Illustration of Satchel Paige. (Credit: Dallas Morning News/Getty Images)
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Introduction

The rise of organized baseball after the Civil War led to early attempts to segregate the sport. The National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players rejected African-American membership in 1867, and in 1876, owners of the professional National League adopted a “gentleman’s agreement” to keep blacks out. Subsequent African American players found their greatest opportunities with traveling teams until 1920, when Rube Foster launched the Negro National League. Reformulated several times with new leagues and owners, Negro League baseball enjoyed periods of success in the early1920s and again after the Great Depression. However, Jackie Robinson’s integration of baseball in 1947 prompted a slow but irreversible influx of talent to the majors, and the remaining Negro League teams generally folded by the 1960s.

As the expanding popularity of baseball in the United States led to the formation of amateur clubs in the second half of the 20th century, African Americans were among those joining the action. Records exist of an abbreviated game between two black teams as far back as 1855, and by the end of the decade there were several African American clubs in the New York area.

However, the continued development of the sport led to attempts to exclude blacks from its highest ranks. In 1867, the National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players elected to reject applications from African American clubs. In 1876, the formation of the professional National League brought with it a “gentleman’s agreement” among owners to keep it a white man’s game.

Regardless, African Americans continued to play and even thrive at various levels of professional baseball. In 1884, catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker of the Toledo Blue Stockings became the first African American to play in what was then considered a major league. However, Walker and fellow African Americans often faced outright hostility and physical intimidation from both teammates and opponents. In one case, 19th-century superstar Cap Anson of the Chicago White Stockings threatened to cancel a game with Toledo if Walker was in the lineup.

Several of the top black players of the era, including infielders Frank Grant and Bud Fowler and pitcher George Stovey, relocated to the prominent International League playing in New York, New Jersey and southeast Canada. However, racial tensions persisted, and in 1887 African Americans were barred from signing new contracts in that circuit as well.

By the 1890s, black players were increasingly facing exclusion from organized baseball and finding more opportunities with traveling teams. The Cuban Giants, formed in 1885 under the pretense of being dark-skinned Latin Americans, traversed the East in a private railroad car to play local squads. Fowler’s Page Fence Giants enjoyed impressive success against both black and white opponents, winning 118 of 154 games in 1895.

The close of the century brought an end to formal integrated baseball. In 1899, Bill Galloway appeared in five games for Woodstock, Ontario, of the Canadian League. Save for attempts to pass African Americans off as Spanish or Native American, there would be no more blacks in white professional leagues for more than four decades.

Segregation notwithstanding, black players continued to find ways to foster high-level competition in major northern cities. The first “Colored Championship of the World” was held in 1903, with pitcher Rube Foster leading the Cuban X-Giants to victory over the Philadelphia Giants.

Attempts to establish an organized circuit sputtered on several occasions: The integrated International League of Independent Baseball endured a rocky season in 1906 before dissolving, and the planned National Negro Baseball League came and went in 1910 before a single game was played. Top teams like the Leland Giants of Chicago and the Lincoln Giants of New York enjoyed some staying power, but were often at the mercy of white booking agents who controlled access to large stadiums.

A turning point for black baseball came in 1920, when Rube Foster founded the Negro National League. An enterprise of black ownership, its early financial success prompted the formation of the Eastern Colored League in 1923. The two circuits converged to play the World’s Colored Championship in 1924, and continued the annual series until 1927.

Stability proved fleeting for the Negro Leagues, however, as players jumped from squad to squad in pursuit of the highest bidder, and teams skipped league games when a more lucrative exhibition offer surfaced. A vital leader was lost when Foster was institutionalized in 1926, and the Eastern Colored League folded in 1928. It reformulated as the American Negro League in 1929, but the Great Depression proved costly to professional black baseball, with the Negro Southern League and a few strong independent clubs emerging as the only entities to survive the 1932 season.

In 1933, Pittsburgh Crawfords owner and numbers kingpin Gus Greenlee restarted the Negro National League. That year he introduced the East-West All-Star Game in Chicago, which became the sport’s biggest annual event, attracting more than 50,000 fans at its peak.

The Negro Leagues enjoyed a resurgence of success thanks to the backing of owners who became rich through gambling and other illegal operations, as well as the dazzling performances of top players. Some, like catcher Josh Gibson, earned renown for hitting tremendous home runs, but black baseball primarily became known for showcasing a style of speed, daring play and showmanship. Its most famous player, pitcher Satchel Paige, might guarantee to strike out the first six batters he faced, or order his outfielders to the dugout in the middle of an inning. Still, its stars knew to buckle down during exhibitions against white All-Star teams, and enjoyed a strong record in those matchups.

In 1937, the Negro American League was formed from teams in the Midwest and South to counter the Negro National League. The sport’s health seemingly stronger than ever, an estimated 3 million fans turned out to watch Negro League teams play in 1942, with its World Series revived that September.

By that point, the push to integrate major league baseball was slowly gaining steam. In 1942, former UCLA athletic star Jackie Robinson and another black player named Nate Moreland were granted a cursory workout with the Chicago White Sox. The 1944 death of Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a strict segregationist, provided another opening, and in 1945 sportswriters engineered tryouts for Negro Leaguers with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Red Sox, the latter again involving Robinson.

As it turned out, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey was already scouting African Americans, ostensibly for a new Negro league but in reality for his major league team. He forged a secret arrangement with Robinson in August 1945, and shook the baseball world with his official announcement in October.

Following an outstanding season with the minor league Montreal Royals in 1946, Robinson officially integrated major league baseball by manning first base for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947. On July 5, former Newark Eagles star Larry Doby became the second black big leaguer by suiting up for the Cleveland Indians. Three more appeared in the majors by the end of the year, and the following season, after signing the now-42-year-old Paige, Cleveland went on to win the World Series.

The successes of Robinson, Doby and other African Americans like Roy Campanella and Monte Irvin drew the attention of black communities and drained the Negro Leagues of its fan base. The Negro National League disbanded in 1948, and the Negro American League limped through the 1950s, its attempts to sign white players and women having little lasting impact on the turnstiles.

In the meantime, major league baseball was proving slow to change; as late as August 1953, only six of its 16 teams were fielding black players. However, the historic accomplishments of young stars like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks soon prompted organizations to change their ways, and in 1959, the Red Sox became the last major league team to integrate with the addition of infielder Elijah “Pumpsie” Green.

The following year, the Negro American League folded. Some longtime clubs like the Monarchs attempted to stay afloat, but the combination of lower-grade talent and strengthening of major sports franchises led to their extinction through the decade, with only the Indianapolis Clowns managing to survive as a traveling team until ceasing operations in 1989.