February 2nd, 2007 12:19 EST
Black Americans Have Rich History in Professional Baseball
Washington -- Black Americans have a rich history in professional baseball that dates back 140 years.
Like most Americans, blacks were first exposed to baseball during the American Civil War (1861-1865). For thousands of soldiers, the game was an entertaining way to fill idle time in military encampments. Once the war ended, the former soldiers brought the game back to their villages and towns all over the United States, where it took root and grew.
The first recorded appearance of black teams occurred in 1867 when the Brooklyn Uniques played the Philadelphia Excelsiors. That same year, a black club, the Philadelphia Pythians, applied for admission to the first organized league in the country, the National Association of Base Ball Players. The Pythians’ application was promptly rejected.
Nevertheless, a few black players gained entrance to otherwise white teams by the 1880s, and the International League briefly allowed black players on its clubs as league policy. In 1887, however, that league forbade the admission of more black players, though it allowed blacks under existing contracts to continue playing.
There were more than 200 all-black independent teams that performed throughout the country from the early1880s forward, according to negroleaguebaseball.com.
In 1920, the Negro National League was formed with the help of Andrew “Rube” Foster, a former player, manager and owner for the Chicago American Giants. Soon other leagues were organized in eastern and southern states, bringing professional-level baseball by black players to big cities and smaller towns in the United States, Canada and Latin America. These leagues, in spite of periodic financial problems, maintained a high level of professional skill and became engines for economic development and cultural affirmation in many black communities.
A SOURCE OF JOBS AND CULTURAL AFFIRMATION
Raymond Doswell, curator and education director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, said black professional baseball meant jobs. Using the Kansas City Monarchs as an example, Doswell said that in the African-American neighborhoods, and especially near the ballpark, businesses thrived: clothing stores, restaurants and jazz clubs -- “all those things thrived when the Kansas City Monarchs were in town.”
It also meant a cultural coming together, Doswell told USINFO in a recent interview. The travel involved gave players an opportunity to see the United States in a way that “really broadened their minds to all kind of things around the nation.” It also gave players leadership and ownership opportunities in the sport.
“I’ve heard people describe it [organized black baseball] as something that balanced against a lot of the negatives [of segregation] that were going on,” Doswell said.
BREAKING THE “COLOR LINE”
In 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey changed black baseball forever when he recruited Jackie Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs. Robinson played for Brooklyn's top-level minor-league club in Montreal in 1946 and for Brooklyn itself in 1947.
Other teams signed blacks to avoid a competitive disadvantage: Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Don Newcombe, Luke Easter, Orestes Minoso, Bill Bruton, Sam Jethroe, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Roberto Clemente all became stars in the major leagues. By the time Robinson retired in 1956, the color line was broken forever.
While Robinson's breakthrough was a key moment in baseball and civil rights history, it prompted the decline and downfall of the Negro Leagues. The best black players now were recruited for the major leagues, and black fans followed. The Negro National League disbanded after the 1949 season. The last black professional team disbanded in the early 1960s.
BLACK PLAYERS ENTER THE BASEBALL HALL OF FAME
But that was not to be the last chapter written on the Negro Leagues. In his induction speech at the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966, white star Ted Williams said, "I hope some day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren't given the chance."
Williams’ words had effect. According to Jim Gates, director of the library of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, by 1970 the hall had a Negro Leagues Committee that began reviewing the great black players. In 1970, it inducted Satchel Paige; in 1971, Josh Gibson; and thereafter one black player from the Negro Leagues each year for about nine years, Gates told USINFO in a recent interview. That committee was then disbanded, he said, and the Negro Leagues were placed under the purview of the Veterans Committee, which continued to induct about one Negro Leaguer a year for several years.
By 2001, Dale Petrosky, the Hall of Fame’s president, initiated a study by an outside group of experts on African-American baseball from its earliest days, Gates said. The result led to the induction of 17 additional players from the Negro Leagues.
“Our primary goal is … to ensure Americans do not forget that when American society was segregated, baseball was segregated,” Gates said. ”We've used this study [and] our exhibits to celebrate this forgotten part of American history.”
More information on blacks in baseball is available on the Negro Leagues Baseball Hall of Fame Web site.
For more on the role of sports in U.S. culture and society, see Sports.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
By David Anthony Denny
USINFO Staff Writer