Negro LeaguesAll-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.
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 Barons||1925, 1927–1930||Cleveland Elites||1926||Louisville White Sox||1931|
|Chicago American Giants||1920–1931||Cleveland Hornets||1927||Memphis Red Sox||1924–1925, 1927–1930|
|Chicago Giants||1920–1921||Cleveland Tate Stars||1922|
|Columbus Buckeyes||1921||Dayton Marcos||1920, 1926||Milwaukee Bears||1923|
|Cuban Stars||1920, 1922||Detroit Stars||1920–1931||Nashville Elite Giants||1930|
|Cleveland Browns||1924||Indianapolis ABC's||1920–1926, 1931||Pittsburgh Keystones||1922|
|Cleveland Cubs||1931||Kansas City Monarchs||1920–1931||St. Louis Giants||1920–1921|
|Negro National League II|
|Bacharach Giants (Altantic City)||1934||Columbus Blue Birds||1933||New York Black Yankees||1936–1948|
|Baltimore Black Sox||1933–1934||Columbus Elite Giants||1935||New York Cubans||1935–1936, 1939–1948|
|Baltimore Elite Giants||1938–1948||Detroit Stars||1933|
|Brooklyn Eagles||1935||Harrisburg-St. Louis Stars||1943||Philadelphia Stars||1934–1948|
|Cleveland Giants||1933||Homestead (Pa.) Grays||1935–1948||Pittsburgh Crawfords||1933–1938|
|Cleveland Red Sox||1934||Nashville Elite Giants||1933–1934||Washington Black Senators||1938|
|Cole's American Giants||1933–1935||Newark Dodgers||1934–1935|
|(Chicago)||Newark Eagles||1936–1948||Washington Elite Giants||1936–1937|
|Eastern Colored League (American Negro League, 1929)|
|Bacharach Giants (Atlantic City)||1923–1929||Harrisburg (Pa.) Giants||1924–1927||Newark Stars||1926|
|Baltimore Black Sox||1923–1929||Hilldale (Philadelphia)||1923–1927, 1929||Philadelphia Tigers||1928|
|Brooklyn Royal Giants||1923–1927||Homestead (Pa.) Grays||1929||Washington Potomacs||1924|
|Cuban Stars East||1923–1929||Lincoln Giants (New York)||1923–1926, 1928–1929|
|Negro Southern League|
|Cole's American Giants (Chicago)||1932||Indianapolis ABC's||1932||Monroe Monarchs||1932|
|Louisville Black Caps||1932||Montgomery Grey Sox||1932|
|Columbus Turfs (Ohio)||1932||Memphis Red Sox||1932||Nashville Elite Giants||1932|
|Baltimore Black Sox||Spring 1932||Cuban Stars||Spring 1932||Homestead (Pa.) Grays||Spring 1932|
|Cleveland Stars||Spring 1932||Hilldale (Philadelphia)||Spring 1932||Newark Browns||Spring 1932|
|Atlantic Black Crackers||1938||Cleveland Bears||1939–1940||Kansas City Monarchs||1937–1950|
|Baltimore Elite Giants||1949–1950||Detroit Stars||1937||Louisville Buckeyes||1949|
|Birmingham Black Barons||1937–1938, 1940–1950||Houston Eagles||1949–1950||Memphis Red Sox||1937–1941, 1943–1950|
|Chicago American Giants||1937–1950||Indianapolis Athletics||1937||New York Cubans||1949–1950|
|Cleveland Buckeyes||1943–1948, 1950||Indianapolis Clowns||1943–1950||Philadelphia Stars||1949–1950|
|Cincinnati Buckeyes||1942||Indianapolis Crawfords||1940||St. Louis Stars||1937, 1939, 1941|
|Cincinnati Tigers||1937||Jacksonville Red Caps||1938, 1941–1942||Toledo Crawfords||1939|
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
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