When Johnson defeated Jeffries, however, it unleashed white violence against blacks nationwide. "In Washington, D.C., the Washington Bee reported, 'White ruffians showed their teeth and attacked almost every colored person they saw upon the public streets'."
Similar events occurred in New York City and tiny towns in the deep South. By the time Jackie Robinson left the Negro Leagues, the backlash was not nearly so pronounced. Arguably, the Negro Leagues kept violence at bay, while producing athletes of exceptional quality without risking Jim Crow law violence.
That, of course, is shining a favorable light on a tradition that is not worthy of accolade, and that arguably prevented numerous black ballplayers from receiving a fraction of their worth.
Today, few people understand the sociological factors that prevented black and white baseball players from competition with each other, as opponents or as members of racially mixed teams. They therefore know even less about those who played for a virtually completely black audience of ball fans. And they know almost nothing of the financial advantage taken of the Negro League equivalents of modern Hank Aarons and Reggie Jacksons and Barry Bonds.
Nonetheless, during the parallel development of the major leagues and the Negro leagues, more than "4,000 men displayed their talents in the arenas of black baseball," most being of major league caliber. Finally, "approximately three dozen of these stars shone with such magnificence as to have merited selection to the National Baseball Hall of Fame" among them several Tidewater players.
But Tidewater teams, of which the Norfolk Red Stockings were probably the most famous and one of the first, often did not fare well when they were on the road, according to the few national reports extant about them today. Of one tournament in the late 1800s, it was said that "The Red Stockings of Norfolk showed up well in the tournament, but luck seemed to be against them....All their games were hotly contested, but in the closing innings, luck would invariably step in and beat them."
"gentleman's game," baseball in the aftermath of the Civil War, was a pastime of all classes, creeds and races: it was still an amateur sport and some black Americans (although obviously not in Georgia) played on teams with whites or in all-black amateur leagues. The color line first appeared the year before the sport went pro: "black ballplayers were excluded from participation by the National Association of Baseball Players on December 11, 1868 when the governing body voted unanimously to bar 'any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons'."
Oddly enough, professional baseball was not bound by the rule, and three were integrated professional teams and leagues. This had changed, however, before the turn of the century, and there were no black players in baseball.
By force, black players had to form all-black ball clubs and all-black leagues. The first black league was organized in 1920 in Kansas City, Missouri by Andrew "Rube" Foster. The league was called the Negro National League and had teams in the South and Midwest; it operated until 1931. In 1923, the Eastern Colored League was formed and in 1924, the first Negro World Series was played between the championship clubs of the ECL and NNL. The ECL was dismantled in 1928, with the member teams resuming in 1929 as the American Negro League.
The Depression hit black baseball hard. In 1932, the East-West League formed, folding before the first season ended. The Negro Southern League was the only one to survive that season. In 1933, a second Negro National League was formed, operating alone until 1937. "In 1937, teams in the South and the Midwest formed the Negro American League. The NAL and the NNL coexisted through the 1948 season. In 1949, the NNL was absorbed in the NAL, which operated as the last black major league through 1960."
Like the white major leagues, the black leagues had a World Series. Played in Chicago's Comiskey Part, it was considered more important than the World Series, attracting between 20,000 and 50,000 fans yearly.
Unfortunately, the Negro National League, the last remaining black league, folded in 1948, shortly after Jackie Robinson became a member of the first integrated major league team in the 20th century. 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."
Disappearance of the black shadow league parallels U.S. black experience
It is arguable that the black leagues would have folded anyway. At the very least, their rise, problems, and demise can be taken as a metaphor for the black experience generally during the first half of the twentieth century. The players themselves remember the era as happy times; lawyers looking back on it see all the financial pitfalls and finagling that might have taken Negro League ball down in time even if it had not succumbed to integration with the white major leagues. Even in this respect, former players and current observers see the entire matter differently.
While the common wisdom says that the players in the Negro League Baseball clubs were exceptional, Thomas Burt, a Tidewater player, sees it differently.
He thinks "most of the Negro League players couldn't hold a candle to today's well-trained athletes" and he wonders what would have happened if Jackie Robinson had not been hired by the major league. Burt is grateful for the chance Robinson provided for other Negro League stars who went on to the majors, including Roy Campanella, believing Robinson's success made it happen 20 years sooner than it might have.
Burt, who was not a star in the league, played second baseman and shortstop for the Indianapolis Clowns (similar to the Harlem Globetrotters), as well as playing for the Portsmouth Barons, nevertheless "was quick with his glove at second base or shortstop, respectably speedy on the basepaths, and he could hold his own at the plate." Burt played for the Clown in 1950 and 1951, after Jackie Robinson's hiring had "signaled the beginning of the end of the Negro Leagues."
Still, the region was the site of post-Negro League black baseball. In 1953, Burt played for the Willie Mays All-Stars, a barnstorming outfit. "Mays was named to head the team while stationed at Fort Eustis Army Base in Newport News, adding an established name to draw crowds, as was the custom for such teams of the era."
The fact that Burt drives a bus for the Norfolk Public Schools, and the few of his passengers know of his baseball career, is typical of the 'second careers' of former Tidewater Negro League players: The Virginian-Pilot is full of one-line announcements of these men receiving belated recognition or participating in various 'hall of fame' events. (it's typical for all former Negro League players, however. Buck O'Neil, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs, was too old by "the time the white folks of America decided to allow African-Americans in their baseball leagues...."
The end of Negro League Baseball: A matter of color and money?
Tidewater's Thomas Buck is among many who attribute the failure of the Negro League to integration. Matthewson, writing in the American Business Law Journal, makes a good case that it did not have to happen: that money and mismanagement were also involved. He contends that the demise of the Negro Leagues was not inevitable after Jackie Robinson became a 'white household' name. He contends that:
The absorption of one or more teams into the Major Leagues might have been a possibility if the Negro League owners had understood the monopoly forces they faced, if the civil rights community had been supportive of the owners, and/or if the Major League owners could have overcome their bigotry.
Matthewson bases his claim, also, on the fact that other black sports organizations -- the American Tennis Association (ATA), the Harlem Globetrotters and Black college sports -- have survived and even thrived. This is in direct contrast to the Clowns, the baseball equivalent of the well-loved Globetrotters, to which Buck belonged at that comedy-baseball team's demise.
He also believes that the Negro Leagues' star making proclivities, which arguably produced a Jackie Robinson to take the major leagues by storm, are one of a confluence of factors that caused the demise of the Negro Leagues. In addition, he notes that the star-making apparatus caused the Negro Leagues to operate with "weak relational contract structures...." But the main reason, he says, that Thomas Buck is driving a bus instead of being emeritus coach of a ball team somewhere is the monopoly power enjoyed by the Major Leagues. Matthewson notes:
By 1922, perhaps earlier, the Major Leagues had acquired a monopoly over the market for White professional baseball players in the United States…