November 15, 1859 was the first known professional baseball game between two black teams. In New York City, the Henson Base Ball Club of Jamaica, Queens defeated the Unknowns of Weeksville, Brooklyn, 54-43.
In the East and Mid-Atlantic states, following the American Civil War, black ex-soldiers formed teams to play baseball. The Pythian Base Ball Club formed in New Jersey in 1865. The Pythian’s promoter Octavius Cato applied for membership in the National Association of Base Ball Players in 1867, only to have the league vote to exclude any club or team with a black player. Black teams did play white teams as well as other black teams– it was a source of revenue for them, but teams and leagues were racially segregated.
By the end of the 1860’s Philadelphia’s African American population grew to 22,000 and it became the hub for black baseball. Still, permits for black teams to play within the city limits were hard to get.
In 1876, the National League was established as a professional league for baseball, but people of color were not allowed to play on NL teams. The American League which formed in 1901 also did not accept players of color.
The Cuban Giants became the first black professional team in 1885 by merging the Keystone Athletics of Philadelphia, the Orions of Philadelphia and the Manhattans of Washington, D.C. The National Colored Base Ball League formed as a minor league, but failed in 1887 because of poor attendance after only one month of the season.
The six teams of the National Colored Base Ball League were:
Baltimore Lord Baltimores
Louisville Falls Citys
New York Gorhams
The Cincinnati Browns and the Washington Capital Cities joined the league, but never played a game.
Bud Fowler was the first professional black baseball player; he was allowed to play in a few games for two Massachusetts teams in the International League, a Minor league.
Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Welday Wilberforce Walker were the first two Black players to play full seasons in the International League. A handful of other talented African American players were accepted into the league.
Black players on white minor league teams were often verbally and physically abused by competitors and fans. On July 14, 1887, Cap Anton the owner of the Chicago White Stockings marched onto the field before its game vs the Newark Giants and demanded that all Black players not be allowed to play in the upcoming game. Newark pulled their black players so the game would go on. Later that day, league owners voted not to offer future contracts to Black players so as not to disrupt future games. After the 1888 season, Black players were not allowed in the minor leagues. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the racial segregation of baseball through its Plessy v. Ferguson decision.
Because the Cuban Giants were a successful and popular team, other Black teams used the Giants name. The early “Cuban” teams were composed of all African American players and not Cubans. Cuba was on friendly terms with the U.S. and beginning in 1899, several Cuban teams played here. Some had white Cuban players and some were members of the Negro League.
Through the rest of the 1800’s and until the outbreak of World War 1, independent black teams continued to play, but struggled to find playing venues and make money.
As early as 1910, Andrew Rube Foster, who was a standout African American pitcher, began to advocate for a Negro Baseball League owned, operated and controlled by African Americans. He is considered the father of Black baseball. He wanted not only control of the on-field activities, but also the bookings. He negotiated for 40% of the game revenue instead of the 10% offered.
As more Blacks moved north to provide manpower for defense plants, a more affluent Black population provided a bigger audience for Black baseball teams. By the end of the war, the Negro National League was formed and was governed by the National Association of Colored Professional Base Ball Clubs.
The original eight teams were:
Chicago American Giants
Kansas City Monarchs
St. Louis Stars
Satchel Paige made his first appearance with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1931. Crawford’s owner, Gus Greenlee, recognizing Paige’s talents continued to pump money into the team based on the strength of Paige and catcher Josh Gibson.
With the demise of the Negro Baseball League in 1932 because of infighting and financial issues stemming from the many racial roadblocks imposed by society, the future of Blacks in baseball seemed in jeopardy.
In 1933, Greenlee formed the 2nd Negro National League. He built Greenlee Field, one of the early black ballparks, after the Walker Brothers ballpark was constructed at Chauncey and Hombre Way, also in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
Greenlee Field was designed by Berlinger the first African American architect in Pittsburgh. The field was also used by the Pittsburgh Steelers for football practice.
Black teams were allowed to play games in such venues as Forbes Field and Ammon Field, but were not allowed to use the dressing rooms.
The National Organization of Professional Baseball Clubs was the governing body of the new NNL.
The NNL consisted of these teams:
Columbus Blue Birds
Baltimore Black Sox
Brooklyn Royal Giants
Cole’s American Giants
Nashville Elite Giants
Greenlee also duplicated the MLB All-Star game with the fans voting for the players who would participate. It was called the East-West All-Star Game and the first game was held at Comiskey Park in Chicago (20,000 fans attended).
Judge Kenesaw M. Land, the first Commissioner of the MLB, was opposed to integrating the white major league teams despite the incredible talent pool of Black players. During his 25 year tenure, Land blocked all attempts at integrating baseball.
Happy Chandler, Land’s successor was open to integration. He believed Blacks were entitled to play in the league with white players because they had answered the call of their country and served in WWII. In March 1945, the white majors created the Major League Committee on Baseball Integration. One of the members, Larry MacPhail was opposed to integration and sabotaged all efforts of the committee. Another committee member, Branch Rickey essentially took matters into his own hands. Under the guise of forming a new black Baseball League, he sent scouts all over the U.S., Mexico and Puerto Rico in search of the perfect player to break the color barrier.
He selected three candidates, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson. On August 28, 1945, Rickey met with Robinson. Knowing the uphill battle facing the chosen player, Rickey tested Robinson by hurling racial insults and reminding Robinson of the racism he would face on a daily basis. Impressed with Robinson’s ability to handle stressful situations, Rickey offered him a contract to play in the MLB that nullified any other contract Robinson had in the Negro Leagues.
This clause would prove to be the demise of the Negro Leagues in the coming years. On October 23, 1945, the president of the Montreal Royals announced his intention to sign Jackie Robinson. In early 1946, Rickey signed four more black players. On April 15, 1947 Jackie Robinson officially broke the baseball color line when he started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
At the same time the MLB began to integrate, the NNL also started to recruit white baseball players. Eddie Klep became the first white man to play for the Cleveland Buckeyes during the 1946 season. Because the MLB could offer higher salaries, many talented NNL players were stolen from their teams and the NNL never recovered. It was a no win situation for the league because if they protested the MLB recruiting practices, it would interfere with the advancement of players of color to the major leagues.
The NNL folded after the 1948 season making the Negro American League the only major Negro league operating in 1949.
The last major league season for the Negro American League ended in 1951. In 1951, the Negro American League became a minor league which lasted until 1958. The last All-Star game for the now independent former Negro National and American League teams was held in 1962. By 1966, the Indianapolis Clowns were the last former NNL team still playing. They continued to play exhibition games and operated as a humorous sideshow instead of a competitive team from the mid-sixties to 1980’s.
Hank Aaron was the last Negro League player to hold a regular position in the MLB and Minnie Minoso was the last Negro League player to play in an MLB game (two games for the Chicago White Sox in 1980).
The MLB held a special draft in 2008. Each team drafted a player from the Negro Leagues who never got the opportunity to play in the MLB because of racial segregation. The New York Yankees drafted Emilio Navarro. At 102 years old, he was the oldest known living professional baseball player.
The end of segregation in Major League Baseball was an important milestone in history. Unfortunately, it also signaled the death knell of all-black leagues which were a source of pride for the African American community. These teams were typically owned by Blacks. The games were primarily attended by Blacks and created unity and generated considerable revenue which stayed in the community as well as providing jobs and showcasing Black owned businesses.