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Encyclopedia > Negro Leagues

Part of the History of baseball series.

In the early years of Major League Baseball, which coincided with the Reconstruction period following the American Civil War, there was no color line. African-American ballplayers such as Bud Fowler, Frank Grant, Fleet Walker and Welday Walker adorned professional rosters during the 1870s and 1880s. The Walker brothers made it to the major leagues, in fact, playing with Toledo in the American Association. However, as segregation and Jim Crow laws appeared and gained force (often through violent means), even teams that formerly welcomed African-American players found themselves pressured, by peers or financial concerns, to drop those players.

Several attempts to found "Negro" leagues (to use the term that was in use at the time) met with limited success. Perhaps the first full-fledged professional team was the Cuban Giants, formed in Babylon, New Jersey but relocated to Trenton in 1886. Their success led to the formation of a league, called either the Negro National League or the League of Colored Baseball Clubs, the following year. This league was founded with nine teams: Boston Resolutes; New York Gorham; Philadelphia Pythians; Washington Capital Cities; Pittsburgh Keystones; Norfolk (Virginia) Red Stockings; Cincinnati Crowns; Lord Baltimores and the Louisville Fall Cities, with the Giants and the Keystones taking first and second place in the first two years, with the Giants crowned as inaugral champions in 1888.

It should be noted that, due in no small part to the popularity and success of the original Cuban Giants, many similarly named teams came into existence — including the Genuine Cuban Giants, Royal Giants, the Baltimore Giants and the Cuban X-Giants, the latter a powerhouse in the early twentieth century. The "Cuban" teams, with the exception of the Cuban Stars and the Havana Giants, were all composed of African-Americans rather than Cubans; but the name was thought to increase their acceptance with white patrons, as Cuba was on very friendly terms with the US during those years.

The game was also popular in black colleges, leading to the founding of the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The period 18901914 saw a state of perpetual turmoil, with many leagues and teams coming and going within a space of a few years, mirroring the problems with "upstart leagues" in white baseball.

Following World War I, however, a number of factors contributed to the founding of a new Negro National League — which was to be successful. After the war, America saw an increase in racial tensions — which led to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, violent attacks on black-owned businesses and institutions, and renewed barring of African-Americans from white institutions. In response to this, Marcus Garvey advocated black separatism and urged the development of black-only businesses and institutions.

Against this background emerged a remarkable and energetic man: Rube Foster, a talented ballplayer himself who had been unable to play professional baseball in the United States. Foster founded the Negro National League in 1920.


Significant Negro Leagues

Starting in 1933, the East-West All-Star Game became the premier event in black baseball. The gate receipts from that game were split among all the league clubs, and often made the difference between a team's survival and demise. The game was a showcase for black baseball talent, and was attended at least as well as the major league All-Star games which began around the same time.

The end of the Negro Leagues

After the integration of the major leagues in 1947, as marked by the appearance of Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers that April, interest in Negro League baseball waned. Young players with enough talent were signed by major league teams, often without regard for any contracts that might have been signed with Negro League clubs. Negro League owners who complained about this practice were in a no-win situation: they could not protect their own interests without seeming to interfere with the advancement of players to the majors.

Some proposals were floated to bring the Negro Leagues into "organized baseball" as developmental leagues for black players, but this was seen as contrary to the goal of full integration of the sport. So the Negro Leagues, at one time one of the largest and most prosperous black-owned business ventures, were allowed to fade into oblivion.

One of the last of the Negro League teams was the Indianapolis Clowns, which continued to play exhibition games well into the 1970s.

The Negro Leagues and the Hall of Fame

In his Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech in 1966, Ted Williams made a strong plea for inclusion of Negro League stars in the Hall. After the publication of Robert Peterson's landmark book Only the Ball was White in 1970, the Hall of Fame found itself under renewed pressure to find a way to honor Negro League players who would have been in the Hall had they not been barred from the major leagues due to the color of their skin.

At first, the Hall of Fame planned a "separate but equal" display, which was criticized by the press, the fans and the players it was intended to honor. The Hall relented and agreed to admit Negro League players on an equal basis with their Major League counterparts in 1971. A special Negro League committee selected Satchel Paige in 1971, followed by (in alphabetical order) Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Martin Dihigo, Josh Gibson, Monte Irvin, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard and John Henry Lloyd. (Of the nine, only Irvin and Paige spent any time in the major leagues.) The Veterans Committee later selected Ray Dandridge, as well as choosing Rube Foster on the basis of meritorious service (though many feel he deserved selection as a player as well).

From 1995 to 2001, the Hall made a renewed effort to select additional luminaries from the Negro Leagues; honorees during this period include Leon Day, Bill Foster, Bullet Joe Rogan, Hilton Smith, Turkey Stearnes, Willie Wells, and Smokey Joe Williams.

Other members of the Hall who played in both the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues include Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Willie Mays, and Jackie Robinson. However, their play in the Negro Leagues was usually a minor factor in their selection — Aaron, Banks and Mays played only briefly in the Negro Leagues, and not during the years when these leagues were at peak quality due to the fact that many of the best black players had moved to the integrated minor leagues; Campanella (1969) and Robinson (1962) were selected before the Hall began considering performance in the Negro Leagues.

Other Star Players

See: List of Negro League baseball players


The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is located in the 18th and Vine District in Kansas City, Missouri.


  • Only the Ball was White by Robert Peterson (1970) ISBN 0195076370
  • Josh and Satch by John Holway; parallel biographies of Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige ISBN 0881848174
  • The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues edited by James Riley (new edition 2001) ISBN 0786709596
  • A History of Colored Base Ball by Sol White. First printed in 1907 as Sol White's Official Base Ball Guide, now reprinted by the University of Nebraska ISBN 0803297831

First-hand accounts

  • Blackball Stars as told to John Holway; a collection of first-person accounts of the Negro Leagues by the men who played in them ISBN 0887360947
  • I Was Right On Time by Buck O'Neil ISBN 068483247X
  • Maybe I'll Pitch Forever by Satchel Paige ISBN 0803287321
  • Some Are Called Clowns by Bill Heward & Dimitri Gat (1974). The first white player with the Indianapolis Clowns tells of his 1973 season of barnstorming. ISBN 0690004699

See also

External links

  • Negro Leagues Baseball Museum web site (http://www.nlbm.com)

  Results from FactBites:
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Negro League owners who complained about this practice were in a no-win situation: they could not protect their own interests without seeming to interfere with the advancement of players to the majors.
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The first successful organized Negro League was established on February 13, 1920, at a YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri.
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