The Negro leagues were American professional baseball leagues comprising teams predominately made up of Blacks. The term may be used broadly to include professional black teams outside the leagues and it may be used narrowly for the seven relatively successful leagues beginning 1920 that are sometimes termed "Negro Major Leagues".
The first professional team, established in 1885, achieved great and lasting success as the Cuban Giants, while the first league, the National Colored Base Ball League, failed in 1887 after only two weeks due to low attendance. The Negro American League of 1951 is considered the last major league season and the last professional club, the Indianapolis Clowns, operated amusingly rather than competitively from the mid-1960s to 1980s.
The first known baseball game between two named black teams was held on September 28, 1860 at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. The Weeksville of New York beat the Colored Union Club 11–0. In 1862, a newspaper reporter looking for a game between two white teams stumbled upon a game between black teams and covered it for his paper. At the time, baseball was commonly deemed recreation around which social gatherings were held.
Immediately after the end of the American Civil War in 1865 and during the Reconstruction period that followed, a black baseball scene formed in the East and Mid-Atlantic states. Comprising mainly ex-soldiers and promoted by some well-known black officers, teams such as the Jamaica Monitor Club, Albany Bachelors, Philadelphia Excelsiors and Chicago Uniques started playing each other and any other team that would play against them.
By the end of the 1860s, the black baseball mecca was Philadelphia. Two former cricket players, James H. Francis and Francis Wood, formed the Pythians, who played in Camden, New Jersey, at the landing of the Federal Street Ferry, because it was difficult to get permits for black baseball games in the city. Octavius Catto, the promoter of the Pythians, decided to apply for membership in the National Association of Base Ball Players, normally a matter of sending delegates to the annual convention; beyond that, a formality. But at the December 1867 convention, the Association passed a resolution that excluded "any club which may be composed of one or more colored players. In some ways Blackball thrived under segregation, with the few black teams of the day playing not only each other but white teams as well.
The first black professional baseball team was formed in 1885 when the Babylon Black Panthers, formed by waiters and porters from the Argyle Hotel in Babylon, New York were spotted by a white businessman from Trenton, New Jersey, Walter Cook. Cook renamed them the Cuban Giants so that he could attract more white fans. Shortly after the Giants' formation, the Jacksonville, Florida newspaper, the Leader, assembled the first Negro league, the Southern League of Base Ballists. The Southern League was composed of ten teams: the Memphis Eclipse, the Georgia Champions of Atlanta, the Savannah Broads, the Memphis Eurekas, the Savannah Lafayettes, the Charleston Fultons, the Jacksonville Athletics, the New Orleans Unions, the Florida Clippers of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Macedonias. The league played its first game on June 7 between the Eclipse and the Unions in New Orleans, Louisiana. Soon deep in debt, the league lasted only one year.
The success of the Cubans led to the creation of the second Negro league in 1887, the National Colored Base Ball League. It was founded with nine teams: Boston Resolutes; New York Gorham; Philadelphia Pythians; Washington Capital Cities; Pittsburgh Keystones; Norfolk Red Stockings; Cincinnati Crowns; Lord Baltimores and the Louisville Fall Cities. NCBBL President Walter S. Brown, a black Baltimore businessman, applied for and was granted official minor league status and thus "protection" under the major league-led National Agreement. This move prevented any team in organized baseball from signing any of the NCBBL players, which also locked the players to their particular teams within the league. The reserve clause would have tied the players to their clubs from season to season but the NCBBL failed. One month into the season, the Resolutes folded. A week later, only three teams were left.
Because the original Cuban Giants were a popular and business success, many similarly named teams came into existence — including the Genuine Cuban Giants (the renamed Cuban Giants), the Brooklyn Royal Giants, the Baltimore Giants and the Cuban X-Giants, the latter a powerhouse in the early 1900s. These teams were all composed of African Americans rather than Cubans; the purpose was to increase their acceptance with white patrons as Cuba was on very friendly terms with the US during those years. Later, several actual Cuban baseball teams participated in the Negro leagues, including the Cuban Stars (West), the Cuban Stars (East), and the New York Cubans; some of these teams included white Cuban players.
The few players on the white minor league teams were constantly dodging verbal and physical abuse from both competitors and fans. Then President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the Compromise of 1877, and all the legal obstacles were removed from the South's enacting the Jim Crow laws. To make matters worse, on July 14, 1887, Cap Anson's Chicago White Stockings were scheduled to play the Newark Giants of the International League, which had Fleet Walker and George Stovey on its roster. After Anson marched his team onto the field, military style as was his custom, he demanded that the blacks not play. Newark capitulated, and later that same day, league owners voted to refuse future contracts to blacks, citing the "hazards" imposed by such athletes. The American Association and National League quickly followed suit.
In 1888, the Middle States League was formed and it admitted two all-black teams to its otherwise all-white league, the Cuban Giants and their arch-rivals, the New York Gorhams. Despite the animosity between the two clubs, they managed to form a traveling team, the Colored All Americans. This enabled them to make money barnstorming while fulfilling their league obligations. In 1890, the Giants returned to their independent, barnstorming identity, and by 1892, they were the only black team in the East still in operation on a full-time basis.
Also in 1888, Frank Leland got some of Chicago's black businessmen to sponsor the black amateur Union Base Ball Club. Through Chicago's city government, Leland obtained a permit and lease to play at the South Side Park, a 5,000 seat facility. Eventually his team went pro and became the Chicago Unions.
After his stint with the Gorhams, Bud Fowler caught on with a team out of Findlay, Ohio. While his team was playing in Adrian, Michigan, Fowler was persuaded by two white local businessmen, L. W. Hoch and Rolla Taylor to help them start a team financed by the Page Woven Wire Fence Company, the Page Fence Giants. The Page Fence Giants went on to become a powerhouse team that had no home field. Barnstorming through the Midwest, they would play all comers. Their success became the prototype for black baseball for years to come.
After the 1898 season, the Page Fence Giant were forced to fold because of finances. Alvin H. Garrett, a black businessman in Chicago, and John W. Patterson, the left fielder for the Page Fence Giants, reformed the team under the name of the Columbia Giants. In 1901 the Giants folded because of a lack of a place to play. Leland bought the Giants and merged it with his Unions (despite not a single Giant player ending up on the roster) and named them the Chicago Union Giants.
Around the same time, Nat Strong, a white businessmen, started using his ownership of baseball fields in the New York City area to become the leading promoter of blackball on the East coast. Just about any game played in New York, Strong would get a cut. Strong eventually used his leverage to put the Brooklyn Royal Giants almost out of business, and then he bought the club and turned it into a barnstorming team.
When Foster joined the Leland Giants, he demanded that he be put in charge in not only the on field activities, but the bookings as well. Foster immediately turned the Giants into the team to beat. He indoctrinated them to take the extra base, to play hit and run on nearly every pitch and to rattle the opposing pitcher by taking them deep into the count. He studied the mechanics of his pitchers and could spot the smallest flaw, turning his average pitchers into learned craftsmen. Foster also was able to turn around the business end of the team as well, by demanding and getting 40 percent of the gate instead of the 10 percent that Frank Leland was getting.
By the end of the 1909, Foster demanded that Leland step back from all baseball operations or Foster would leave. When Leland would not give up complete control, Foster quit, and in a heated court battle, got to keep the rights to the Leland Giants' name. Leland took the players and started a new team named the Chicago Giants, while Foster took the Leland Giants and started to encroach on Nat Strong's territory.
As early as 1910, Foster started talking about reviving the concept of an all-black league. The one thing he was insistent on that black teams should be owned by black men. This put him in direct competition with Strong. After the 1912, Foster renamed his team the Chicago American Giants to appeal to a larger fan base. During the same year, J. L. Wilkinson started the All Nations traveling team. The All Nations team would eventually become one of the best-known and popular teams of the Negro leagues, the Kansas City Monarchs.
On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I. Manpower needed by the defense plants and industry accelerated the migration of blacks from the South to the North. This meant a larger fan base that had more money to draw from. By the end of the war in 1919, Foster was again ready to start a Negro baseball league.
On February 13 and 14, 1920, talks were held in Kansas City, Missouri that established the Negro National League and its governing body the National Association of Colored Professional Base Ball Clubs. The league was initially composed of eight teams: Chicago American Giants, Chicago Giants, Cuban Stars, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis ABC's, Kansas City Monarchs and St. Louis Giants. Foster was named league president and controlled every aspect of the league, including who played where and when and what equipment was used (all of which had to be purchased from Foster). Foster, as booking agent of the league, took a five percent cut of all gate receipts.
Foster then admitted John Connors' Atlantic City Bacharach Giants as an associate member to move further into Nat Strong's territory. Connors, wanting to return the favor of helping him against Strong, raided Ed Bolden's Hilldale Daisies team. Bolden saw little choice but to team up with Foster's nemesis, Nat Strong. Within days of calling a truce with Strong, Bolden made an about face and signed up as an associate member of Foster's Negro National League.
On December 16, 1922, Bolden once again shifted sides and, with Strong, formed the Eastern Colored League as an alternative to Foster's Negro National League. The league started with six teams: Atlantic City Bacharach Giants, Baltimore Black Sox, Brooklyn Royal Giants, New York Cuban Stars, Hilldale, and New York Lincoln Giants. The National League was having trouble maintaining continuity among its franchises. Three teams folded and had to be replaced after the 1921 season, two others after the 1922 season and two more after the 1923 season. Foster kept replacing the defunct teams, calling teams up from the Negro Southern League. Finally Foster and Bolden met and agreed to an annual Negro League World Series beginning in 1924.
1925 saw the St. Louis Stars come of age in the Negro National League. They finished in second place during the second half of the year due in large part to their pitcher turned center fielder, Cool Papa Bell, and their shortstop, Willie Wells. A gas leak in his home nearly asphyxiated Rube Foster in 1926, and his increasingly erratic behavior led to him being committed to an asylum a year later. While Foster was out of the picture, the owners of the National League elected William C. Hueston as new league president. In 1927, Ed Bolden suffered a similar fate as Foster, by committing himself to a hospital because the pressure was too great. The Eastern League folded shortly after that, marking the end of the Negro League World Series between the NNL and the ECL.
After the Eastern League folded following the 1927 season, a new eastern league, the American Negro League, was formed to replace it. The makeup of the new ANL was nearly the same as the Eastern League, the exception being that the Homestead Grays joined in place of the now-defunct Brooklyn Royal Giants. The ANL lasted just one season. In the face of harder economic times, the Negro National League folded after the 1931 season. Some of its teams joined the only Negro league then left, the Negro Southern League.
Just as Negro league baseball seemed was at its lowest point and was about to fade into history, along came Cumberland Posey and his Homestead Grays. Posey used the popularity of the Grays as a foundation of a new Negro league in 1932, the East-West League. Joining his Homestead Grays, were the Cleveland Stars, Newark Browns, Washington Pilots, Detroit Wolves, Hillsdale Daises, Baltimore Black Sox, and the Midwest edition of the Cuban Stars. By May 1932, the Detroit Wolves were about to collapse and instead of letting the team go, Posey kept pumping money into it. By June the Wolves had disintegrated and all the rest of the teams, except for the Grays, were beyond help, so Posey had to terminate the league.
Across town from Posey, Gus Greenlee, a reputed gangster and numbers runner, had just purchased the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Greenlee's main interest in baseball was to use it as a way to launder money from his numbers games. But, after learning about Posey's money making machine in Homestead, he became obsessed with the sport and his Crawfords. On August 6, 1931, Satchel Paige made his first appearance as a Crawford. With Paige on his team, Greenlee took a huge risk by investing $100,000 in a new ballpark to be called Greenlee Field. On opening day, April 30, 1932, the pitcher-catcher battery was made up of the two most marketable icons in all of blackball: Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.
In 1933, Greenlee, riding the popularity of his Crawfords, decided to be the next man to start a Negro league. In February 1933, Greenlee and delegates from six other teams met at Greenlee's Crawford Grill to ratify the constitution of the National Organization of Professional Baseball Clubs. The name of the new league was the same as the old league, Negro National League. The members of the new league were the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Columbus Blue Birds, Indianapolis ABCs, Baltimore Black Sox, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Cole's American Giants (formerly the Chicago American Giants and Nashville Elite Giants. Greenlee also came up with the idea to duplicate the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, except, unlike the big league method, in which the sportswriters chose the players, the fans voted on the participants.
Just like the major leagues, the Negro leagues saw many stars miss one or more seasons fighting overseas. But the white majors were barely recognizable while the Negro leagues reached their highest plateau. Millions of black Americans were working in war industries and, making good money, they packed league games in every city. Business was so good that promoter Abe Saperstein (famous for the Harlem Globetrotters) started a new circuit, the Negro Midwest League, a minor league similar to the Negro Southern League.
The Negro League World Series was revived in 1942, this time pitting the winners of the eastern Negro National League and midwestern Negro American League. It continued through 1948 with the NNL winning four championships and the NAL three.
In March 1945, the white majors created the Major League Committee on Baseball Integration. Its members included Joseph P. Rainey, Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey. Because MacPhail, who was an outspoken critic of integration, kept stalling, the committee never met. Under the guise of starting an all-black league, Rickey sent scouts all around the United States, Mexico and Puerto Rico, looking for the perfect candidate to break the color line. His list eventually was narrowed down to three, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson.
On August 28, 1945, Jackie Robinson met with Rickey in Brooklyn where Rickey gave Robinson a "test" by berating him and shouting racial epithets that Robinson would hear from day one in the white game. Having passed the test, Robinson signed the contract which stipulated that from then on, Robinson had no "written or moral obligations to any other club. By the inclusion of this clause, precedent was set that would raze the Negro leagues as a functional commercial enterprise.
To throw off the press and keep his intentions hidden, Rickey got heavily involved in Gus Greenlee's newest foray into black baseball, the United States League. Greenlee started the league in 1945 as a way to get back at the owners of the Negro National League teams for throwing him out. Rickey saw the opportunity as a way to convince people that he was interested in cleaning up blackball, not integrating it. In midsummer of 1945, Rickey, almost ready with his Robinson plan, pulled out of the league. The league folded after the end of the 1946 season.
Pressured by civil rights groups, the Fair Employment Practices Act was passed by the New York State Legislature in 1945. This followed the passing of the Quinn-Ives Act banning discrimination in hiring. At the same time, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia formed the Mayor's Commission on Baseball to study integration of the major leagues. This all led to Rickey announcing the signing of Robinson much earlier than he would have liked. On October 23, 1945, Montreal Royals president Hector Racine announced that, "We are signing this boy.
Early in 1946, Rickey signed four more black players, Campanella, Newcombe, John Wright and Roy Partlow, this time to much less fanfare. 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. Black players who were regarded as prospects 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. By 1948, the Dodgers, along with Veeck's Cleveland Indians had integrated. The Negro leagues also "integrated" around the same time as Eddie Klep became the first white man to play for the Cleveland Buckeyes during the 1946 season.
First a trickle and then a flood of players signed with Major League Baseball teams. Most signed minor league contracts and many languished, shuttled from one bush league team to another despite their success at that level. But they were in Organized Baseball, that part of the industry organized by the major leagues.
The Negro National League folded after the 1948 season when the Grays withdrew to resume barnstorming, the Eagles moved to Houston, Texas, and the New York Black Yankees folded. The Grays folded one year later after losing $30,000 in the barnstorming effort. So the Negro American League was the only "major" Negro League operating in 1949. Within two years it had been reduced to minor league caliber and it played its last game in 1958.
The last All-Star game was held in 1962, and by 1966 the Indianapolis Clowns were the last Negro league team still playing. The Clowns continued to play exhibition games into the 1980s, but as a humorous sideshow rather than a competitive sport.
At first, the Hall of Fame planned a "separate but equal" display, which would be similar to the Ford C. Frick Award for baseball commentators, in that this plan meant that the Negro league honorees would not be considered members of the Hall of Fame. This plan was criticized by the press, the fans and the players it was intended to honor and Satchel Paige himself insisted that he would not accept anything less than full fledged induction into the Hall of Fame. 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, Martín 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).
Other members of the Hall who played in both the Negro leagues and Major League Baseball are Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Willie Mays, and Jackie Robinson. Except for Doby, their play in the Negro leagues was a minor factor in their selection: Aaron, Banks, and Mays played in Negro leagues only briefly and after the leagues had declined with the migration of many black players to the integrated minor leagues; Campanella (1969) and Robinson (1962) were selected before the Hall began considering performance in the Negro leagues.
From 1995 to 2001, the Hall made a renewed effort to honor luminaries from the Negro leagues, one each year. There were seven selections: Leon Day, Bill Foster, Bullet Rogan, Hilton Smith, Turkey Stearnes, Willie Wells, and Smokey Joe Williams.
In February 2006, a committee of twelve baseball historians elected 17 more people from black baseball to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, twelve players and five executives. Negro league players (7): Ray Brown; Willard Brown; Andy Cooper; Biz Mackey; Mule Suttles; Cristóbal Torriente; Jud Wilson Pre-Negro league players (5) : Frank Grant; Pete Hill; José Méndez; Louis Santop; Ben Taylor Negro league executives (4) : Effa Manley; Alex Pompez; Cum Posey; J.L. Wilkinson Pre-Negro league executive, manager, player, and historian (1): Sol White
The committee reviewed the careers of 29 Negro league and 10 Pre-Negro league candidates. The list of 39 had been pared from a roster of 94 candidates by a five-member screening committee in November, 2005. The voting committee was chaired by Fay Vincent, Major League Baseball's eighth commissioner and an Honorary Director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
Minnie Miñoso was the last Negro league player to play in a Major League game when he appeared in two games for the Chicago White Sox in 1980.
Buck O'Neil was the most recent former Negro league player to appear in a professional game when he made two appearances (one for each team) in the Northern League All-Star Game in 2006.
On June 5, 2008, Major League Baseball held a special draft of the surviving Negro league players to acknowledge (and rectify) their exclusion from the major leagues on the basis of race. The idea of the special draft was conceived by baseball hall of famer Dave Winfield. Each major league team drafted one player from the Negro leagues. Bobo Henderson, Joe B. Scott, Mule Miles, Lefty Bell, Mack "The Knife" Pride and Charley Pride (who went on to a legendary career in country music), were among the players selected. Also drafted, by the New York Yankees, was Emilio Navarro, who, at 102 years of age is believed to be the oldest living professional ballplayer.