As is the case concerning the history of baseball as a whole, the history of the Negro Leagues and black baseball in general is dotted with colorful anecdotes whose accuracy is sometimes questioned. Due to the often unstructured conditions in which black baseball was played, documentation is frequently sketchy. As a result, there is sometimes disagreement regarding some of the statistics which have survived. It is important that children realize this. At the same time, there are numerous sources of authentic documentation which verify the history of the Negro Leagues and the exploits of the men who played there.
The interested teacher can find considerable references available in print and on film. These vary in the depth and possible overall accuracy of their presentation. Material for younger children is generally much more superficial and needs to be supplemented by material the teacher gains from more “adult” sources. To provide the baseball novice with some direction, I include a general guide to the historical development of Negro League baseball which can then be altered and enhanced to fit a specific classroom situation and grade level.
The first references to African American players in relationship to white players appears in records from games played by Union forces during the lull between battles during the Civil War. Baseball, unlike boxing, had not been encouraged by slave owners, while in the North some free blacks played on and against integrated teams. After the Civil War, the general interest in baseball increased, but, almost immediately, action was taken to ban blacks.
In 1867, the National Association of Base Ball Players voted to ban any team with colored members. Despite this action, some players managed to play on integrated minor league teams. Two such players were Bud Fowler and Fleet Walker. Walker actually played for Toledo, a member of the American Association, a less prestigious but, none the less, major league team. Walker is credited as being the first black major league player. As a result of owner pressure, he was let go after one season.
In 1885, Frank Thompson, a waiter at New York’s Argyle Hotel, organized the first professional Negro team. The Cuban Giants, composed largely of men who had been waiters. In an attempt to pass as Cubans, they spoke a gibberish which they hoped would be accepted as Spanish. As the century closed, a number of other eminent black teams were formed. The Boston Resolutes, the Lord Baltimores, the St. Louis Stockings, the Cuban X Giants, and the Page Fence Giants are just a few.
As the century turned and many blacks migrated to the North, outstanding teams developed in the larger cities of the area, and with them came new heroes like Oscar Charleston, Smokey Joe Williams, and Pop Floyd. Some teams, like the All-Nation club, were owned by white promoters such as J. L. Wilkinson.
In 1920, Rube Foster, owner of the Chicago American Giants, formed the first organized black league to last at least a full season. The league consisted of eight teams, including a traveling Cuban team, the Stars.
The Eastern Colored League was organized in 1923 and soon became rivals of the Negro National League teams to the west. A year later, the first colored World Series was held . The Kansas City Monarchs defeated the Philadelphia Hillsdales five games to four with one tie.
When Rube Walker became ill in 1926, The Negro National League was weakened. Without his leadership, the league collapsed in 1931, a few years after the Eastern Colored League had already failed.
During the Depression, teams and leagues were formed and dissolved. In 1932, the new Negro National League reorganized two of these floundering leagues into one organization which lasted until 1936.
During this period, Gus Greenlee, owner of the popular Pittsburgh Crawfords, organized the first East-West All-star game. By the early forties, this game’s ability to outdraw the Major League’s all-star game attracted the attention of major league owners such as Branch Rickey. Players like Satchel Page, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and others began to receive wider recognition, despite a long history of black baseball being ignored by the white press.
Finally in 1945, Branch Rickey ended his search for an “appropriate” black player to break the color-line by signing Jackie Roosevelt Robinson to a contract with the major league Brooklyn Dodgers. After a year of minor league ball, Robinson played his first game in the majors, thus opening the gates to the talented players of the Negro Leagues, leaving black teams with little personnel with which to draw fans. As a result, in 1960, the Negro American League, with a few remaining barnstorming teams, officially closed their operations. The Negro Leagues had ended.
The success of African American players in the Majors was immediate, almost amazing. After Robinson won the Rookie of the Year Award, black players won eight of the next eleven awards, and nine of the eleven men who were voted National League Most Valuable Player between 1949 and 1959 were former Negro League players.
There is much more to the story of the Negro Leagues and their players than is recounted here. Further development of these events will bring the era alive, developing both understanding and appreciation.