Negro League Baseball When the topic of baseball comes up in a conversation, what do you think of? The field, a bat, the ball, or amazing plays, crucial games, and game winning performances. What about American history? Does World War II come to mind; most likely not. According to an article called “Food for Thought: Baseball and American History,” John P. Rossi quotes Jacques Barzun saying, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball. ” Negro League Baseball can be used to shed light on the historical experience of African American’s in the United States.
The first record of baseball in the United States began in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1791. Its popularity spread quickly through the town and the men were banned the playing the sport within 80 yards of the town meeting house. Another early mentioning of baseball was in New York. Referred to as “base ball”, it was regularly played on Saturday’s on the outskirts of New York in 1823; which is now known as Greenwich Village. At the same time, cricket was also a popular sport. Baseball and cricket jockeyed back and forth for popularity with baseball eventually winning over the crowd.
A team called the New York Knickerbockers was founded in 1845. This was first baseball team to play under modern rules. These rules were likewise adopted and accepted by other teams. As baseball changed over time so did the rules. They eventually evolved into the rules that we now abide by in modern day baseball. The first know record of African Americans playing baseball was 1846. At this same time, the Mexican-American war had just started. African Americans and whites picked the game up from other soldiers while fighting in the war.
Often times during their leisure, the men would spend countless hours making a baseball diamond and striking up games with other soldiers. After the war was over baseball gained even more popularity and teams began to spring up all over the place. Also at this time, a freed slave name Frederick Douglas publishes his first abolitionist newspaper. Shorty after this, the first official baseball uniform was adopted in 1849. It consisted of a white flannel type shirt, blue wool pants, and straw hat. Although that was pretty significant as far as baseball is concerned, even more significant was a woman by the name of Harriet Tubman.
While the baseball uniform was being comprised, Tubman was doing the unthinkable by escaping to Philadelphia and then later returning to the plantation she was enslave in and rescued her family. Slowly, group by group, she escorted fellow enslaved African Americans to freedom. This then became known as the Underground Railroad. Segregation and discrimination was very common among Americans during this era. Hatred for African Americans spread like wild fire through society and then onto the baseball field. The National Association of Base Ball Players was the first known association to be established.
Founded in 1858, the association was comprised of 16 teams from New York. This was the first organization to govern sports and establish a championship. Just a few years later in 1861, the confederacy was founded and the Civil War began. This sort of dampened the baseball community but it eventually rebounded with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The war had little effect on the NABBP and with all its power slowly mounting, they decided to hold a meeting in 1867 to discuss what they called the nation’s moral dilemma-what to do about is four and a half million new citizens, all of them black.
According to the book called Only The Ball Was White by Robert Peterson, the committee came to a unanimous decision, calling for the exclusion “of any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons”(16-17). Due to the fact that African Americans were such a hot political topic at this time, the South put into effect the notorious Black Codes. These codes were set into place right after the Civil War was over restricting newly freed African American slaves’ civil liberties and human rights. Simple prejudices brought to life the first color line.
Even though most of the committee members were from the North, many of them shared the same beliefs as the South. They believed that the African American was inferior and not meant to play baseball in the presence of white men. As the NABBP slowly faded away, another association took a strong hold over the game. The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed in1871. The NAPBBP took over with flying colors and was geared for a more professional type league. With the color line still in place the NAPBBP never had a written rule against African Americas players.
Instead, the association enlisted a “gentleman’s agreement” that barred African Americans from playing in this league and its eventual successor, the National League. Even though baseball was unchanged about African American participation, they were slowly being accepted in society. The fifteenth amendment of the constitution was put into effect just a year before the formation of the NAPBBP. This was extremely critical for African Americans at the time because this meant that they would now have the right to vote. The amendment was designed to prohibit discrimination against voters on the basis of race or previous condition of servitude.
Prior to this, the states had had full responsibility for determining voter qualifications. As baseball grew, so did the African American ambitions to play against other white teams. Moses “Fleetwood” Walker, along with a few other players from the outside Negro Leagues, joined integrated minor league teams. In 1883 Walker’s team was set to play an exhibition game in Toledo against star player Adrian Anson’s team. Due to the presence of Walker, Anson refused to take the field. Anson was regarded as being almost entirely responsible for imposing the color line in professional baseball.
His social status and popularity empowered him to singlehandedly exterminate and force African Americans out of the league. After this incident, as stated in Peterson’s book, “The star directors of baseball should at once take steps toward the rescinding, by the International League, of the rule forbidding the employment of colored players”(31). Although African Americans were continually being excluded from professional baseball, they were making a breakthrough in education. During the same year Walker was discriminated against, Booker T.
Washington founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. This school was the leading institution as far as higher education for African Americans goes. Another situation similar to what happened in Toledo with Anson took place in 1887. The Cuban Giants were a team comprised of all African Americans and they were set to play an exhibition game that was widely advertised. Around 7000 fans were in attendance when the manager of the Cuban Giants received a telegram saying that the opposing team would not be able to play due to injuries to most of their team members.
The real reason however being that players from the opposing team sent a letter to their manager the night before saying that they refuse to play against the all African American team. “There is nothing the matter with our league,” said Judge Hueston in Peterson’s book but in all actuality there was. The leagues were significantly underfinanced; they lacked leadership, and were never up to par with the level of white organized baseball. There was a general agreement among the participants of the African American professional leagues that the level of play and competition on the field was equal to that of the highest minor league organization.
Judy Johnson, a star third baseman in the Negro Leagues said, “The leagues were not of Major League quality”. They didn’t have star players at every position as did the white Major Leagues. The African American baseball player had to learn as he played. They rarely had coaches and the manager of the team was usually a player himself with little time to instruct younger players on the finer points of the game. Strong-arm baseball is what they called it. They did what they knew how to do and that was all; no fundamentals what so ever.
However, African American business men were making headway in American society. Two of America’s first African American banks opened their doors to the public during this same year. By the year 1899, professional baseball had fully cleansed itself of African American ball players. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, just like the major leagues, the African American leagues saw its share of stars miss one or more seasons aiding our country in the war. Other African Americans were working in defense plants and were making a decent amount of money doing so.
While doing so, they packed in league games in cities where and when ever they could. Although, the white major leagues met demise due to a majority of their star players who were overseas fighting in the war. It was said that their league was barely recognizable and took a heavy downfall. Meanwhile, Negro League Baseball had reached its climax. Things were going so well for African American baseball in the United States that a new African American circuit was formed and the Negro League World Series was revived just a year later in 1942.
Then, in March of 1945, the white majors created the Major League Committee on Baseball Integration. With the formation of this committee, there was great controversy over who would be chosen to break the color line. Due to the fact that one of the members of the committee was an outspoken critic of integration, the committee never met to discuss the issue of integration. With the other committee members becoming anxious, they decided to send scouts throughout the United States, Mexico, and Puerto Rico to look for the perfect candidate to break the color line.
The list eventually boiled down to three nominees, Roy Companella, Don Newcombe, and Jackie Robinson. He then arranged a tryout with the Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves professional teams. The three African Americans took the field and made every play look easy and took batting practice like they belonged to a major league team. As stated in Peterson’s book, Robinson recalls the event saying, “In my view, nobody put on an exhibition like we did. Every pitch thrown became a screaming line drive to somewhere on the field” (184).
Hugh Duffy, the coach of the Boston Red Sox, said they were impressed by the three African Americans talents. “There is no doubt about it that they are ball players. They looked good to me” (186) says Duffy, as seen also in Petersons. Their efforts were to no avail. After this shamed tryout, Robinson settled for the nomadic life of an African American baseball player, unaware that he was being watched by a Brooklyn Dodgers Scout. While playing a game in Chicago, Robinson was approached by the Dodger Scout and was invited to attend a meeting with the Dodger’s manager, Branch Rickey.
After an extensive meeting between the two men, Robinson agreed to play for the Montreal Royals, Brooklyn’s top minor league farm club team which was part of the International League. He signed with a $3,500 dollar signing bonus and a solid salary of $600 dollars per month. Jackie Robinson became the first paid African American in Major League Baseball. Along with the signing of Jackie Robinson came the end of World War II. During this same year of 1945, Japan surrendered to the United States after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
By the end of the, over one million African American men and women have served our country valiantly in the United States Military. With Robinson breaking the color barrier, African Americans came flooding into the major league organizations and signed contracts with tons of professional organizations. Although, most of the African Americans that did sign with professional organizations, very few of them actually saw playing time in the Major Leagues. Most of them who signed ended up playing their ntire career for one of the farm club or Minor League teams that they signed under waiting patiently for their opportunity to show the Major League players what they’ve got. Negro League teams saw this as an opportunity to make money by selling their star players to big league organizations. Eventually, as full integration became inevitable, star players were signing major league contracts out of high school. This eliminated the middle man which was now Negro League Baseball. This eventually led to the inevitable end of the Negro Leagues in 1948.
So as you can see, if you really want to learn the heart and mind of America, you had best know the heart and mind of our nations national past time, baseball. It’s amazing how much we can learn by relating facts in one aspect of American history to other facts in history that as we are more interested in. This can also make learning history more fun. That is why I say that Negro League Baseball can be used to shed light on the historical experience of African American’s in the United States. Sources Cited Carrol, Brian. “The Black Press, the Black Community, and the Integration of Professional Baseball. When to Stop the Cheering. Routledge, New York: 2007. Print. ISport. “Baseball History | ISport. com. ” Baseball | ISport. com. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. . Lanctot, Neil. Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution. 4. Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Print. Mays, Peter. “American History Timeline: 1780-2005. ” Animated Atlas of American History. 2002. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. . Peterson, Robert. Only the Ball Was White. Englewood Cliffs, N. J. : Prentic-Hall, Inc. , 1970. Print. Spalding, Albert. “America. ” Baseball: A Literary Anthology. Des Moines, IA: Library of America, 2002. Print.