Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Teams of the First Black Major League Take to the Field

Rube Foster and the 1920 Chicago American Giants

On May 2, 1920 the first game between teams of the brand new National Negro Baseball League (NNL) played their first game in Indianapolis.  The league was the brainchild of Rube Foster, a pitcher who had been managing Negro teams, semi-pro and professional since 1907.

The league was formed that February at a meeting held in a Kansas City YMCA.  The charter teams were the Chicago American Giants, Detroit Stars, Kansas City Monarchs, Indianapolis ABCs, St. Louis Giants, Cuban Stars, Dayton Marcos and Chicago Giants.  Foster’s own Chicago American Giants dominate the league in the early years, winning the first four consecutive championships.

Blacks had been playing organized baseball since at least the early 1870s.  Most clubs were amateur or had one or two paid players on the team.  Local and regional leagues came and went.

In the days of virtual apartheid in sports, only a handful of Blacks played on White teams.  Oberlin College players Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Welday were signed with the minor league Toledo Blue Stockings and stayed with the club when it moved up to the old American Association, a short lived Major League in 1884.  A few other players who could “pass” or who claimed to be Native American or Hispanic may also have briefly played.

Black and white teams sometimes met in off-season exhibition games.

In 1885 the first all-pro Black team, the New York based Cuban American Giants was organized.  It played in local eastern leagues and barnstormed, mainly in the South until it was dissolved after the 1899 season.  Famously, they twice beat white major league teams in exhibitions.

From the turn of the 20th Century to the formation of Foster’s league, Black professional baseball was most famous for barnstorming—touring the country, most small towns, and taking on all comers.

Although the roster of teams changed, the NNL was concentrated mostly in the Midwest and Boarder South.  In 1923 Eastern professional teams organized as the Eastern Colored League (ECL).  From 1923 through ’27 the two leagues held their own World Championships.  The ECL folded in early 1928 but re-emerged with most of the same teams in 1929 as the American Negro League.

Neither league, however, could survive the Depression.  By 1932 both were out of business, although Black minor leagues like the Negro Southern League continued to operate.  Some of the stronger teams in the defunct majors continued to operate, reverting to the barnstorming model.

A second league operating as the NNL opened in the 1933 season.  It struggled but climbed back to a major league status.  In 1937 the competing Negro American League (NAL) was formed leading to another annual championship series and legendary All-Star games, known as the East-West Games.  It was in these leagues that the legendary Black ball players rose to national prominence.  The level of play was so high that white professional teams began to wish they could recruit from it.  But the color bar seemed insurmountable.

In 1947 the NAL absorbed the NNL.  From then on it was the only remaining Black major league.

When Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers finally broke the color line by putting Jackie Robinson on the field in 1947, it spelled eventual doom for Black baseball.  It took a few years, but by the mid 1950’s virtually every Major League team was stocking up on Black players, either directly from the NAL or signing them directly.  Black fans followed the best players to the big league parks.  The NAL sputtered out of existence after the 1960 season.

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