Drew Nate | Black Voice News
On Feb. 13, 1920, Hall of Famer Andrew “Rube” Foster and his fellow team owners started the Negro National League.
Before the Negro National League (NNL) was established, African American players experienced racial segregation both on and off the field. The National Association of Amateur BaseBall Players– considered to be both the first professional baseball league and the first professional team sports’ league–even went as far as rejecting African American membership in 1867 and in 1876. Owners of the professional National League adopted a “gentleman’s agreement” to keep Black players out.
Although racism was the norm throughout America and across baseball in those years, it did not stop African Americans from playing the game. Although they were denied the opportunity to play in many professional leagues, their love of the sport grew and Black players continued to thrive.
A turning point for Black baseball players came during the 1920s, when Foster founded the NNL or (as often identified) the Negro Leagues.
In years prior to this however, Black history was still being made in baseball. For example, in 1884 catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker of the Toledo Blue Stockings made history when he became the first African American to play for a professional major league club. Although Walker played for the club, he and other African American baseball players continued to face verbal and physical forms of racism from both teammates and their opponents. In one instance, prominent player Cap Anson of the Chicago White Stockings even threatened to cancel a game with the Toledo Blue Stockings team if Walker was in the lineup.
Other Black players such as Infielders Frank Grant and Bud Fowler, and pitcher George Stovey, broke through racial barriers as the only African American players in the International League where they played in New York, New Jersey and southeast Canada. However, due to racial tension that persisted from white Americans, in 1887 Blacks were barred from signing new contracts in that league as well.
Making Their Own Way
Due to segregation and Jim Crow laws, many great Black players were denied the opportunity to play on the same field as white players. In response, Black players formed their own teams and found their own competition.
NNL founder Andrew Foster started out as a dominant pitcher, who won 44 games in a row for the Philadelphia Cuban X-Giants in 1902. After his playing career, Foster formed the Chicago American Giants club in 1911, and negotiated for his Black Baseball team to play at the White Sox stadium, South Side Park. Foster later decided he wanted to start his own league which included managing its gate receipts and its scheduling. This was important as during that time, game scheduling and ticket revenues were all controlled by white agents that oftentimes did not share revenue with Black team owners.
As Foster loved both managing and playing baseball, he began convincing other Black club owners that forming an organization was necessary.
Foster spent years convincing his fellow Black club owners of the need to come together as an organization and finally on February 13, 1920, the owners came together at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City to form the NNL. The Negro League was founded under the slogan, “We Are the Ship, All Else the Sea”. The powerful slogan gave the league an identity and was a nod to the league’s independence. It launched with eight teams: Chicago American Giants, Chicago Giants, Cuban Stars, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Kansas City Monarchs, Indianapolis ABCs and the St. Louis Giants.
All Else the Sea
The Negro Leagues took off. Foster’s American Giants club, for example, drew nearly 200,000 spectators during the 1921 season. In the meantime another NNL team, the American Giants, consistently garnered more fans than both the White Sox and the Cubs and established a style of play that was electric and exciting.
Legends emerged through Negro League competition. The league had enormous talent including hitters such as Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson, to flamethrower pitchers such as Satchel Paige and Joe “Smokey” Williams among others.
The Negro Leagues remained strong and Foster served as its President until his death in 1930. His loss and the onset of the Great Depression destroyed all but a few independent clubs. However, organized Black baseball rose again in 1933 with the founding of the new Negro National League, soon followed by the Negro American League. Also during 1933, the league introduced its East-West All-Star Game in Chicago, which rivaled the Major Leagues’ All-Star Game that same year in popularity and attendance.
And Then Came Integration
Although the Negro Leagues became a growing success across America, many Black players desired an opportunity to play in the Major Leagues with white players. In 1945, Jackie Robinson, the former UCLA athletic star gained popularity and stardom while playing for Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. Previously in 1942, Robinson and Nate Moreland, another Black baseball player, were granted a workout with the Chicago White Sox where they excelled, but due to the color barrier they were unable to join the team.
Reports note how Chicago White Sox’s Manager Jimmy Dykes was very impressed with their workouts and could have ended the color barrier but turned them away out of fear the White Sox’s organization would not allow them to be a part of the team.
In 1944, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who supported segregation in Major League Baseball (MLB), passed away. This opened a door for change. Many sports columnists at the time pushed for change and in 1947, Jackie Robinson paved the way for many African Americans in MLB when he made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers– the first major league baseball player to come from the Negro Leagues.
Robinson was officially introduced on April 15, 1947, playing first base for the Dodgers. He broke the “color barrier” and soon, former Newark Eagles star Larry Doby became the second Black big leaguer when he suited with the Cleveland Indians on July 5th that same year. Three more players would eventually play in the MLB in 1947, and the following season, at age 42, Negro League star Satchel Paige, would go onto to help lead the Cleveland Indians to winning the World Series.
From Baseball Diamonds to the Pages of History
In the following years, the Negro Leagues would be dissolved after MLB clubs began to sign most of its talented stars and more Black players thereafter the last season of the Negro League is considered to be 1951, but the history they made will never be forgotten. Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron are just a few of the many names that went on to change the game of baseball in the MLB and it is important to remember their professional careers actually all started in the NNL.
In 1949, Robinson became the first African American named Most Valuable Player (MVP) in MLB history. After Robinson achieved this first, 15 MVPs of the next 20 MVP awards would go to African American ballplayers between the years 1949 and 1969.
Today, those who played in the Negro Leagues are finally getting the long overdue love and recognition they deserve from the MLB. On December 16, 2020, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred announced the seven Negro leagues would be recognized as official major leagues with their players’ records and statistics counted in baseball’s record books.
In a statement made in response to Manfred’s announcement, Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri wrote, “In the minds of baseball fans worldwide, this serves as historical validation for those who had been shunned from the Major Leagues and had the foresight and courage to create their own league that helped change the game and our country too.”