June 2, 2006
WHEN MAJOR LEAGUE Baseball in 1997 retired the number 42 worn by Jackie Robinson, it honored the 50th anniversary of his breaking the sport's color barrier. But as baseball's Hall of Fame prepares this summer to honor more black players from the past, it's worth remembering that Robinson was not the first black to play in the majors, but the first to do so since 1900.
It has been almost 60 years since Robinson's triumph, which wiped out a ban that had begun 60 years before, in 1887, when white owners and players entered into a "gentlemen's agreement" to keep blacks out of baseball.
As early as the 1860s, when baseball was played by amateurs, blacks and whites played on integrated teams in and around New York.
In 1867, while America was passing the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection under the law, the foremost white amateur league officially banned Negroes from its teams. Four years later the National Association, the first professional league, denied membership to the Pythians, an all-black team from Philadelphia. By 1876 the National Association had morphed into the National League and was deemed an all-white league. The "gentlemen" were in agreement. However, this wasn't quite the end of the story. In fact, a number of blacks played alongside whites between the end of the Civil War and the late 1880s.
John "Bud" Fowler, Moses Fleetwood Walker, and George Stovey were among the first professional black players. Fowler played briefly in 1878 for a white team in the International Association, a minor league, becoming the first black pro player. He was also, before the end of the century, the last known black ballplayer to play regularly in the white minor leagues.
"Fleet" Walker was a standout catcher at Oberlin College. The son of a doctor, he left school after his sophomore year in 1883 to play professionally, signing with the Toledo Blue Stockings in the Northwestern League. A year later that club joined the American Association -- the second recognized major league -- and Walker became the first black pro player in the majors.
Like Robinson, Walker endured ongoing abuse. Crowds, especially in the South, hissed and insulted him. One of his own pitchers, Tony Mullane, admitted to crossing him up by throwing pitches that Walker hadn't called for, contributing to swollen hands and split fingers. (Mullane later privately called Walker the best catcher he ever had.) There were hotels where Walker was not welcome and opposing players who refused to take the field against him.
One of those players was Adrian ``Cap" Anson, the most accomplished of all 19th-century players. Anson was the first player to amass 3,000 hits and was known as much for his brilliant strategy as for his hitting. He's credited with creating pre-season training and was the first coach to use hand signals to communicate instead of shouting across the diamond.
He also was a racist. In 1883 when his Chicago Nationals were scheduled to play against Toledo in an exhibition game, Anson refused to take the field because of Walker's presence. However, being a shrewd pragmatist as well as strategist, Anson backed down when informed he would forfeit his share of the gate receipts.
While Walker continued playing, the presence of blacks on rosters began to dwindle as the owners increasingly bowed to the segregationist policies sweeping the country. In 1887 Anson, as player manager for the Chicago White Stockings, refused to play an exhibition game against a team from Newark because of the prospect of facing black pitcher Stovey. While Anson's history suggests he was primarily concerned with the color of Stovey's skin, he equally may have feared his pitching skill. Stovey, on his way to winning 34 games that year, was highly coveted by the National League's New York Giants. Anson and many white players felt threatened by the talent of black players and opted to protect their livelihood and status. Both Stovey and his catcher that day, Walker, turned up ``sick" and unable to play.
In the wake of that highly publicized flap, the owners of the International League banned black players. By the mid 1890s the number of blacks in the white professional leagues was reduced to a handful, and then to none. The ``gentlemen's agreement" had taken full hold.
Ironically, when Robinson entered the big leagues in 1947, his arrival signaled the eventual death knell for the Negro Leagues, as Major League Baseball once again became integrated.
Teddy Tannenbaum is an organizational consultant and author of the forthcoming book "A Look at the Game."
Courtesy of Teddy Tannenbaum