African American Studies. Negro Baseball League

Introduction

African American baseball itself is deeply ingrained in American society and tradition, having weathered the rigors of wars, depressions, and scandals and basked in the warm glow of more prosperous times. The intrinsic merit of its long, diverse history has been supplemented by there1cent, widespread recognition of its value as an institutional lodestar, a point of reference throughout American life, relatively unchanged in its artistry and popular appeal since the Civil War era. As such, baseball has been embraced by the intellectual community and has attracted the scrutiny of professional historians who have made their way to the baseball diamond to help us understand the nation’s economic, social, and racial past.

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Main body

The history of African American baseball has benefited greatly from this emergent scholarship, as well as from the recent popular interest in the vibrant Negro Leagues of the 1920s through the 1940s. Negro League memorabilia and apparel have become commercially attractive. Organizations such as the Baseball Assistance Team and the Negro League Players Association have been formed to alleviate the financial burdens of several veterans of Negro League ball. An eagerly awaited Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is underway in Kansas City, Missouri, under the direction of John “Buck” O’Neil, longtime Negro League first baseman and manager who, as white baseball’s first full-time black scout, lured Ernie Banks to the “Friendly Confines” of Chicago’s Wrigley Field2.

Baseball history’s black component was long victimized by neglect. As early as 29 June 1895, an article in Sporting Life remarked that “nothing is ever said or written about drawing the color line in the [National] League. It appears to be generally understood that none but whites shall make up the League teams, and so it goes.” But African American baseball history has all the merits of that of the mainstream white game, plus the complexity of operating within the din of racial animosity3. It is a wonder that African American baseball was able to survive and a tribute to the creativity and diligence of those who enabled it to do so.

The Negro Leagues became a source of pride within the African American community and have provided historians with a case study in black America’s ability to create a vibrant subculture that fostered the standards and traditions of its mainstream counterpart, even in the face of racial scorn and hostility4.

Those curious about African American baseball’s early struggles to survive, much less thrive, in an increasingly harrowing racial environment are fortunate that White was present to record black professional baseball’s first twenty years. He provides us with a unique window into the world of the men and events of black baseball’s infancy. Sol White Guide is the Dead Sea Scrolls of black professional baseball’s pioneering community.

Nonetheless, race relations in baseball remain far from ideal. As is characteristic of most American industries, minority ownership is nonexistent. All twenty-eight chief executive officers are white. Only three blacks have served as general managers. African-American players still voice complaints about discriminatory treatment5.

In addition, the spotlight on managerial positions masked an equally disturbing development: the decline of baseball as a force in the black community. Ironically, as African-American athletes came to constitute an overwhelming majority of players in college and professional football and basketball, the proportion of American-born black players in baseball’s major leagues dropped from an estimated one in four in the late 1960s to only one in six in the late 1980s. The situation in the minor leagues and in college baseball, an increasingly important source of major league talent, was even worse6.

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Advocates of racial division held positions of power throughout the nation. The attack against segregation, in baseball and in society, constituted an experiment in every sense of the word, and its outcome remained uncertain. Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, however, launched their experiment with one fundamental, and, at the time, revolutionary premise: that all Americans inhabit this nation together and that the key to our future prosperity and happiness rests in the elimination of all obstacles to full participation7. The responsibility for achieving this goal, they demonstrated, required the initiative and sacrifice of blacks and whites alike. This vision never entailed a surrender of ethnic and cultural distinctiveness but rather a celebration of racial pride and an inspirational model for the future8.

The black middle class has expanded dramatically in both size and influence. African Americans hold thousands of elected offices and other public positions, many in predominantly white communities. African-American entertainers and athletes rank among our most celebrated and beloved national figures9. A retired African-American general is the preferred presidential candidate of millions of Americans. These achievements reflect not merely black accomplishments but a profound transformation of racial attitudes in white America.10

Robinson’s primary energies and commitment always revolved around black America. Robinson countered the political goals of black separatism with a vision of black capitalism, in which African-American investors, helped by sympathetic whites and government assistance, would create black-owned businesses, employ black workers, generate demand among the black masses, and raise the general level of prosperity, education, and opportunity among the nation’s black population11.

Unlike Marcus Garvey or Elijah Muhammed, who also advocated black enterprise, Robinson overoptimistically envisioned these undertakings as a wedge into full and equal participation in American society, rather than as the basis for a separate economy. Unlike some contemporary African-American conservatives, Robinson never lost sight of the need for government assistance to overcome the legacy of past discrimination to achieves these ends. The limitations of black capitalism had grown apparent. While a significant number of African Americans had been able to take advantage of the opportunities that Robinson, in no small measure, had helped engender, the persistence of poverty and the bleak descent of black urban communities into drugs, crime, and violence had begun, claiming his namesake child as an early victim12.

The essence of black professional baseball is far more elusive than that of its white counterpart. The major leagues always constituted the epitome and cultural core of mainstream baseball, but the formal Negro Leagues represented no more than a segment of the black baseball experience. No leagues existed until 1920, and even during their halcyon days official contests never constituted more than perhaps a third of the games played13.

Some of the strongest black teams and best players performed outside the league structure. Top teams often boasted names like the Homestead Grays, Bachrach Giants, or the Hilldale Club, reflecting affiliations not to major cities but to people and smaller communities. The most popular attractions often involved exhibitions against white semiprofessional and professional teams. In all of these many guises and varieties, black baseball constituted a vital element of African-American culture, while also dramatizing the contradictions and challenges of survival in a world dominated by whites14.

Within the African-American community, the officials, players, and teams of black baseball symbolized pride and achievement while creating a sphere of style and excitement that overlapped with the worlds of black business, politics, religion, and entertainment. During the baseball season, Negro League teams constituted a constant presence in the black community. White baseball fans across the nation attended games that pitted black teams against white semiprofessional and professional squads, but most whites had minimal exposure to top-level competition between black athletes. The daily press in most cities rarely covered constructive black activities of any kind15.

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The thorny issue of acquiring a place for black teams to play further illustrated the complex American racial dynamics. For the independent clubs of the early twentieth century, the ability to secure reliable access to a playing field often elevated the team from sandlot to professional level. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, several major and minor league teams had discovered that renting their stadiums for Sunday Negro League doubleheaders could be a lucrative proposition.

In 1932 the New York Yankees began scheduling four-team doubleheaders at Yankee Stadium when the Yankees were on the road. In 1939 the Yankees even donated a “Jacob Ruppert Memorial Cup” named after the team’s late owner, to the black club that won the most games at the stadium that year16. By the end of the decade, the Yankees also rented out the ballparks of their Kansas City and Newark affiliates to the Monarchs and Eagles.

Both contemporaries and historians have frequently portrayed white booking agents as the Shylockian villains of black baseball. Operating in a universe in which few African-American teams owned playing fields, these baseball entrepreneurs controlled access to the best ballparks and many of the most popular opponents. Nat Strong personified these individuals17.

A former sporting goods salesman, Strong, like the men who founded vaudeville, had glimpsed an opportunity to profit along the fringes of American entertainment. Recognizing the broad interest in semiprofessional baseball in the 1890s, Strong gained control of New York—area ball fields like Dexter Park in Queens that hosted these games. He rented out these facilities to white and black teams alike and gradually expanded his empire to include a substantial portion of the East Coast18.

Their wealth, power, and influence within the black community notwithstanding, the numbers kings still had to make their way in a whitedominated world. Of the Negro National League teams of the 1930s and 1940s, only the Pittsburgh Crawfords owned and operated their own stadium. All teams still relied heavily on on white booking agents for scheduling19. Nat Strong had died in the early 1930s, but William Leuchsner who ran Nat C. Saperstein even received 5 percent of the substantial gate at the East-West showcase.

These arrangements were not without benefits for Negro League teams. Gottlieb, for example, coordinated ticket sales and newspaper and poster publicity for events he booked, enabling teams to reduce their overhead and maintain fewer employees. The booking agents also negotiated reduced rental, operating, and insurance fees from major and minor league ballparks. The Homestead Grays reported that Gottlieb’s intervention with the New York Yankees saved league owners ten thousand dollars in 1940. A scene at the opening game of the 1946 Negro League World Series captured this sense of pride. When heavyweight champion Joe Louis threw out the first pitch, he tossed a silver ball that had been awarded to the Cuban Giants, the first great black professional team20.

Since most rosters included only fourteen to eighteen men, Negro League players demonstrated a wide range of versatility. Each was required to fill in at a variety of positions. Star pitchers often found themselves in the outfield when not on the mound. Some won renown at more than one position. Ted “Double-Duty” Radcliffe often pitched in the first game of a doubleheader and caught in the second. Cuban Martin Dihigo, whom many ranks as the greatest player of all time, excelled at every position. The manpower shortage offered opportunities for individuals to display their all-around talents, but it also limited the competitiveness of the black teams. While on a given day a Negro League franchise, featuring one of its top pitchers, might defeat a major league squad, most teams lacked the depth to compete on a regular basis.

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Conclusion

In sum, throughout black America the focus shifted from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues. The African-American press reduced its coverage of the Negro Leagues to make room for updates and statistics about Robinson and other black players in organized baseball. Advertisements appeared for special rail excursions to National League cities to see Robinson play. The failure of major league teams to hire black managers, coaches, and front-office personnel compounded this problem. The nearly universal celebration of Jackie Robinson’s triumph notwithstanding, integration would produce negative as well as positive consequences.

Bibliography

“Black Ball: The Integrated Game.” In Total Baseball: Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, ed. John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and Michael Gershman. 7th ed. Kingston NY: Total Sports Publishing, 2001.

“Black Ball: The Jim Crow Years.” In Total Baseball: Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, ed. John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and Michael Gershman. 7th ed. Kingston NY: Total Sports Publishing, 2001.

Introduction to The Jackie Robinson Reader: Perspectives on an American Hero. New York: Dutton, 1997.

“Playing by the Book: Baseball History in the 1980s.” Baseball History, 1986, 6—17.

“Unreconciled Strivings: Baseball in Jim Crow America.” In Past Time: Baseball as History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Footnotes

  1. “Black Ball: The Integrated Game.” In Total Baseball: Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, ed. John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and Michael Gershman. 7th ed. (Kingston NY: Total Sports Publishing, 2001), 54.
  2. Ibid., 87.
  3. “Unreconciled Strivings: Baseball in Jim Crow America.” In Past Time: Baseball as History. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.), 33.
  4. Ibid., 55.
  5. Ibid., 98.
  6. “Black Ball: The Jim Crow Years.” In Total Baseball: Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, ed. John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and Michael Gershman. 7th ed. (Kingston NY: Total Sports Publishing, 2001), 41.
  7. Ibid., 32.
  8. Ibid., 87.
  9. Ibid., 44.
  10. Introduction to The Jackie Robinson Reader: Perspectives on an American Hero. (New York: Dutton, 1997), 23.
  11. Ibid., 28.
  12. Ibid., 87.
  13. “Playing by the Book: Baseball History in the 1980s.” Baseball History, 1986, 7.
  14. “Black Ball: The Jim Crow Years.” In Total Baseball: Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, ed. John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and Michael Gershman. 7th ed. (Kingston NY: Total Sports Publishing, 2001), 92…
  15. 85.
  16. “Black Ball: The Jim Crow Years.” In Total Baseball: Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, ed. John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and Michael Gershman. 7th ed. (Kingston NY: Total Sports Publishing, 2001), 83.
  17. Ibid., 54.
  18. Ibid., 77.
  19. “Black Ball: The Jim Crow Years.” In Total Baseball: Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, ed. John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and Michael Gershman. 7th ed. Kingston NY: (Total Sports Publishing, 2001), 101.
  20. Ibid., 373.
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