African Americans played baseball throughout American history, likely even back in 1792, the year of the first written mention of the game. The sport gained popularity after the Civil War, when men from around the country had played together while serving in the military. Teams, some integrated and some not, formed around the nation, and began to professionalize. In 1867, the National Association of Amateur Baseball Players issued a recommendation “against the admission [to the association] of any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.” By 1900, baseball, like the country, was segregated—although several African Americans, including brothers Fleet and Welday Walker, had played in the league before the ban on non-white players took effect.
Soon, professional all-black teams were formed. The first of these was the Cuban Giants, established in 1885, who played to packed crowds on Long Island during the summer and in Cuba during the winter months. Other teams followed the same pattern of heading south to play in the winter, sometimes to Latin America, where baseball was always integrated. (Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Latinos played on American all-black teams and white professional teams, while African Americans played on integrated teams in Latin America.)
These teams would play local baseball clubs, regardless of skin color, on diamonds ranging from major or minor league stadiums to small-town fields. Most drew large crowds. But without their own stadiums, teams were dependent on white booking agents for access to venues, and they couldn’t set their own schedules. Booking agents also determined how much of the revenue from games was paid to team owners.
The Negro National League
In 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster organized a meeting of owners of professional black baseball teams. Foster, a retired pitcher and owner of the Chicago American Giants, the city’s best black baseball team, sought to “create a profession that would equal the earning capacity of any other profession…[and] keep Colored baseball from the control of whites... [and] do something concrete for the loyalty of the Race.”
Negro league baseball teams had their own style of play: fast, aggressive, and with a bit of showmanship. Some teams, like the Indianapolis Clowns, deliberately incorporated entertainment—ball tricks, juggling, dancing, and slight-of-hand moves—into their games.
The East-West All Star Game
The Great Depression hit black professional baseball hard. Most teams, as well as the Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League, folded between 1929 and 1932. Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawford as well as Greenlee Field, the only black-owned baseball field in the country, revived the Negro National League the following season.
Greenlee, a businessman who had made his fortune running illegal lotteries, brought his marketing acumen to the league. He established the East-West All Star Game, modeled on Major League Baseball’s All Star Game. But instead of having sportswriters vote on the best players in the league, as Major League Baseball did, Greenlee opened up voting to fans. The idea was a hit, and the East-West Game drew baseball fans and black celebrities from around the country. The East-West Game drew more fans than the MLB’s All Star Game ten times in the 29 years it was played.
After WWII, when soldiers of all races were critical to victory, pressure grew to integrate American institutions, including baseball. Jackie Robinson, a shortstop who began his career with the Kansas City Monarchs, was signed to play for a minor league team affiliated with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945. After a season with their farm team, Robinson “broke baseball’s color line” when he walked onto the field at Ebbets Stadium in Flatbush, Brooklyn on April 15, 1947.
As black players joined Major League teams, black fans—and their money—followed. The Negro National League folded in 1948. Its rival, the Negro American League, hung on through the 1950s, attempting to draw crowds by including women on their teams.
The contributions and achievements of Negro league baseball teams are often overlooked, but not forgotten. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, works to preserve the story of African American baseball in the United States, and thirty-five Negro league players, executives, and managers are now recognized in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, including Effa Manley, co-owner of the Newark Eagles and the first woman inducted.
Toni Stone is now running through August 11th at the Laura Pels Theatre.