Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Negro League History 101 - Part 1 of 2

Courtesy of negroleaguebaseball.com
(Part 1 of 2 Parts)

Most everyone knows that Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play major league baseball during the modern era. Surprisingly, few people have given much thought to how Robinson came to the attention of major league scouts, where he played before signing with the Dodgers, or just what the nature of baseball in the black community might have been before professional baseball's integration.

In the following paragraphs we'll take a quick trip through the years of baseball in black America that led up to Robinson's 1947 debut in Brooklyn. Our tour is intended to introduce those who are just learning about the Negro Leagues to this fascinating era in the history of American sports and society. There won't be much here to interest the baseball aficionado -- just a brief introduction for those newly discovering Negro League baseball.

1. The Baseball World Before 1890.

While it would be quite a stretch to say that professional baseball in the North was integrated between the end of the Civil War and 1890, quite a number of African-Americans played alongside white athletes on minor league and major league teams during the period. Although the original National Association of Base Ball Players, formed in 1867, had banned black athletes, by the late 1870s several African-American players were active on the rosters of white, minor league teams. Most of these players fell victim to regional prejudices and an unofficial color ban after brief stays with white teams, but some notable exceptions built long and solid careers in white professional baseball.

In 1884 the Stillwater, Minnesota club in the Northwestern league signed John W. "Bud" Fowler, an African-American with more than a decade's experience as an itinerate, professional player. Fowler, a second-baseman by preference, played virtually every position on the field for Stillwater, enhancing the reputation that had brought him to the attention of white team owners. Fowler's baseball career continued through the end of the 19th Century, much of it spent on the rosters of minor league clubs in organized baseball.

In 1883 former Oberlin College star Moses "Fleetwood" Walker began his professional career with Toledo in the Northwestern League. A more than average hitter, Walker was among baseball's finest catchers almost from the beginning of his career. When the Toledo club joined the American Association in 1884 Walker became the first black player to play with a major league franchise.

In 1886 both Walker and Fowler were in the white minor leagues along with two other black stars, George Stovey and Frank Grant. Doubtless, many other black players were playing with teams in the "outlaw" leagues and independent barnstorming clubs. At least in the North and Midwest the best black players found a measure of tolerance, if not acceptance, in white baseball until the end of the 1880s. But in 1890 this situation abruptly changed.

As the season of 1890 began there were no black players in the International League, the most prestigious of the minor league circuits. Without making a formal announcement, a gentlemen's agreement had been made which would bar black players from participation for the next fifty-five years. Though black players continued to find work in lesser leagues for a time, within only a few short years no team in organized baseball would accept black players. By the turn of the century the color barrier was firmly in place.

2. Professional Black Baseball Comes To The Fore

While Fowler, Walker, Grant and others were working to find a spot (and keep it) in organized baseball, other black players were pursuing careers with the more than 200 all-black independent teams that performed throughout the country from the early 1880s forward. Eastern teams like the powerful Cuban Giants, Cuban X Giants and Harrisburg Giants played both independently and in loosely organized leagues through the end of the century, and in the early 1900s professional black baseball began to blossom throughout America's heartland and even in the South.

The early years of the 20th Century saw an emergence of several powerful black clubs in the Midwest. Teams like the Chicago Giants, Indianapolis ABCs, St. Louis Giants and Kansas City Monarchs rose to prominence and presented a legitimate challenge to the claim of diamond supremacy made by Eastern clubs like the Lincoln Giants in New York, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Cuban Stars and Homestead (Pa.) Grays. In the South, black baseball was flourishing in Birmingham's industrial leagues, and teams like the Nashville Standard Giants and Birmingham Black Barons were establishing solid regional reputations.

By the end of World War I black baseball had become, perhaps, the number one entertainment attraction for urban black populations throughout the country. It was at that time that Andrew "Rube" Foster, owner of the Chicago American Giants and black baseball's most influential personality, determined that the time had arrived for a truly organized and stable Negro league. Under Foster's leadership in 1920 the Negro National League was born in Kansas City, fielding eight teams: Chicago American Giants, Chicago Giants, Cuban Stars, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis ABCs, Kansas City Monarchs and St. Louis Giants.

In the same year Thomas T. Wilson, owner of the Nashville Elite Giants, organized the Negro Southern League with teams in Nashville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Montgomery and New Orleans. Only three years later the Eastern Colored League was formed in 1923 featuring the Hilldale Club, Cuban Stars (East), Brooklyn Royal Giants, Bacharach Giants, Lincoln Giants and Baltimore Black Sox.

The Negro National League continued on a sound footing for most of the 1920s, ultimately succumbing to the financial pressures of the Great Depression and dissolving after the 1931 season. The second Negro National League, organized by Pittsburgh bar owner Gus Greenlee, quickly took up where Foster's league left off and became the dominant force in black baseball from 1933 through 1949. The Negro Southern League was in continuous operation from 1920 through the 1940s and held the position as black baseball's only operating major circuit for the 1931 season. In 1937 the Negro American League was launched, bringing into its fold the best clubs in the South and Midwest, and stood as the opposing circuit to Greenlee's Negro National League until the latter league disbanded after the 1949 season.

Despite the difficult economic challenges posed to the entire nation by the Depression, the three major Negro League circuits weathered the storm and steadily built what was to become one of the largest and most successful black-owned enterprises in America. The existence and success of these leagues stood as a testament to the determination and resolve of black America to forge ahead in the face of racial segregation and social disadvantage.

To be continued

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