Legacy of the Negro Leagues
The history of the Negro League in baseball has recently received new interest after a half a century of benign neglect. Baseball fans realize that Blacks played baseball before 1974, of course, because they know that Jackie Robinson moved out of the Negro Leagues to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, thus integrating what most people thought of as “major league baseball.” The history of the teams that created Robinson and thousands of other talented athletes deserves more attention.
EARLY HISTORY OF BASEBALL
Baseball began as a “gentleman’s game.” Men of means joined athletic clubs and formed teams. These clubs played each other for the fun of it. After the Civil War, interest in baseball broadened to all levels of society. It crossed ethnic and color lines, which is one reason it was eventually described as “the national pastime.” (Riley, 2002). It was still a game for amateurs only, with no professional ball clubs created. During this time there were both all-Black ball clubs and integrated ones. (Riley, 2002)
However, these clubs organized into the National Association of Baseball Players, and in 1868 this group voted to exclude any integrated teams. This was the first time segregation was imposed on baseball, but not the last. (Riley, 2002)
The following year (1869), professional teams were organized. They were not bound by amateur rules, and again both all-Black and integrated teams emerged. (Riley, 2002) Presumably the integrated teams overlooked color for the sake of getting the best players available. However, these were very troubled times for race relations, and by 1900, no Blacks played on professional teams. (Riley, 2002)
But Blacks didn’t stop playing ball. They didn’t even stop playing professional ball. Some Black players played for teams in other countries, such as the “Cuban Giants” (Riley, 2002), and in 1920, Black ball players organized the first professional league of baseball teams. (Riley, 2002).
These Black players were every bit as dedicated to the game as the more famous white players. They were respected in their communities, often well-educated including college, and they played with skill, enthusiasm, humor and showmanship. In fact, Black baseball became a thriving financial enterprise that drew many astute white investors. The Negro League ball clubs were an important part of the communities they were a part of. (Emerge, 1997).
Because the games weren’t typically covered by the mainstream press of the day, people outside the Black community didn’t realize how talented many of these athletes were. Riley (2002) quotes Satchl Paige, one of the most famous of the Black ball players, as saying “There were many Satchels, many Joshs…” (referring to Josh Gibson, another outstanding Black ball player.)Today’s historians believe that many of these players would have belonged in mainstream major league baseball well before Jackie Robinson made that leap if it had not been for the color barrier. (Conrads, 1999; Riley, 2002).
GOLDEN YEARS OF THE NEGRO LEAGUE
Three years after Rube Foster founded the Negro National League, the Eastern Colored League was founded by Ed Bolden. (Riley, 2002). These two leagues operated for several years along with other Leagues of teams that would survive for a while and then collapse financially. These teams were consolidated into the Negro National League in 1933. Four years later the Negro American League was formed. (Riley, 2002).
Kram (1994) quowrote about what life was like on the road when playing for the Negro League. He talked about not doing it for widespread fame:
But if you were black and played baseball, well, look for your name only in the lineup before each game, or else you might not even see it there if you kept on dreamin’. Black baseball was a stone-hard gig. It was three games a day, sometimes in three different towns miles apart. It was the heat and fumes and bounces from buses that moved your stomach up to your throat and it was greasy meals at fly-papered diners at three a.m. And uniforms that were seldom off your back. “We slept with ’em on sometimes,” says Papa, “but there never was enough sleep. We got so we could sleep standin’ up.”
Conrads (1999) quoted the autobiography of Walter “Buck” Leonard, the famous first baseman, about the rigors of baseball:
Black baseball was tough. We’d play our way into shape. We didn’t have time for somebody to teach us fundamentals and inside baseball like the major leaguers did in the spring. As for backup plays, relays, cutoffs, and things like that, we learned by playing. We’d play every day. Anybody, anywhere, anytime.”
Compared to the salaries of white ball players, Black players didn’t make much. Kram (1994) reports that Papa Bell started out at $90 a month and was never paid more than $450 a month. According to Conrads (1999), Josh Gibson made $1,200 per month when he played for the “Homestead Grays” in the 1940’s. Black major league ball players could support their families well, but they made much less than the big white ball players of the time, such as Jo DiMaggio and Ted Williams. They could afford things most families strived for at the time – a home and a car. Although the lifestyle had its drawbacks, the players were held in high esteem in their communities, and often socialized with the other celebrities in their communities, such as the famous jazz musicians.
Many of the players played ball in the summertime and held down regular jobs for the rest of the year. Others discovered that Caribbean and South American teams would hire them to play for their teams and that they did not care what color a player was. So some players played in Cuba, The Dominican Republic or South American countries during the United States’ off-season.
Some white American players did this also, giving both Black players and today’s historians some justification for stating that many of the Negro League players could have competed well on any team. But there were other indications as well. Conrads (1999) writes:
Over the decades, black teams played 445 recorded games against white teams, winning 61% of them. Black teams did so well against major league teams that baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, embarrassed by the losses, put a stop to the practice.”
Shulian (2000) reports that Josh Gibson once hit a ball out of the Pittsburgh ballpark at least 470 feet, with the older and less effective equipment available then.
Black baseball had its own distinctive style. The players played with flair and humor, and there are suggestions that they didn’t always follow the rulebook completely (Kram, 1994), but it was entertainment as well as sports.
In addition, some non-professional teams used baseball to put on entertaining and humorous displays of athletic ability that reminds one of the basketball legends the Harlem Globetrotters. One team, called the “Zulu Cannibal Giants,” played in grass skirts and war paint. Another such team was the “Ethiopian Clowns. Their players had colorful names (ex: “Wahoo” and “Tarzan”) (Conrads, 1999). But League games were highly entertaining as well.
The history of the Negro Leagues is peppered with tall tales and imaginative exaggeration. Other players would brag about Oscar Charleston’s running speed, saying “he could run backwards faster than most people could run forward.” John “Buck” O’Neill claimed in his autobiography that one time the entire team of 13 players traveled to the next game in one car – eleven in the car, and two hanging on to the running boards (flat ledges under the doors that used to be standard features on cars.) (Emerge, 1997)
Satchel Paige was known for his theatrics. As he stood on the pitcher’s mound he would taunt the batter. He gave his pitches unique names such as “Big Tom,” “Be Ball,” “Bat Dodger, ” and “Midnight Creeper.” (Emerge, 1997) Paige was famous for the accuracy of his pitches, saying that during warm-up he could throw the ball over a gum wrapper. Like Mohammed Ali, he would give predictions of how he would play, announcing that he intended to strike out every batter he faced in the first three innings (Conrads, 1999) Another time he was reported to walk several players so he would have the privilege of making Josh Gibson strike out. Dizzy Dean, the famous white pitcher renowned for his fast balls, reportedly said, “My fastball looks like a change of pace alongside that little bullet old Satchel shoots up to the plate.” (Conrads, 1999)
Cool Papa Bell played professional ball until he was 47 years old. He was also famous for his fast running. Satchel Paige said, “Why, he was so fast he could turn out the light and jump in bed before the room got dark!” (Kram, 1994). He ran so fast that he once stole two bases on one hit. Kram reports as documented that Bell circled the field in 13.1 seconds on “mushy” ground, 2/5 of a second faster than the standing record. He was a good hitter and fielder as well as a swift runner. He hit with precision the way Satchel Paige threw with precision, and it was said he could hit balls into holes in the fence. (Kram, 1994). Once Bell stopped playing baseball, he slipped into obscurity and was found some years later, working as a janitor in the City Hall in St. Louis, MO, not far from St. Louis’ large baseball stadium.
Not all the Negro League players had happy lives. Josh Gibson led a sad life. His young wife died in childbirth, and both his career and his grief seem to have separated him from the twins that had been born, who were raised by relatives (Schulian, 2000). Gibson had a mighty batting arm and reportedly once hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium, something Babe Ruth was never able to do. Later he developed mental illness, drank too much, and was in mental hospitals more than once. He died in his mother’s home at age thirty-five, three months before Jackie Robinson made history by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. (Schulian, 2000). His batting record was remarkable, with a.354 batting average. He entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
Kram (1994) reports that Satchel Paige told an amazing story about the times of the Negro Leagues. In 1937, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, had become unpopular. According to Paige he decided that if he brought a really good baseball game to his country, he could boost his ratings with his people. He believed that if his country won the pennant for their league, it would ease his political difficulties.
Paige reports that agents of Trujillo virtually kidnapped home from his hotel in New Orleans. Then he got Paige to help him recruit other outstanding Black players, such as Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson. Once Trujillo had Shanghaied one team player and coaxed others into playing, he had to make sure the players stayed in his country for the game. Kram reports that Bell said,
He wanted us to stay in pajamas,” says Papa, “and all our meals were served to us in our rooms, and guards circled our living quarters…. “We all knew the situation was serious, but it wasn’t until later that we heard how bad it was. We found out that, as far as Trujillo was concerned, we either won or we were going to lose big. That means he was going to kill us.”
The story has some credibility because Bell was not a person to seek the limelight about his baseball career once it was over.
THE END OF THE NEGRO LEAGUES
The Negro Leagues did well financially. The Black community rallied around their players. They were highly regarded and respected in their communities. The fans who went to the Black games also saw the white teams play, and they knew their community players were of high caliber. As was noted earlier, some white entrepreneurs invested in Black teams, so they knew the financial value of the players.
It was Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who brought Jackie Robinson into the major leagues. Robinson had played for the Kansas City Monarchs (Emerge, 1997) and was carefully chosen for personal as well as athletic qualities. Both Blacks and whites realized that if this experiment didn’t work, the door would remain shut to other Black ball players. It seems likely that the motivation to bring in a Black player was economic rather than from a sense of righting wrongs, but the fact was that Jackie Robinson was a success in the major leagues. (Conrads, 1999) His success opened the doors for the best of the other outstanding players from the Negro Leagues.
The Black Negro League teams continued to play for several years after this, but with their best players picked off to play for white teams, the quality of their teams declined. The Negro teams faded into history for most Americans, along with the many outstanding players who were born just a little too soon to move into the newly integrated major league teams. Of course, the Black players weren’t forgotten within their own communities, but their contribution to baseball was lost from the larger culture’s consciousness.
AFTER THE NEGRO LEAGUES
Robinson was an excellent choice to knock the color line down. While he played baseball he remained dignified and spoke with restraint, although he experienced considerable discrimination from fans, team members and while traveling. He could not stay at the same hotels the rest of the team stayed at, and often when they stopped for meals he had to pick his up at the back door while the rest of the team sat down in the restaurant to eat.
Once he retired from baseball, he became a prominent Civil Rights leader. He helped raise funds for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and became a board member of that group. He spoke out publicly against discrimination.
He took particular interest when the Supreme Court declared the concept of “Separate but Equal” an invalid and illegal concept. That ruling paved the way to dismantle official segregation in the United States.
Little Rock, Arkansas, was one of the first southern cities to attempt to desegregate their schools. They intended to do it a little at a time, starting with a few Black students in the high school. The governor of the state at this time attempted to stop this action using Arkansas National Guard. Robinson campaigned vigorously in several letters to then President Eisenhower, urging him to take action and to ensure that the United States Constitution was upheld. Eisenhower did do so, sending in federal troops to face Faubus’ National Guard, and the school was integrated. Robinson more than many Black and white citizens of his day knew what a difference one successful integration could make (Vernon, 1999).
At the time Eisenhower acted, Robinson commended him for intervening. However, he was later more critical, believing that Eisenhower should have acted more forcefully on behalf of equality between the races. Robinson believed it was his duty to continue to work to end segregation, and did so to the end of his life.
Conrads (1999) notes that there was very little bitterness among former Negro League players for being kept out of the major leagues. Some of the older players did have such an opportunity. Clifford “Connie” Johnson, who played with Robinson for the Kansas City Monarchs, played for the Chicago White Sox and the Baltimore Orioles. But he was thirty-six then, and at the end of his career, and the teams were looking for younger players. According to Conrads, Johnson and others believed that they had helped participate in the integration of baseball by helping make Negro ball so compelling that it could not be ignored.
The Negro Leagues paralleled the white leagues in some of their activities. They held eleven Negro World Series games and played many All-Stars games that were the largest Black-based sports events in the United States. (Riley, 2002)
While some Negro League players have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, a museum has been opened in Kansas City to commemorate the Negro Leagues. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, remembers 2,600 baseball players. They played in three different dvisions. There were 74 teams in all, playing for 30 different cities before the League died away completely in 1960 (Emerge, 1997). The site of the museum is not far from the site where the first Negro league of ball teams, the Negro National League, was formed in 1920.
The Negro leagues contributed to American baseball in many ways. They are credited with developing both the batting helmet and the shin guard, and were the first teams to use lights to play at night (Conrads, 1999). That first half-century, when two sets of leagues played parallel games, world series and all-star games, eventually helped change the face of America by helping lead us out of official segregation into a time when we can continue to work to treat all men as equals.
Author not available. “A Museum of Their Own: Kansas City’s home for Negro League baseball.” Emerge. June 1997.
Conrads, David. “Sacrifice Play: The Negro Baseball Leagues Remembered.” The World & I. December 1999.
Kram, Mark. “No Place in the Shade: Cool Papa Bell.” Sports Illustrated. June 20, 1994.
Riley, James A. “Negro Baseball Leages” website. TK Publishers. Accessed via the Internet 3/25/02. http://www.blackbaseball.com/
Schulian, John. “Josh Gibson: Laughing On the Outside.” Sports Illustrated. June 26, 2000.
Vernon, John. “A Citizen’s View of Presidential Responsibility.” Negro History Bulletin. December 1999.
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