Black History Month: Negro Leagues and Integrating Baseball

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Baseball is widely regarded as ‘America’s National Pastime’, and has provided great memories for fans of the game. Willie Mays made “The Catch” during Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, in which the New York Giants went on to win. Reggie Jackson hit 3 home runs in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers to cement his MVP status. Barry Bonds, a now somewhat disgraced star, hit his moonshot home runs en route to a record-breaking 73 home run campaign.

However, there was a time where black baseball stars couldn’t play with white men. The Color Barrier was instituted in 1867 when the Pennsylvania State Convention of Baseball denied colored players from entering the Pythian Baseball Club. The Major Leagues had just one black player until Jackie Robinson broke through the barrier. William Edward White played in one game in 1879 and was able to pass as a white player.

The color barrier in baseball began more as a “gentleman’s agreement”, a tacit understanding between club owners that black ball players were not to be allowed in the league. The barrier was formally put in place beginning in 1887 when the International League, a high minor league, voted against issuing contracts to black ball players. This led to the eventual disappearance of black players from the other minor leagues and the majors.

However, racism in the sport began before this barrier. A notable story involves Moses “Fleetwood” Walker, someone I wrote about in 2018. In 1883, Walker’s Toledo Blue Stockings were set to play Cap Anson’s Chicago ball club. Anson was a known racist, often refusing to play any game against dark skinned ball players. When Anson realized Walker was a player for Toledo, he threatened that his team would forfeit should Walker play. Once Anson realized his team would also forfeit its gate receipts, he backed down. “We’ll play this here game, but won’t play never no more with the n****r in.” Anson said.

Due to the color barrier, many black baseball clubs were established, and many Negro Leagues were formed, especially from 1920-1940. At the turn of the century, there was one star that dominated the Negro Leagues. Andrew “Rube” Foster debuted in the Negro Leagues in 1902, and won the Colored Championship a year later with the Cuban X-Giants. He was bought by the team he beat, the Philadelphia Giants, and once again won the Colored Championship.

Various accounts, including his own, report that Rube Foster developed the nickname when he beat Philadelphia A’s pitching star Rube Waddell, who Ty Cobb once praised as “The Great Rube” in a radio interview. This matchup was a postseason exhibition that was played sometime between 1902-1905. Research has uncovered that the name possibly stems from a 1903 game in which Waddell, who pitched under an assumed name, lost to Foster while pitching for a semi-pro team.

Foster continued to play in the Negro Leagues, even founding the Chicago American Giants in 1911. The American Giants used the abandoned South Side Park, formerly occupied by the Chicago White Sox. By 1915, Foster was pitching very little and focused on managing. He went on to help found the Detroit Stars as well.

In 1920, Foster, C.I. Taylor, and six midwestern club owners met to form a new professional baseball circuit. The Negro National League was formed with Foster as president. The Indianapolis ABCs, owned by Taylor, defeated the American Giants in the inaugural game of the NNL. The league faced an after effect of the Chicago Race Riots of 1919, as the National Guard occupied the American Giants home park. Foster had to cancel home games for an entire month, and this threatened the integrity of the league.

Foster oversaw numerous additions to his National Association of Colored Base Ball Players until 1926 when he was admitted into an asylum. He passed away in 1930 having never recovered his sanity. The Negro National League folded in 1932.

Just when the future of black baseball looked bleak, the sport received an injection of star power. Satchel Paige debuted in 1931, and new owner Gus Greenlee took a chance. The gangster turned obsessed owner invested $100,000 in a new ballpark. On April 30, 1932, the Pittsburgh Crawfords had a pitcher-catcher battery of Paige and Josh Gibson.

In 1933, the second Negro National League was formed under Greenlee’s National Organization of Professional Baseball Clubs. The six founding teams were the Crawfords, the Columbus Blue Birds, Indianapolis ABCs, Baltimore Black Sox, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Cole’s American Giants, and the Nashville Elite Giants. Greenlee greenlighted an All-Star Game known as the East-West All Star Game, which was the first event to allow fans to vote in participants.

This iteration of the Negro National League provided the entire baseball world with future major league players such as Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Frank Thompson, and Paige. The shape of this league changed dramatically when the United States entered World War II after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Despite a lot of players deemed too old to fight, many a star of the league went overseas to fight the war, as black America was determined not to be shut out from the beneficial effects after the war.

The white major leagues saw a mass exodus to fight in the war, and their star power depleted because of it. The Negro Leagues, in effect, reached their peak. Integration attempts began to heat up during this time. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner in MLB history, was staunchly against integration. There is a popular story that Bill Veeck planned Philadelphia Phillies so he could stack the club with Negro League stars. Landis blocked this attempt.

In 1944, Landis passed away. His successor, Happy Chandler, was much more open to integrating the game. His reasoning was that there was no way he could deny the black ballplayer when they had fought for their country. A year later, the Major League Committee on Baseball Integration was formed. This committee never met due to internal stalling, as one of the members set out to integrate the game on his own.

Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, began sending scouts all across the US, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. Under the guise of starting an all-black league, he compiled a list for the perfect candidate for integration. The final three on the list were Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Jackie Robinson.

On August 28th, 1945, Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers after surviving a “test” that saw Rickey shout racial slurs and remarks Robinson would likely hear. In this contract, there was a clause that said Robinson was to have no “written or moral obligation” to another club. The 1945 Fair Employment Practices Act passed in New York banned discrimination in the workplace, and led Rickey to announce his plan earlier than desired.

On October 23th, 1945, Rickey announced the signing of Robinson through the Montreal Royals; their minor league affiliation. Rickey signed four more black players, including Campanella and Newcombe. Robinson spent a year in Montreal before debuting in Brooklyn in 1947. Later that year, Larry Doby signed with the Cleveland Indians. More Negro League prospects began to sign with major league ball clubs, and interest in the Negro Leagues began to fade.

By 1959, all but two teams had been integrated. The Detroit Tigers became integrated when Doby debuted for the team in April. This left the Boston Red Sox as the last team in the majors to not integrate. Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey was not a fan of integration. Despite the team bringing Robinson in for a tryout at Fenway Park, they refused to consider signing him. They brought him in to appease the new city mayor who threatened to revoke their exemption to Sunday blue laws.

The team was more or less forced to integrate after they were sued by the NAACP for discrimination and the deliberate barring of black players from their team. On July 21st, the Red Sox called up Pumpsie Green from AAA Minneapolis. They later brought more black players into the mix, and the integration of baseball was complete.

The color line is one of the biggest blights on our National Pastime. Due to this line, many of the greats in the game never got a shot at the majors. Rube Foster, Josh Gibson, and Buck O’Neil are just a few examples of this. The history of early baseball is drenched in racism, and there are times where the game struggles to get out of that image today. However, the sport’s biggest step forward was integration, and it allowed us to see the very best, regardless of skin color.

Photo Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame

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