In the first half of the 20th century, racial segregation was rampant across much of the United States. Perhaps nowhere was it more evident and public than in the sport of baseball.
Despite being denied a place in the major leagues for several decades, some of the greatest players of the era could play for the public on black-owned and operated teams.
Learn more about the Negro Leagues and how some of the greatest baseball players in history were kept out of the majors on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The story of the Negro Leagues is one of the most important stories in the history of baseball, as it covers some of the greatest baseball players ever to have played the game.
It was also a microcosm of the social problems that the United States faced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Almost as soon as baseball was invented as a game, it was being played competitively by teams of African Americans.
In 1859, the first recorded game occurred between two black amateur clubs. On November 15, The Henson Base Ball Club of Jamaica, Queens, defeated the Unknowns of Weeksville, Brooklyn, 54 to 43.
Black baseball clubs grew in popularity in the North after the Civil War.
It did not take long for black players to be excluded from organized competitions, reflecting the segregation attitudes of the era.
One of the hotbeds for black baseball was the City of Philadelphia. One of the top clubs was the Pythian Base Ball Club. The club’s promoter, Octavius Catto, applied for membership in the National Association of Base Ball Players, something which was normally just a formality.
In 1867, the National Association of Base Ball Players decided to reject any and all applications from clubs with black players.
This is one of the first of many events which led to the creation of baseball’s color barrier.
When the professional game started in 1876 with the launch of the National League, the team owners made an informal agreement to keep black players out of the league. There were other professional leagues with similar policies.
The first black professional baseball at any level player was Bud Fowler, who played for the Lynn Live Oaks of Lynn, Massachusetts, in the International League in 1878.
One of the top and most influential players of the era was Cap Anson of the Chicago White Stockings. These White Stockings were the team that later became the Chicago Cubs, not the current Chicago White Sox. In addition to being a successful player and manager, he was a staunch segregationist and a bigot.
In 1883, Chicago was playing an exhibition game against the Toledo Blue Stockings, who had a black man, Moses Fleetwood Walker, on their roster.
Anson threatened that the White Stockings would not take the field if Walker played but backed down when threatened with losing their half of the ticket sales. He begrudgingly took the field but used racial epitaphs throughout the game and swore he would never do so again.
The next year in 1884, Toledo joined the American Association, which was considered to be one of the major leagues, thus making Moses Fleetwood Walker the first black major league baseball player.
He and his brother Weldy Wilberforce Walker were also the last black major league players for over half a century.
In 1887, the lower-level International League voted 6 to 4 to ban the signing of black players. The vote was split based on which clubs had black players on the roster.
Anson continued his threats to keep black players off the field in any exhibition games that the White Stockings played in.
His influence spread to other teams. In September of 1887, eight players on the Saint Louis Browns, now known as the Saint Louis Cardinals, refused to take the field against the New York Cuban Giants, the first all-black professional baseball team.
By the early 1890s, there were no black players at any level of organized professional baseball. Professional teams like the Cuban Giants mostly played exhibition games.
By the turn of the century, the agreement amongst team owners not to sign black players was an informal gentlemen’s agreement. It was never written down anywhere.
As such, there were constant attempts to try to sneak black players onto teams.
In 1901, John McGraw, manager of the Baltimore Orioles, then a minor league team, tried to sign a second baseman named Charlie Grant. McGraw tried to pass him off as a Cherokee Indian named Charlie Tokohama, but the ruse quickly failed.
In May 1916, Jimmy Claxton broke the color barrier briefly when he played two games for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. However, when it was found he had black family, he was immediately fired.
A turning point for black baseball in the United States took place in 1920. There were two events that took place, one positive and one negative.
The negative event was the hiring of United States Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the first commissioner of baseball. Landis was given dictatorial control over the game. Despite publicly stating there was no color barrier, not a single black player was signed during his tenure, and he discouraged clubs from playing exhibition games against black teams.
The positive development in 1920 came from a player named “Rube” Foster. Foster was arguably the best black pitcher of the 1910s, and in 1911 he founded the Chicago American Giants.
In 1920, he and several other owners of black baseball teams announced the founding of the Negro National League, with Foster as its commissioner.
If they couldn’t play in the major leagues, then they would create a major league of their own.
Professional black teams had existed for decades, and there was even a championship game for them as early as 1906, but there was no formal organization, and most games were scheduled on an ad hoc basis.
The founding members of the Negro National League were the Chicago American Giants, the Kansas City Monarchs, the Detroit Stars, the Indianapolis ABCs, the Cuban Stars, the Saint Louis Giants, the Dayton Marcos, and the Chicago Giants.
Here I should note that there wasn’t a single Negro League. There were actually several of them. The term is used to describe all of the organized leagues of black baseball teams from the period from approximately 1920 to 1950.
In 1921, the Negro Southern League was established, and in 1923 the Eastern Colored League was established.
This led to the creation of the Colored World Series in 1924, which featured the champions of the Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League. The first winner of the series was the Kansas City Monarchs, who defeated the Hilldale Athletic Club of Darby, Pennsylvania.
The 1920s were considered the golden age of the Negro Leagues.
There was a problem, however. Many of the teams were barely financially viable. There were teams coming in and out of the leagues every year. This made the leagues themselves financially unstable.
In 1927, the Eastern Colored League folded to be replaced by the American Negro League, which lasted only one year.
In 1932, the original Negro National League went out of business, leaving only the ??Negro Southern League in 1932.
A new Negro National League was established in 1933, using the same name as the previous league. Some successful teams, notably the Kansas City Monarchs and the Homestead Grays, were entirely independent of any league and created their own schedules.
Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the man behind the new Negro National League, also launched the East–West All-Star Game in 1933. Players were selected by voting through the largest black newspapers of the era, the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier.
Almost all the games were played in Chicago’s Comiskey Park.
The game was a huge hit, often drawing crowds larger than that of the Major League All-Star Game.
While the structure and organization of the various Negro Leagues were important, the most important thing about them was the players.
The Negro Leagues were the home to some of the greatest baseball players to have ever played the game. This is in no way an exaggeration, and even the white players at the time all knew it.
The list is long, but among those who would be considered some of the very best players in history include Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Oscar Charleston, and Monte Irvin.
Several of them have stories that are interesting enough for their own episodes.
Many people have wondered what the major league record books would look like if the color barrier hadn’t existed. There is no way to know that, but we don’t have to speculate about how they would have performed against major leaguers because they, in fact, did.
While black players couldn’t play in the major leagues, that didn’t stop them or the white professional players from playing against each other in exhibition games in the off-season.
After Babe Ruth’s incredible 1921 season, he went on a barnstorming tour where he played several Negro League teams, including the Kansas City Monarchs.
In 1922, despite a direct order from Kenesaw Mountain Landis not to play barnstorming games, he played a game against Oscar Charleston’s Colored All-Stars. Landis suspended Ruth for 39 games in 1922 for playing in barnstorming exhibitions.
The black teams would more often than not beat their white major league opponents because, to them, it was more than just an exhibition game. It was a chance to prove just how good they were.
The peak of the Negro Leagues probably occurred in 1942. The war had led to a spike in employment and income for black Americans, which resulted in greater attendance at games. The total attendance for Negro League games that year was over 3,000,000.
In the 1940s, cracks were starting to develop in baseball’s color barrier. The thing which marked the beginning of the end of the color barrier was the death of Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1944.
His replacement was a former Senator and Governor of Kentucky named Happy Chandler. Chandler supported integrating baseball and was willing to do so at the cost of his job.
He later said that he couldn’t, in good faith, keep men out of the major leagues who had fought for their country in the war.
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson finally broke baseball’s color barrier by taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Three months later, Larry Doby became the first black player in the American League when he took the field for the Cleveland Indians.
The story of exactly how Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and what he had to go through will be the subject of a future episode.
Despite this being the very thing that black players wanted, it also spelled the end of the Negro Leagues. It was a bittersweet loss, as while black players got what they deisred, it resulted in the loss of an important institution in the black community.
The trickle of black players into the majors soon turned into a flood. The attention of black baseball fans quickly turned to where the best players from their community were now playing.
Young stars such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Roy Campanella, who had all briefly played for Negro League teams, were now the stars of the major leagues.
Even Satchel Paige, the greatest pitcher in Negro League history, signed with the Cleveland Indians. On July 9, 1948, at the age of 42, he became the oldest rookie in major league history. A record that still stands today.
On August 3, he started a night game against the Washington Senators that had 72,562—the highest attendance ever for a night game at that time.
The Negro Leagues did continue for several more years but as a shadow of its former self. The last official league was the Negro American League which operated at a minor league level until it folded in 1958.
The last surviving Negro League team was the Indianapolis Clowns. They continued to play until the 1980s as an independent barnstorming team that was the baseball equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters.
While the teams and the leagues eventually folded, it wasn’t the end of the story.
The legacy of the Negro Leagues and its players still wasn’t recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 1966, Ted Williams made a plea at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony for the inclusion of the great players from the Negro Leagues.
At first, the Hall of Fame was simply going to create a “separate but equal” section of the Hall of Fame which wasn’t going to be a full induction.
However, after widespread criticism, they eventually relented and created a special commission in 1971 for the induction of Negro League Players.
The first inductees included Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Martín Dihigo, Josh Gibson, Monte Irvin, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard, and John Henry Lloyd.
To date, there have been 37 players, managers, and executives from the Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues who have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In addition to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, there is the private Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
In 2006, the Negro Leagues were recognized by Major League Baseball as historic major leagues.
In 2010 there was a US Postage Stamp that honored the Negro Leagues, and many major league teams will wear the uniforms of Negro League teams on Turn Back the Clock nights.
The Negro Leagues were something that should never have existed.
But so long as black players had to suffer from the prejudice and segregation of their era, the Negro Leagues offered these players an outlet to professionally play the game they loved.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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