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The history of African-americans in organized baseball, which dates back well over 100 years

The history of African-americans in organized baseball, which dates back well over 100 years

The history of African-americans in organized baseball, which dates back well over 100 years

 

After the American Civil War ended, free blacks pursued their dream of playing professional baseball. In 1867, the National Association of Base Ball Players rejected a request for membership by the all-black Philadelphia Pythians baseball club. The Pythians were not allowed to play in professional baseball. However, on September 18, 1869, the Pythians did become the first all-black team to play an exhibition game against an all-white team, the City Items. The Pythians won 27-17. Despite refusal to enter the professional leagues, African Americans fielded their own amateur and professional teams. On of the best known all-black professional teams were the Cuban Giants.

Pioneers

Bud Fowler started as a great pitcher for a local team in Chelsea, Massachusetts. At the age of 20 he beat the National League’s Boston team 2-1 in an exhibition game. He played for many teams and leagues for many years and was recognized as one of the best players of his era, but could not get signed on with any professional league teams because of the color of his skin.

One of the greatest African American players of the 19th century may have been Frank Grant who played second base for the Buffalo Bisons of the International Association. By the age of 20, he led the International League in hitting, but he was also subjected to constant harassment from opposing teams.

Moses Fleetwood Walker studied at Oberlin College where he started a varsity baseball team with the help of his younger brother. In 1884, Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first black to play in the major leagues. He played as a catcher for the American Association Toledo Blue Stockings. Throwing and batting right, Walker played in 42 games, had 152 at-bats and had 40 hits in his only season in major league baseball. His own teammates refused to play with him. Threatening letters called for the removal of Walker from the team. Walker was let go from the team and played for several minor league teams and then played for Newark in the International League.

Smokey Joe Williams was considered the greatest black pitcher of the early 20th century, even greater than the legendary Satchel Paige by some accounts. He pitched for the Leland Giants in 1909 at the age of 24. He became known for his strikeout skills when he pitched for the Lincoln Giants from 1912 - 1923.

In 1887, Fleetwood Walker, Bud Fowler, Frank Grant, Robert Higgins, George Stovey, and three other black players went to play in the newly organized International League. Playing in the International League was also difficult for blacks. Teams were comprised of both white and black players and the black players were often treated unkindly by the white players.

When Syracuse Stars left-handed pitching rookie Robert Higgins went to the mound to pitch his first game in the International League, the crowd yelled threats to kill him because he was black. His own teammates played poorly so that he would lose. Some of them also refused to have their picture taken with him.

In 1887, members of the St. Louis Browns refused to play in an exhibition game against the all-black Cuban Giants. Also in 1887, when Cap Anson - one of the most highly regarded white players in baseball at that time - heard a team was considering hiring a black player (George Stovey) he stated that he nor any other member of the Chicago White Stockings would play on a team or against a team with black players.

Racism in the International League continued to grow. One umpire said he would make calls against the team with black players. In an effort to avoid the constant confrontation, major league owners made an agreement to no longer sign black players. The minor leagues followed suite and declared that black players would no longer be welcome on their teams. Teams stopped recruiting black players, and they soon disappeared from organized white baseball. Black players would not return to white organized baseball for over sixty years. During the late 19th century at least 70 black players played some level of organized baseball. Beyond this involvement, blacks were on the outside looking in on the game of professional baseball.

Rube Foster and the Rise of the Negro leagues

Andrew Foster was one of the most prominent individuals in the history of black baseball. Born in 1879 in Calvert Texas, Foster pitched for the Chicago’s Union Giants in 1902. In 1903 he pitched for the Cuban X Giants. He pitched for several other teams throughout his career and was considered one of the best of his era. He acquired the nickname of “Rube” by out pitching Rube Waddell who was known as one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Following his spectacular playing career, Foster became a manager, at which he greatly excelled; utilizing the bunt, stealing, and the hit-and-run. In 1920, he created the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, also known as the Negro League which was comprised of teams from Chicago (Giants and American Giants), Detroit (Stars), St. Louis (Giants), Dayton (Marcos), Indianapolis (ABCs) and the Cuban Giants. There was one exception however, the Kansas City Monarchs - founded in 1920 and controlled by white businessman J.L. Wilkinson. The league was disbanded in 1931 after the death of Rube Foster.

Negro league Dynasties

After the end of Foster’s Negro National League, J.L. Wilkinson did his best to keep his Kansas City Monarchs a viable team. In the meantime a man named Cumberland Posey, Jr. had developed the Homestead Grays into a great team. He started with the team as an outfielder in 1911 and by the early 1920s he owned the club and had started recruiting the top black players in the country. Posey turned the Grays into one of the greatest black teams in the history of baseball by recruiting future Hall of Fame players Martin Dihigo, James “Cool Papa” Bell, Judy Johnson, Josh Gibson, and Buck Leonard.

In 1930 Gus Greenlee of Pittsburgh took over the Pittsburgh Crawfords. He signed Satchel Paige to the Crawfords and acquired Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson, Josh Gibson, and James Bell from the Grays. With this talent, the Crawfords became one of the greatest teams in history. In 1933, Greenlee created a rejuvenated Negro National League. He also created the East-West All-Star Game, first played in Chicago, which soon became the focal point of black baseball.

Leroy “Satchel” PaigeLeroy Robert “Satchel” Paige was born in Mobile Alabama on July 7, 1906. He was a phenomenal pitcher. Starting at the age of 17 with his home town Mobile Tigers in 1924 and ending with Major League baseball’s Kansas City Athletics in 1965 at the age of 59, pitching 3 scoreless innings. During his career Satchel pitched with the Negro League’s Chattanooga Black Lookouts, the Birmingham Black Barons, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and the Kansas City Monarchs to name a few. He also pitched in many semi-professional exhibition games between all-black and all-white teams. At the age of 48, he made his Major League baseball debut on July 9, 1948 with the Cleveland Indians. He played for the St. Louis Browns from 1951 through 1953.

Regardless of where he pitched or who he pitched for, Paige was considered one of the best pitchers in the history of baseball. He often won exhibition games against all-white teams, once beating Dizzy Dean 1-0. He won hundreds of games and thrilled fans, both black and white, with his “hesitation” pitch, the “jump ball,“ the “trouble ball” and other styles of the curve ball and fast ball.

Mr. Rickey and Jackie

The time was drawing near for black players to play in Major League baseball. The injustice of blacks being able to fight for their country in World War II but not play professional baseball became obvious. Several Major League teams considered signing black players. Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher openly stated that he was willing to sign black players on his team. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith asked Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard if they would be interested in playing on his team. Sam Jethroe, Marvin Williams, and Jackie Robinson were invited to try out at Fenway Park. None of these opportunities resulted in blacks playing in Major League Baseball, in part due to the stringent policies set forth by Commissioner Kenesaw “Judge” Landis to bar blacks from playing Major League Baseball. His death in 1944 eliminated one of the major obstacles for blacks playing professional baseball.

Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers was solely responsible for bringing Jackie Robinson into the Dodger’s system. Rickey worked for the St. Louis Browns/Cardinals from 1917 through 1942 as field manager, club vice-president, and business manager. He left the Cardinals in 1942 to take control of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Rickey took it upon himself to integrate the game of professional baseball. On August 28, 1945, Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers top farm club team, the Montreal Royals of the International League. He announced the signing of Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers top farm club team, on October 3, 1945. Robinson debuted with the Montreal Royals on April 18, 1946. Throughout this entire process, Robinson’s signing with and playing for the Dodger’s farm system was not well received around the league and around the country.

Ignoring all the criticism, threats, and verbal abuse, Rickey announced on April 10, 1947 that Jackie Robinson would start the season with the Dodgers. On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson did indeed make his Major League Baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He excelled in his first year of professional baseball and was named Major League Baseball’s Rookie of the Year. He was also the first black player to ever appear in a Major League Baseball World Series.

Slow Change

In the 1947 season other clubs began signing black players, Larry Doby in Cleveland, Willard Brown and Hank Thompson in St. Louis, Dan Bankhead with the Dodgers. However, none of these players ended the season with their teams. In 1948, Larry Doby made the Cleveland team and led them to a World Series Championship. Although Robinson was the first player to play in a World Series. Doby was the first black player to win a World Series Championship. In 1949, Robinson led his team to another pennant and earned Most Valuable Player Award honors.

By 1953, only six of the 16 Major League Baseball teams had black players on their rosters. The Cardinals, Phillies, Red Sox, and Tigers had yet to sign a black player to their teams. Black players on other teams continued to excel and lead their teams to post-season play. Jackie Robinson had become one of the stars of the game. Catcher Roy Campanella was named MVP in 1951, 1953, and 1955. By 1954, the Phillies, Tigers, Red Sox, and Yankees were the only Major League Baseball teams with all-white rosters.

In 1959, Elijah Green made his debut with the Boston Red Sox - 12 years and 107 days after Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers. Boston was the last Major League Baseball team to integrate a black player on their team. The Negro Leagues continued to serve as a training ground for talented black players who would eventually make their way to the “big leagues.“ As integration into the major leagues continued, fan interest in the Negro Leagues diminished. Many players who were not accepted to the major leagues languished.

Even though blacks had entered Major League Baseball, they still had not made it to the “big time.“ Players were still jeered at by crowds, thrown at by opposing pitchers, spiked on the base paths, forced into separate living and eating accommodations from their white teammates, and essentially treated like second-class citizens. Some of these problems were erased after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 which barred public facility segregation.

Through the 1960s black players still faced many of the same challenges. But black stars such as Bob Gibson, Dick Allen, Frank Robinson, and Willie Mays still faced hatred and bigotry. Gibson and his black teammates with the Cardinals made great strides in securing equal treatment in housing during spring training, and on the road.

In 1974, however, it became apparent that race was still a divisive issue among Americans. Henry Aaron approached babe Ruth’s sacred career home run record, and while doing so he received thousands of hate-letters. Many letters vilified Aaron because they didn’t want a black man breaking Ruth’s record.

Later, Robinson broke the color barrier for managers, getting the job with the Cleveland Indians in 1977. By that time, black players such as Reggie Jackson and Joe Morgan were among the most popular among fans.

To this day, blacks still fight the battle for equality in Major League Baseball’s managerial and executive ranks.

 

 

By The Baseball Page
Tuesday, 15 Mar 2011

 

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