Oxford AASC: Negro Leagues

Negro Leagues

All-black baseball leagues that formed in the United States in the 1880s and enjoyed popular success through the middle of the twentieth century, giving African American baseball players opportunities denied to them by the major leagues.

Baseball in the United States is said to be the national pastime, but only since the spring of 1947 can it be said to have become truly national. That year Jackie Robinson entered the Brooklyn Dodgers lineup, becoming the first African American to play major league baseball since Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker and his brother Weldy played for Toledo, Ohio, in 1884. The exclusion of African Americans from major league baseball paralleled their treatment in other areas of American society. Negro baseball leagues, like other segregated African American institutions, recognized and developed the talent of black people in their full humanity.

Early Professional Teams

During the Jim Crow period, baseball became one of the most thriving institutions of African American life. Professional teams started forming in the 1880s, including the Philadelphia Orions (1882), the St. Louis Black Stockings (1882), and the Cuban Giants (1885). Under the management of S. K. Govern, the Cuban Giants were immensely successful, spawning many African American teams named the Giants, including the Columbia Page Fence Giants, the Chicago Leland Giants, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, even the Cuban X Giants. The genuine Cuban Giants competed in the predominantly white Middle States (Minor) League from 1889 to 1891, along with another African American team, the New York Gorhams (or Gothams). In 1886 and 1887 African American baseball leagues were formed but soon folded.

During the height of the Jim Crow period—from 1890 to 1920—successful African American baseball teams played outside of formal leagues, barnstorming the nation. Teams such as the Indianapolis ABCs and the Lincoln Giants traveled to any town or city that could field an opposing team and promise financial return. The major problem for barnstormers was dependence on white booking agents who controlled the sporting activities in major cities. Games between barnstorming teams were lucrative; they allowed fans to watch black teams face anyone who would play, including teams composed of white major and minor leaguers.

Negro Leagues

At the turn of the century, Rube Foster, a star pitcher for several African American teams, envisioned a baseball league for blacks that would rival the white major league, eventually forcing full recognition and inclusion of African American ballplayers. With partner John Schorling, Foster formed the Chicago American Giants in 1911, setting the foundation for the creation of a black baseball league. In February 1920, Foster founded the Negro National League (NNL) with the owners and representatives of the Indianapolis ABCs, the Chicago Giants, the Kansas City Monarchs (owned by white promoter J. L. Wilkinson), the St. Louis Giants, the Detroit Stars, and the Cuban Stars. As the first enduring professional sports league managed by African Americans, the NNL was widely successful. With players such as sluggers Oscar Charleston, John Henry Lloyd, and the great Smokey Joe Williams, the new, mostly Midwestern league garnered fanfare and popular support in African American communities. In 1923 the Eastern Colored League (ECL) was formed by white booking agent Nat Strong, leading to a feud with the NNL. Tensions were alleviated in 1924, however, when owners in each league agreed to a system based on the major league, with split schedules and the two best teams meeting for a black World Series. In the mid-1920s, league teams such as the Birmingham Black Barons and the Cuban Stars enjoyed success in league play and in the ever-fruitful barnstorming circuit.

Both leagues failed, however, soon after Foster's leadership was cut short by mental illness in 1926 and by his death in 1930. The ECL folded in 1928 and NNL followed in 1931. In 1932 black baseball thrived mainly in the Southern Negro League (which had been a lesser league prior to that year), and in Latin America, where great ballplayers were welcome, regardless of race.

In 1933 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, NUMBERS banker Gus Greenlee and several other African American owners revived the NNL. Even though the Great Depression was a catastrophe for black communities, the wealth of Greenlee and other alleged gangsters allowed the league to flourish. Beginning with six teams and later expanding to eight, the NNL boasted some of the best baseball talent to ever play the game. Greenlee's Pittsburgh Crawfords competed with the great Homestead Grays for the best local players. Often winning the battle, the Crawfords possessed five future Hall of Fame players at one time: Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, and Satchel Paige.

Negro Baseball Leagues

Negro National League I
Birmingham Black Barons1925, 1927–1930Cleveland Elites1926Louisville White Sox1931
Chicago American Giants1920–1931Cleveland Hornets1927Memphis Red Sox1924–1925, 1927–1930
Chicago Giants1920–1921Cleveland Tate Stars1922
Columbus Buckeyes1921Dayton Marcos1920, 1926Milwaukee Bears1923
Cuban Stars1920, 1922Detroit Stars1920–1931Nashville Elite Giants1930
Cleveland Browns1924Indianapolis ABC's1920–1926, 1931Pittsburgh Keystones1922
Cleveland Cubs1931Kansas City Monarchs1920–1931St. Louis Giants1920–1921
Toledo Tigers1923
Negro National League II
Bacharach Giants (Altantic City)1934Columbus Blue Birds1933New York Black Yankees1936–1948
Baltimore Black Sox1933–1934Columbus Elite Giants1935New York Cubans1935–1936, 1939–1948
Baltimore Elite Giants1938–1948Detroit Stars1933
Brooklyn Eagles1935Harrisburg-St. Louis Stars1943Philadelphia Stars1934–1948
Cleveland Giants1933Homestead (Pa.) Grays1935–1948Pittsburgh Crawfords1933–1938
Cleveland Red Sox1934Nashville Elite Giants1933–1934Washington Black Senators1938
Cole's American Giants1933–1935Newark Dodgers1934–1935
(Chicago)Newark Eagles1936–1948Washington Elite Giants1936–1937
Eastern Colored League (American Negro League, 1929)
Bacharach Giants (Atlantic City)1923–1929Harrisburg (Pa.) Giants1924–1927Newark Stars1926
Baltimore Black Sox1923–1929Hilldale (Philadelphia)1923–1927, 1929Philadelphia Tigers1928
Brooklyn Royal Giants1923–1927Homestead (Pa.) Grays1929Washington Potomacs1924
Cuban Stars East1923–1929Lincoln Giants (New York)1923–1926, 1928–1929
Negro Southern League
Cole's American Giants (Chicago)1932Indianapolis ABC's1932Monroe Monarchs1932
Louisville Black Caps1932Montgomery Grey Sox1932
Columbus Turfs (Ohio)1932Memphis Red Sox1932Nashville Elite Giants1932
East-West League
Baltimore Black SoxSpring 1932Cuban StarsSpring 1932Homestead (Pa.) GraysSpring 1932
Cleveland StarsSpring 1932Hilldale (Philadelphia)Spring 1932Newark BrownsSpring 1932
Negro-American League
Atlantic Black Crackers1938Cleveland Bears1939–1940Kansas City Monarchs1937–1950
Baltimore Elite Giants1949–1950Detroit Stars1937Louisville Buckeyes1949
Birmingham Black Barons1937–1938, 1940–1950Houston Eagles1949–1950Memphis Red Sox1937–1941, 1943–1950
Indianapolis ABC's1938–1939
Chicago American Giants1937–1950Indianapolis Athletics1937New York Cubans1949–1950
Cleveland Buckeyes1943–1948, 1950Indianapolis Clowns1943–1950Philadelphia Stars1949–1950
Cincinnati Buckeyes1942Indianapolis Crawfords1940St. Louis Stars1937, 1939, 1941
Cincinnati Tigers1937Jacksonville Red Caps1938, 1941–1942Toledo Crawfords1939

When Greenlee instituted an East-West All-Star game to be played each year in Chicago, Illinois, the amassed talent drew from 30,000 to over 40,000 fans, becoming a major social event of the Jim Crow era. The enormous popularity of black baseball led white businessmen to form the Negro American League in 1937, which brought the ever-popular Kansas City Monarchs back into league play. That same year Dominican Republic president Rafael Trujillo brought Paige, Gibson, and Bell to play on his own team, but they returned to the Negro Leagues the following year.

During this period Latin America was an important arena for baseball, because in the winter the best Negro Leaguers played in such nations as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico with stars of the major league. Black players excelled alongside and against white players, exposing the lie that African Americans were inferior baseball players. From Latin America, Negro Leaguers moved on to spring training, which was based in the American South. Steadily traveling northward, teams would barnstorm until they reached their home cities. On the way, they would often compete against barnstorming major leaguers. Researchers estimate that African American teams won 60 percent of these games.

Demise of the Negro Leagues

The NNL folded in 1948, due in great part to Jackie Robinson's integration of the major leagues. Although the Negro American League lasted until 1960, it failed to capture the imagination of black ticket buyers in later years. Those buyers were now watching former Negro Leaguers play in major league baseball. These players included Paige (NL: Philadelphia Stars, ML: Cleveland Indians); Monte Irvin (NL: Newark Eagles, ML: New York Giants); Roy Campanella (NL: Baltimore Elite Giants, ML: Brooklyn Dodgers); Hank Aaron (NL: Indianapolis Clowns, ML: Milwaukee Braves); and Willie Mays (NL: Birmingham Black Barons, ML: New York Giants).

African American baseball players have had a profound impact on major league baseball by bringing to center stage the showmanship and skill that characterized the Negro Leagues. The legacy of vision and excellence proffered by the Negro Leagues has been recognized recently by many Americans and has emerged as a source of great pride, as well as a necessary embarrassment to those who permitted the system of exclusion.

See also Baseball in Latin America and the Caribbean.Sign up to receive email alerts from African American Studies Center

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