History of Negro League Baseball

By Courtesy of the Negro League .com
Updated: June 5, 2011

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Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson...Superstars of the past

Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson...Superstars of the past

KANSAS CITY, MO.–In the beginning

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 observers, black ballplayers were as unreal as the shadows on Plato’s wall. In this world of reflected images they’re existed exceptionally talented players whose ability was unsurpassed anywhere.

Best known to today’s baseball world are Hall of Farmers 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 generations, 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.

The Negro Leagues were known for their talented baseball players, and flamboyant style of play. They were also known for their instability and at times reckless showmanship. Many viewed the League as being corrupt and more interested in entertainment than legitimate sport.

The league was looked upon as a “racket” to use the words of Branch Rickey. However, the Negro Leagues played an important role in the life of the Black community from 1920 until the end of their existence in the 1950’s.

One of the least known facts about the Negro Leagues is that in the 1940’s was the largest black owned commercial enterprise in America. While some of the black owners of teams in the Negro Leagues earned their money through questionable activities, there was a sense of social responsibility among most of the owners. Contrary to the image that is portrayed, most of the teams were owned by individuals with a sense of community that was reflected in their generous contributions to the black community.

The ballpark during games in the Negro League was a place of community gathering. The Negro League sponsored contests, raised funds for charity, and did promotions for black entertainers and celebrities. The first national black beauty contests were held at the ballparks of Negro League teams. Jesse Owens first raced a racehorse as a promotion at a league game.

Black celebrities like Joe Louis, Ethel Walters, and Lena Horne often engaged in promotions directed at and for the black community. Baseball was at the heart of a community that was in constant economic depression, and suffering the ills of segregation.

Disrespect for the institutions and the traditions of the black community, combined with traditions of racism and segregation touched baseball like everything else in the black community. The owners of Negro League teams felt the effects and did things to support their community. Money was raised to support black causes with several thousands of dollars contributed to causes like anti-lynching campaigns, and black organizations like the Elks, United Negro College Fund, and NAACP. Abe Morley, the owner of the Newark Eagles, was particularly known for his support of Black causes. Morely raised over $100,000 for the NAACP at one event.

The Negro Leagues survived segregation, economic depression, war, and economic discrimination.

During World War II many of its finest players saw active duty in the military and many died in battle. However, immediately after the War some of the greatest level of baseball was played in the Negro Leagues. In exhibition games teams from the Negro Leagues more than held their own against teams comprised of Major League Players. In 1946 the signing of Jackie Robinson signaled a change in times, but not the end of the Negro Leagues. It should be remembered that Robinson was not even a starter on the team he played for! Stars of the Negro League such as Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige had already demonstrated their superiority as ballplayers in direct competition with Major Leaguers.

Then why did the Leagues collapse in less than ten years? It was the attitude that was displayed by Branch Richey in calling the Negro Leagues “A Racket”.

It was the sanctioning of disrespect of the Negro League teams by all parts of white society that spelled the end of the Negro Leagues. Contracts of Negro Leagues teams were ignored and teams were given no compensations for the raids on its players by Major League teams. The cavalier attitude taken by owners and general managers of Major League teams was supported by the assumption of the “racket” nature of Black baseball teams and Leagues. This assumption allowed the stripping of young stars from the Negro Leagues, thereby effectively ending their future.

When the last Negro League game was played in 1955, it not only signaled the end of an era, but the end of an American cultural and community institution.