Tomorrow, Sunday August 16, Major League Baseball is observing the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues. Part of that observation will include the wearing of throwback uniforms, which I love. In July 2018 I wrote an encyclopedia article on Negro baseball for a project that eventually got cancelled. For two years I have been waiting to find a spot for it somewhere, and that tine has come. Today is part one, which brings the story up to 1945; tomorrow will cover the succeeding seventy-five years. I hope you enjoy reading the piece as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.
Baseball originated in America in the decades immediately prior to the Civil War. No one person invented the game. Instead players created different rules independently of each other in different locales. Baseball also evolved from such European games as cricket and rounders. African-Americans too enjoyed playing baseball and were active in the game’s growth. Freepersons and slaves fielded teams during the years of the game’s development. Union and Confederate alike played the game in their respective camps during the Civil War, further spreading and standardizing the game. Black and white squads barnstormed after the war, playing games as they could. In 1869 the first white professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was founded. The Cuban Giants, formed in 1885, were the first African-American professional team. As the game grew more institutionalized during the Gilded Age black and white players played in a number of predominantly segregated baseball leagues. Some of these now long gone affiliations of clubs are considered major leagues up to the present time.
In 1876 the National League came into being. The American League was founded in 1901. Determining the role of African-Americans in the early years of organized baseball can be difficult given the scarce data and varying criteria. John W. “Bud” Fowler is believed to be the first African-American to break professional baseball’s color barrier, playing for a number of minor league clubs from 1878 to at least 1895. Scholars usually credit Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played the 1884 season for a Toledo team in the American Association, with being the first African-American to play for a major league team.
Though there were six dozen African-Americans playing minor league or independent ball in the late nineteenth century, major league baseball, like the nation itself, was entirely segregated by this time due to the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” among owners to exclude blacks. African-American teams and leagues nonetheless remained popular and were common in the early 1900s. African-American baseball began a new era when Andrew “Rube” Foster founded the National Negro League on February 13, 1920. Properly understood, Foster’s creation was the origin of what is today called the Negro Leagues. The Negro National League was initially quite successful with teams primarily in the Midwest fielding such stars as Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige, third baseman William Julius “Judy” Johnson, slick fielding shortstop John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, and center fielders James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell and Oscar McKinley Charleston. However, organized black baseball faced increasing hardship as African-American communities struggled financially in the late 1920s. The NNL further floundered with Foster’s declining health and eventual death in 1930. The Great Depression hit the Negro National League hard and the organization disbanded in 1931.
A newly reconstituted Negro National League began in 1933 and a competing Negro American League started play in 1937. The new Negro National League now played in the Northeast; the Negro American League was concentrated in the Midwest and South. The champions of these leagues played a Negro World Series from 1942-48. Previous African-American leagues in the 1920s had played what organizers called the Colored Championship of the World. The 1930s and 1940s are considered the golden age for Negro League baseball. Stars of this era included not only many holdovers from the previous era but new standouts such as slugger Walter “Buck” Leonard, Monford “Monty” Irvin, Roy Campanella, and Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson. The annual East-West All-Star game was an especially popular feature in Negro League baseball. Prominent Negro teams spanning various eras and leagues included the Birmingham Black Barons, Chicago American Giants, Hilldale (PA) Daisies, Homestead (PA) Grays, Indianapolis ABCs, Kansas City Monarchs, Newark Eagles, and Pittsburgh Crawfords.
Meanwhile baseball was growing beyond the borders of the United States as American influence expanded. Cubans had played baseball to a limited degree in the nineteenth century. Esteban Enrique Bellán of Havana became the first Latino to play major league baseball in the United States when he played the 1871-1873 seasons for the Troy (NY) Haymakers and New York Mutuals of the National Association. Cubans in turn introduced the game in the Spanish-speaking country of the Dominican Republic. The game quickly gained popularity in other Latin American countries, across parts of the Caribbean, and in Mexico as well. Baseball in Cuba was waning by the time of the Spanish-American War. The American presence after the conflict rejuvenated interest in the game, leading to a baseball renaissance on the island that continues up to the present time.
Baseball also spread across the Pacific. The Japanese began playing the game as early as the 1870s. American teams, usually comprised of all-stars, began visiting in the years shortly after the Russo-Japanese War. The most famous of these goodwill tours was a 22-game visit to the Far East featuring such American players as Jimmie Foxx, Vernon Louis “Lefty” Gomez, Lou Gehrig, and George Herman “Babe” Ruth playing against Japanese and other Asian all-stars in 1934. Many of these countries in the Caribbean, Latin America and the Far East developed their own leagues and built ballparks of professional standards. There were always at least a few Hispanic baseball players in the various major leagues from Bellán’s service in Troy in 1871 up through the full integration of colored players into Major League Baseball after the Second World War.
(image: top, National Baseball Hall of Fame, National Baseball Library; middle, RMY Auctions; bottom, Stuart Thomson photographer)