Here is Baseball Spotlight’s brief history of the Negro League. The Negro League began as a result of the increasing popularity of baseball and segregation after the Civil War. In the 1860s Baseball was the most popular sport and was already described as America’s national pastime.
The National Association of Amateur Baseball Players rejected African American membership in 1867. In 1871 the first professional baseball league formed and the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was established.
Despite the talent of African Americans playing baseball at the time, the owners in the professional league made a pact to keep black players out.
The Beginning of the History of the Negro League
There are records dating back to 1855 showing that there were African American clubs in the New York Area. Despite being banned from the Professional National League, which sought to keep baseball a white man’s game, African Americans played various levels of professional baseball in the 1880s.
At that time black players joined teams like the St. Louis Black Stockings and the Cuban Giants which were segregated clubs. In 1885 the New York Cuban Giants became the first salaried professional black baseball team.
During the 1890s black players were mostly limited to playing exhibition games that were played on the “barnstorming circuit”.
There were some exceptions. In 1884 catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker played for the Toledo Blue Stockings and became the first African American to play in the “major league.”
Infielders Frank Grant and Bud Fowler and pitcher George Stovey played in the International League in New York and New Jersey leading their team to victory 118 out of 154 games. Despite their talent and great success, in 1899 the opportunity for Black players to play in white leagues ended.
Although black players continued to play in “colored” circuits and there was a “Colored Championship of the World” held in 1903 where Rube Foster pitched for the Cuban Giants, teams were often denied access to white-controlled large stadiums.
The Negro National League
In 1920 Rube Foster was successful in founding the Negro National League and served as its president. He is known as “the father of black baseball.” The Negro league began with 8 teams: Chicago Giants, Chicago American Giants, Cuban Stars, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Kansas City Monarchs, Indianapolis ABCs, and the St. Louis Giants. The NNL operated successfully until 1931.
The Great Depression years hit black baseball hard. In 1933 a second Negro National League emerged but only lasted about 4 years. However, while it lasted, the new National League was very successful. Gus Greenlee introduced the East-West All-Star Game in Chicago. That event became the sports’ hugest annual event with over 50,000 fans in attendance.
During this period the Negro Leagues were successful. They attracted high-quality players and were backed by rich, flashy owners who were involved in gambling and other illegal activity. The games were well marketed and the talent was undeniable. The most famous player was pitcher Satchel Paige.
American League and the World Series
In 1937, the Negro American League formed and joined teams from the Midwest and South to play the Negro National League. These leagues flourished bringing in almost 3 million fans to the 1942 World Series that had re-emerged in September of that year.
In the 1940s there was the beginning of a movement to integrate major league baseball. Jackie Robinson, who was a star athlete from UCLA and Nate Moreland began to work out with the Chicago White Sox.
In 1944 the Commissioner of Baseball, who was a strict segregationist, died. This helped pave the way for Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Dodgers, to approach Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Breaking Down Barriers
Jackie Robinson was a phenomenal athlete. In fact, he lettered in football, basketball, track, and baseball while attending UCLA. He even won the junior boys championship in the Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament. Additionally, Robinson had served in the Army after being drafted in 1942.
He was court-marshaled while there for refusing to sit in the back of a segregated bus. Later, he was exonerated. This helped create an opening to usher in reforms for social justice. Jackie Robinson seemed to be the perfect black player to integrate baseball. Unfortunately, the baseball world was slow to adapt.
Robinson integrated the major leagues as the first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. Robinson was an immediate success on the field.
He led the National League in stolen bases and was chosen Rookie of the Year. In 1949 he won the batting championship with a .342 average and was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP).
Page and Doby Win a Ring
Also paving the way to integrate Major League Baseball, Larry Doby began playing for the Cleveland Indians who also signed Satchel Page. Paige and Doby helped the Indians win the World Series in 1948.
As more African Americans, like Roy Campanella and Monte Irvin joined Robinson, Doby and Paige in the white Major Leagues, the Negro Leagues started to lose their fans.
This led the Negro National League to disband in 1948 and the Negro American League to have little financial success in the following years.
The 1950s brought in the Civil Rights Movement, yet baseball as of 1953 only had 6 of 16 teams with Black players. But, with great stars like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Ernie Banks bringing such attention to the game, baseball became completely integrated by 1959.
We Shall Overcome
Jackie Robinson was an ambassador for equality and was active in changing the playing field as well, joining the NAACP and using his celebrity to increase awareness about social justice.
By 1960 the American Negro League folded. Although some clubs struggled to survive, the major talent went to the major sports franchises and by 1989, only the Indianapolis Clowns continued to play as a traveling team. They disbanded in 1989.
Although the Negro Leagues don’t exist any longer and baseball is completely integrated, Major League Baseball Commissioner, Rob Manfred recognized the historic importance of the once segregated leagues.
In December of 2020, seven Negro leagues were recognized as official major league clubs. Their players, their stats, their records have now also been integrated into major league baseball as they are recorded in their record books. Something that should have been done long ago, but another step in the right direction nonetheless.
Head over to the Baseball Spotlight Library for more history of the Negro League and MLB.
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