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…