promoted to the Dodgers, becoming the first Black player in the major leagues in 63 years. The Cleveland Indians soon after signed Larry Doby, a fast, hard-hitting infielder from the Black Newark Eagles, making him the first Black player in the American League. Several other Blacks joined major league teams, beginning a trend of growing acceptance of Blacks in baseball. The best of the Negro League players were cherry-picked and most that made it to the Major Leagues wound up being all-star players. There were no Black utility players in the big leagues, as those roles were reserved for white players.
The demise of the Negro Leagues
The Negro leagues suffered as a result of these developments as Black fans, now eager to see their star players in Major League games, totally abandoned Negro League games which led to the league’s demise. Dollars that had once been in the hands of Black businesses were slowly going into the hands of white-owned teams. The failure of the Negro Leagues economically impacted many more people than the players on the field. An entire support staff of front-office personnel, groundskeepers, concessionaires, ticket-takers, bus drivers, coaches, managers and so forth were all necessary to put a game on the field. These workers in turn patronized local Black businesses. When the teams began to struggle and finally collapsed, many Black people besides the players also lost their livelihoods. The economic impact that the Black community suffered due to star Black players now playing in the Major Leagues is like the impact that Black communities suffered as a result of integration.
To complicate matters further, several white teams refused to honor the contracts of the Negro Leagues and pirated the best players outright without compensating the team owners. At other times owners sold the rights to players at below-market prices, finding it better to get some return rather than risk having the player signed outright. Paradoxically, these times were when Negro League teams were most financially successful.
The NNL died a financial death in 1948. The NAL lasted until 1960 before disbanding. A few teams continued barnstorming, most notably the Indianapolis Clowns, who mixed comedy and baseball in equal measure. The latter-day Clowns played serious baseball, as evidenced by the fact that major league home run king Aaron made his professional debut with them in 1952. The Clowns continued barnstorming until 1973 (with a few whites on the roster) before giving up and ending the saga of the Negro leagues.
Negro League players recognized by Major League Baseball
In December of 2020, Major League Baseball announced that the histories and statistical records of seven Negro baseball circuits – the first Negro National League (1920-31), the Eastern Colored League (1923-28), the American Negro League (1929), the East-West League (1932), the Negro Southern League (1932), the second Negro National League (1933-48) and the Negro American League (1937-48) were to be included in official Major League Baseball records. These leagues are now considered fully major league, equals with all long-recognized MLB leagues of so-called “organized baseball.” That means that now, after decades in the shadows, legendary slugger Josh Gibson is officially equal to Babe Ruth, that ageless pitcher Satchel Paige is officially on par with Christy Mathewson (who learned his screwball pitch from Rube Foster) and Oscar Charleston – the man long considered by many as the greatest all-around player in history, regardless of race or era – officially stands shoulder to shoulder with Ty Cobb, who was often described as openly racist, disparaged Blacks as “darkies” and insisted that their place in baseball was reserved as “clubhouse help.”
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
In 1990, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) was established in Kansas City, Missouri, as the world’s only museum dedicated to preserving and celebrating the rich history of African American baseball and its impact on the social advancement of America. In November 1997, under the leadership of John “Buck” O’Neil, the NLBM moved into its new 10,000-square-foot home inside a cultural complex known as the Museums at 18th & Vine.
The NLBM has welcomed more than 2 million visitors and has become one of the most important cultural institutions in the world for its work to give voice to a once forgotten chapter of baseball and American history. In July 2006, the NLBM gained National Designation from the United States Congress earning the distinction of being “America’s National Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.”
To date there are only four living players from the 1920-1948 Negro League era – Bill Greason, Clyde Golden, Ron Teasley and, most notably, Willie Mays. One can only imagine what the record books would look like had Black players been allowed to compete with their white counterparts in the Major Leagues from day one. Their exclusion in those early years prevented baseball from attaining its full national promise. Nonetheless Black players are still in the record books, with players such as home run king Barry Bonds, who surpassed Hank Aaron. However, Aaron still holds records for the most career total bases and most career runs batted in, with speedster Ricky Henderson owning records for the most stolen bases in a career and season and for most career runs scored and Bob Gibson owning the record for the lowest earned run average in a season at 1.12. Ironically, after Gibson set the record in 1968, Major League Baseball lowered the height of the pitching mound the very next year. Over the years Black athletes have had to overcome numerous obstacles to excel in their given sports. The Negro League baseball players are a prime example and that is why these players were truly in “A League of Their Own.”
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