Dec 23 2010

The Negro Leagues: An Introduction

An Introduction…

As it first flowed from its origin, the river of baseball history diverged at one point and formed a separate branch that paralleled the mainstream for a half-century, until finally the waters were rejoined, making the river whole again.

During this separation, baseball was not complete. The majority of Americans rode with the flow of the mainstream, following its course intently, with only an occasional excursion to see the flow of the parallel stream.

Thus, for a half-century, white Americans sat watching major league baseball, only vaguely aware of the shadowy world of black baseball that existed beyond the scope of their vision. To most white baseball observors, black ballplayers were as unreal as the shadows on Plato’s wall. In this world of reflected images there existed exceptionally talented players whose ability was unsurpassed anywhere.

Best known to today’s baseball world are Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. But as Satchel himself said, “There were many Satchels, many Joshs.” And indeed there were. There in the shadows of black baseball were the players who were yesteryear’s equivalent of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Lou Brock, Reggie Jackson, Barry Bonds, David Justice, Cecil Fielder, Ken Griffey, Jr., Frank Thomas, Ron Gant, Fred McGriff, Albert Belle, Ricky Henderson, Mo Vaughn, Andruw Jones and so many others. The list is endless.

Try to imagine post World War II baseball without the black baseball stars. Visualize if you will baseball today without the black stars to complement the white stars. Obviously all great black baseball players were not born after 1947 when Jackie Robinson re-integrated major league baseball. They were always there, required by custom and circumstance to play in their own separate leagues.

This period of separation is remote from the memory of the majority of the current populace. Today’s younger generation, as well as most of the older generation now, do not fully understand the sociological factors which prohibited black and white baseball players from engaging in competition together. Consequently, they know and understand even less about the men who were destined to demonstrate their abilities to a comparatively small segment of American society. And who were these men who displayed their talent in virtual obscurity?

During the half-century of dual baseball development, over 4,000 men displayed their talents in the arenas of black baseball, most of which were of major league caliber. Many of these possessed sufficient skills to have been first-line players in the major leagues, and best of this group would have won stardom. And finally, approximately three dozen of these stars shone with such magnificence as to have merited selection to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Extrapolating the past from the present, if the black leagues and the white leagues had been merged into the current 28-team configuration, an average black team during this period of separation would have had 14 players on their roster who possessed major league talent. Seven of the first nine could have won starting positions in the major leagues, with the top three players being “stars.” For any given year, two out of every three teams would have a player in their line-up with Hall of Fame qualifications. By inherent necessity, the better teams would have exceeded these constraints, while lesser teams would have failed to meet these parameters.

Still, the greats and the near-greats and the not-so-greats were there, unnoticed by the vast majority of America, until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 and opened the game of Major League Baseball to all men, regardless of the color of their skin.

Baseball was originally a “gentleman’s game” played by members of rival athletic clubs for recreation. In the aftermath of the Civil War, baseball enjoyed a great surge in interest, activity and growth. Americans of all classes, creeds and races joined in the game that became our national pastime. Baseball was then still an amateur sport and some black Americans played on all-black ballclubs while others played on integrated teams.

However, black ballplayers were excluded from participation by the National Association of Baseball Players on December 11, 1868 when the the governing body voted unanimously to bar “any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.” This was the first appearance of an official “color line” in baseball.

When baseball attained professinal status the following season, pro teams were not bound by the amateur association’s ruling, and during the 19th century black ballplayers appeared on integrated teams and some black teams played in integrated leagues. Two brothers, Moses Fleetwood Walker and Welday Walker, even played in the major leagues in 1884. But gradually, black players began to be excluded from the white leagues and by the beginning of the new century, there were no black players in organized baseball.

However, black Americans continued to play baseball. By necessity they played on all-black teams and eventually in all-black leagues. The first black professional team was the Cuban Giants in 1885, but the teams played as independent ballclubs until the first black league was organized in 1920.

That year Rube Foster, the father of black baseball, founded the Negro National League. Three years later, in 1923, Ed Bolden formed the Eastern Colored League. These two leagues operated successfully for several years before they fell victim to financial difficulties. Other black major leagues also operated for a single season but were not able to continue on a sound fiscal basis.

Eventually, two new leagues were organized. A new Negro National League was formed in 1933 and the Negro American League was chartered in 1937. These two leagues thrived until the color line was broken. During their existence, the Negro Leagues played eleven World Series (1924-27, 1942-48) and created their own All-Star game (1933-48) that became the biggest black sports attraction in the country.

The Negro National League folded following the 1948 season and, although black teams continued to play for several years, they were no longer of major league caliber. The demise of the Negro Leagues was inevitable as the younger black players were signed by the white major league franchises.

A world existed for a half-century when the best black players were not allowed to play on the same field with the best white players. During this era of separation, there were two parallel major leagues that co-existed until the eradication of baseball’s color line when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a Brooklyn Dodger contract. The history of the white major leagues has been well chronicled, but only in recent years has the history of the black major leagues started to get the recognition that it deserves. The Negro Leagues showcased some of the greatest baseball talent of all-time and had a special essence that was all its own.

This web site is designed to preserve and promote this segment of baseball history and is respectfully dedicated to the men who played during this era – so that they will be remembered as more than just a name in an obscure boxscore or bits of dust caught in the cobwebs of an old man’s memory.

Adapted from The All-Time All Stars of Black Baseball by James A. Riley, copyright 1983 by TK Publishers. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from the publisher.

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