The legacy the Negro Leagues is one of courage, perseverance, and strength to overcome the oppressive racial segregation and volatile times of the era. Conversely, by losing its stars to the Major Leagues, it was a sweet-and-sour proposition — the leagues had to fold, but integration of the white baseball establishment was a major step toward gaining equality for the black populace of America.
What was good for baseball in general — Jackie Robinson's acceptance as the first black player in the all-white Major Leagues in 1947 — was bad for the Negro Leagues that had created a niche for itself just after World War I. The successful Robinson saga quickly opened the floodgates for black stars to display and compare their talents with established white stars of the American and National leagues.
Losing its stars to the Major Leagues sapped the Negro Leagues' talent pool. They were, by the early 1960s, forced to fold due to lack of attendance and revenue.
Following the Civil War, in 1867, the National Association of Base Ball Players, the precursor of today's Major Leagues, was formed. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation had signaled freedom for the American black population during the war, it did not terminate white people's suffocating prejudice and segregationist attitudes. Consequently, the NABBP banned black players from playing in the association.
Still, as of the late 1870s, white rosters contained a few African-American names. Most were brief stays, owing to regional bigotry. Nevertheless, some notable exceptions enjoyed long and distinguished careers.
As the 1890 season began, the International League, the preeminent minor league of the time, fostered no black players. That would signal, by a white team owners gentlemen's agreement, a tacit ban on black players from ever playing in the Major Leagues. By the turn of the century, the color barrier was firmly entrenched.
Post-World War I
Black baseball managed to exist in its simplest forms from the early 1900s onward. As the urban population clamored for more entertainment, Andrew "Rube" Foster, owner of the Chicago American Giants and the mover and shaker of black baseball, decided that the time was ripe for an organized and stable Negro League.
Under Foster's leadership, in 1920, the Negro National League was born in Kansas City, with eight teams competing on a regular round-robin schedule. They were the Chicago American Giants, the Chicago Giants, the Cuban Stars, the Dayton Marcos, the Detroit Stars, the Indianapolis ABCs, the Kansas City Monarchs and the St. Louis Giants.
Also in 1920, Thomas T. Wilson, owner of the Nashville Elite Giants, put together the Negro Southern League with teams in Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Montgomery, New Orleans, and Nashville. In 1923, the momentum for continued expansion of black baseball continued when the Eastern Colored League was formed, featuring the Bacharach Giants, Baltimore Black Sox, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Cuban Stars (East), Hilldale Club, and the Lincoln Giants.
All was well with the league during the 1920s, with most of the teams making money. The Great Depression brought hard financial times, however, and the league was forced to temporarily disband after the 1931 season.
A second Negro National League, organized by Pittsburgh bar owner Gus Greenlee, took up from where the other league left off and became the flagship of black baseball from 1933 through 1949.
The Negro Southern League, on the other hand, had operated nonstop from 1920 through the 1940s. In 1937, the Negro American League was begun, which incorporated the strongest clubs in the South and Midwest. That created a healthy, but severely intense, competition with Greenlee's Negro National League.
The two leagues got together to play an East-West All-Star game, to be played annually at Chicago's Comiskey Park. The game quickly became wildly popular and was the leagues' biggest money maker. From the beginning, the East-West game packed Comiskey Park while it showcased the Negro Leagues' finest talent.
Post-World War II
As World War II drew to a close, and demands for social equality rang throughout America, it was obvious to many that baseball's color barrier had run its course and must come down. African Americans had proven themselves on the battlefield of real-life combat and now demanded their equal share of American life. The stars of black baseball had honed and proven their skills at such venues as the East-West Classic, and myriad exhibition games against their white Major League counterparts. The time was at hand for desegregation.
Baseball's color barrier came tumbling down on April 18, 1946, when Robinson, who was signed to the Dodgers' organization by President and General Manager Branch Rickey, made his first appearance with the Montreal Royals in the Triple-A International League. After just one season with the Royals, Robinson was called up to the parent club and helped the Dodgers to a National League pennant. His year was capped off by being given the first National League Rookie of the Year award.
Robinson's success paved the way for a steady stream of black players into organized baseball. Robinson was joined in Brooklyn by Negro League stars Roy Campanella, Joe Black, and Don Newcombe, while Larry Doby became the American League's first black player, signing on with the Cleveland Indians.
By 1952, there were 150 black players in organized baseball; the elite had been lured from Negro League rosters to the integrated Major and Minor leagues.
During the four years following Robinson's historic debut, virtually all of the Negro Leagues' best players had either left the league for opportunities to sign with integrated teams in hopes of getting to the Major Leagues, or had grown too old to be a factor for major league scouts. The result was predictable. Black fans followed their stars to the big leagues, and attendance declined at traditonal black ballparks.
The Negro National League dissolved after the 1949 season. The Negro American League continued on throughout the 1950s, but closed its doors for good in 1962.
Some household names appearing in the Baseball Hall of Fame that got their start in the Negro Leagues include:
Some players that participated briefly in the majors, but achieved most of their fame in the Negro Leagues, have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. A select committee who deemed the combined service to baseball merited inclusion in the Hall include: Leroy "Satchel" Paige (Monarchs et al. — Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, Kansas City Athletics, and Atlanta Braves; and Monte Irvin, Eagles — New York Giants and Chicago Cubs.
But other stars of the Negro Leagues that, most observers agree, would have had an impact on Major League Baseball had there been no color barrier include: "Smokey" Joe Williams, considered the best pitcher ever in the Negro Leagues; the powerful catcher Josh Gibson, who was known as "the black Babe Ruth; Buck Leonard, the explosive first baseman; Martin Dihigo, the versatile second baseman who could play any position but catcher; William "Judy" Johnson, third baseman known for his play in the clutch; John Henry "Pop" Lloyd, "the leader" from his shortstop position, James "Cool Papa" Bell, an outfielder that was "faster than a speeding bullet;" Oscar Charleston, the "total package," considered by many to be the best centerfielder, white or black, to ever play the game; and Ray Dandridge, the determined third baseman who has been compared to the great third basemen of all time - Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson and Graig Nettles. In addition, the Hall has honored the "Father of the Negro Leagues," Rube Foster for his visionary creation.
Other players now in the Hall that once terrorized the Negro Leagues include: Leon Day, strikeout artist who set the league record with 18 against the Baltimore Elite Giants; Bill Foster, Rube's half-brother and southpaw said to have "thrown fire;" "Bullet" Joe Rogan, another pitcher known not only for throwing hard but also for the forkballs, palmballs, spitballs, and curves in his arsenal; Hilton Smith, known for his sharp-breaking curves that "fell off the table;" Norman "Turkey" Stearnes, powerhitting centerfielder; and Willie Wells, far-ranging shortstop with excellent power at the plate.
There were still other players, many of whom played in integrated games while in the armed services. Only the civilian color barrier could keep them from experiencing a taste of the majors: John Donaldson, Raleigh "Biz" Mackey, Walter "Dobie" Moore, George "Mule" Suttles, and Jasper "Jap" Washington, to name but a few.
As seen above, the league was also characterized by the colorful nicknames of many players: Albert "Gunboat" Davis, "Steel Arm" Davis, Charlie "Chief Tokahoma" Grant, Vic "Popsickle" Harris, Arthur "Rats" Henderson, Christopher "Crush" Holloway, Clarence "Half Pint" Israel, Grant "Home Run" Johnson, Ed "Yump" Jones, Grady "Diploma" Orange, Andrew "Pullman" Porter, Melvin "Putt" Powell, Willie "Pigmeat" Powell, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, Al "Greyhound" Saylor, Harry "Suitcase" Simpson, Ted "Big Florida" Trent, and Jesse "Nip" Winters.
There were scores of others, of course, but it would appear to the casual observer that the players in the Negro League were not only talented; they played their hearts out for the fun of the game. And to think they got paid, as well.