A History of the

Professional Negro

Baseball Leagues


The Negro Baseball Leagues

Any of the associations of teams of African-American baseball
players active largely between 1920 and the late 1940s, when
black players were at last contracted to play major and minor
league baseball. The principal Negro leagues were the Negro
National League (1920–1931, 1933–48), the Eastern Colored League
(1923–28), and the Negro American League (1937–1960). In 1932,
with the other leagues disbanded, some Northern teams competed in
the previously regional Negro Southern League.

Two black men, Welday and Moses “Fleet” Walker, who were
brothers, played major league baseball for Toledo, Ohio, in the
American Association in 1884; but this initial acceptance of
integrated teams in professional baseball was short-lived. A
handful of all-black teams played in early organized baseball,
beginning in 1885 with the Cuban Giants, formed that year on Long
Island, N.Y.; the team played exhibition games and, in 1889–91,
represented three successive cities in three leagues. In the
early 20th century new black teams were formed to play exhibition
games against white teams or in short-lived black leagues.

In 1920 Andrew “Rube” Foster, owner of the Chicago American
Giants, convinced the owners of seven other Northeastern and
Midwestern teams to join him in forming the Negro National
League. In most years the Negro National League consisted of
eight teams. After the Eastern Colored League was formed in 1923,
Negro World Series were held (1924–27; 1942–49); East-West
All-Star games were played from 1933 into the 1950s. Initially
the leagues were centred in cities such as Chicago, New York
City, Detroit, St. Louis, and Kansas City, which had large and
growing black populations as a result of the 20th-century
northward black migration. The leagues struggled for survival
during the Great Depression, though prosperity returned in the
1940s. Financial pressures dictated that different teams would
often make up the leagues from year to year, and that some teams
changed leagues over the years.

The Negro leagues played short seasons, compared with those of
white major league teams. Some black players competed in
Caribbean winter leagues during the off-season. The short season
allowed teams time to barnstorm—that is, play exhibition games on
tour. Thus the Kansas City Monarchs, for example, both
barnstormed and belonged to the Negro National League in the
1920s. During 1931–36 the Monarchs, without a league affiliation,
barnstormed from city to city, equipped with an innovative
portable park-lighting system (introduced five years before the
first white major league night game). In 1934 they crossed the
United States in a series of exhibition games with the Homestead
Grays. In 1937 the Monarchs joined the Negro American League.

The popular success of the Harlem Globetrotters in basketball
inspired some Negro league teams, notably the Indianapolis
Clowns, to provide comedy and other entertainment along with
their baseball games. Some of these teams were criticized,
however, for presenting demeaning images of blacks; the Zulu
Cannibal Giants, for example, wore grass skirts and face paint
and played baseball barefoot.

The most noted Negro league teams included the Homestead Grays,
based in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Washington, D.C., who won nine
pennants during 1937–45 and included the great hitters Josh
Gibson (catcher), James “Cool Papa” Bell (outfield), and Buck
Leonard (first base). In the mid-1930s the Pittsburgh Crawfords
included five future Baseball Hall of Fame members: Gibson; Bell;
manager Oscar Charleston; clutch-hitting third baseman William
Julius “Judy” Johnson; and the great fastball pitcher Satchel
Paige. After the Crawfords won the 1936 pennant, the team's stars
were hired away to play on Rafael Trujillo's Dominican Republic
team, beginning the Crawfords' decline. The Kansas City Monarchs
won four full-season Negro National League championships and
seven Negro American League championships. Among the most famous
black teams were the all-star units formed annually by Paige to
compete in exhibition games with white major league all-stars.

The beginning of the decline of the Negro leagues was in 1945,
when the Monarchs' rookie shortstop Jackie Robinson was signed by
the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. Among the other black players
who first integrated the major leagues, few were, like Paige,
long-established stars. Most were younger men—such as pitcher Don
Newcombe and outfielder Larry Doby (Newark Eagles), catcher Roy
Campanella (Baltimore Elite Giants), and outfielders Minnie
Minoso (New York Cubans), Willie Mays (Birmingham Black Barons),
and Hank Aaron (Indianapolis Clowns)—who went on to spend most of
their careers as major league stars.

Copyright © 2002 Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc

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