Innovations of the Negro League
By: Matt Kelly | @mattkellyMLB
The Negro Leagues rivaled the Major Leagues in popularity for many years of their existence during the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, providing a thrilling alternative for fans in ways that went beyond the color of the players’ skin. And there is no denying the influences they had on the baseball we watch today.
Indeed, Negro League games often carried a different look, sound and feel than contests played over in the Majors, and they introduced some important new things to baseball -- from the equipment worn on the field to the players’ relationship with management to the way the game itself would go on to be played.
With MLB celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues on Sunday, let’s take a look at some of the biggest Negro League innovations that Major League Baseball would later incorporate and adopt.
Five years before any Major League club played under the lights, the Negro Leagues were already tapping into the practicality of night baseball. After the Great Depression devastated baseball clubs across America -- and Negro Leagues in particular -- Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson pushed all his chips to the center of the table, mortgaging everything he owned in 1929 to commission an Omaha company to build him a set of portable generator light towers. The Monarchs staged their first night game on April 28, 1930, and soon those 50-foot towers allowed Wilkinson’s barnstorming club to play day-night doubleheaders -- both in their home city and on the road.
“To be honest, Wilkinson wasn’t doing it for innovation,” Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick said in an interview with MLB Network. “He was doing it for survival. And he was looking for a way to get the working class fan into the ballpark. Night baseball became the answer.”
Wilkinson needed a $50,000 loan to buy the lights, but night baseball was so popular that he was able to make his investment back in just one year. The Monarchs’ night games were an even bigger hit than the club’s Sunday games -- no small feat, considering that local Black churches would change the time of their Sunday services in order to accommodate the interest in those matinees. Kansas City also rented out its lighting equipment to some of its rivals, spreading night baseball to even more Negro League contests. The Minor Leagues also began staging night games in 1930, but the Major Leagues didn’t play under the lights until the Reds hosted the Phillies at Crosley Field on May 24, 1935.
Major League Baseball’s infamous reserve clause tethered players to their original clubs all the way through the mid-1970s, but the Negro Leagues’ looser contract structures created an environment for unprecedented player movement for the times. The biggest Black baseball stars often switched uniforms and marketed their talents to the highest-bidding club -- whether it be within the Negro Leagues or even elsewhere, like the Mexican League or in the Dominican Republic. Satchel Paige took advantage the most, often pitching for the club that offered him either the biggest payday or the biggest crowd to watch him pitch. Paige once claimed to have pitched for 250 teams across his baseball life (and also to have thrown 250 shutouts along the way).
The Negro Leagues didn’t necessarily invent aggressive baserunning; Wilbert Robinson’s 1890s Orioles, for example, often employed hit-and-runs, suicide squeezes, bunts and “Baltimore chops.” But when the Major Leagues shifted toward the long ball after Babe Ruth popularized the home run, the Negro Leagues became the dominant forum for creative, small-ball tactics in order to manufacture runs. Cool Papa Bell was known as the world’s fastest player, but he wasn’t the only one who created a stir on the basepaths. Beloved Negro Leagues player, manager and ambassador Buck O’Neil would often say that fans couldn’t go to the concession stand during their games, “because you might miss something you’ve never seen before.”
“They had guys who could hit it out of the park,” Kendrick said in 2014, “but they had more guys who could steal you 40 or 50 bases in a season.”
Baserunners were in constant motion in Negro League games, taking extra bases whenever possible -- whether it be via bunting, going first-to-third on a single or stealing every bag available (including home plate). Some big league clubs, like St. Louis’ famous “Gashouse Gang” teams of the 1930s, adopted this style to differentiate themselves from the competition. But one doesn’t need to look any further than the first Major League seasons of Jackie Robinson, who drove pitchers wild with his daring efforts on the basepaths, to see how much more aggressive Negro League stars were on a game-by-game basis.
Many historians cite Negro Leagues star Willie Wells as the first professional player -- Black or white -- to wear protective headgear at the plate. Opposing pitchers often threw at the Newark Eagles’ star, and when Baltimore spitballer Bill Byrd knocked Wells unconscious with a pitch to the temple in 1936, Wells (disregarding a doctor’s advice to sit out) played in Newark’s very next game wearing a modified construction hard hat at the plate. Neither the helmet nor the concussion limited Wells’ bat; he was a consistent .300 hitter for the rest of the decade. Batting helmets weren’t seen in the Major Leagues in any form until Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail made his entire club use hats with protective plate inserts in ‘41.
Shin guards for catchers
Hall of Fame catcher Roger Bresnahan is often credited with popularizing shin guards beginning in 1907, but he was _not _the first to don them in an organized game. In fact, catcher John “Bud” Fowler pioneered shin guards for a much different reason than backstops wear them today.
Fowler, the first known Black professional baseball player, fashioned wooden slats to cover his shins in order to protect them from the wayward spikes of prejudiced opponents. Black catcher Chappie Johnson began wearing shin guards in 1902, three years before white catcher J.J. Clarke briefly wore them in the Majors. About a decade later, Negro Leagues star Pop Lloyd famously wore iron shin guards underneath his socks in an exhibition game against Ty Cobb’s Tigers, helping him withstand spike challenges by Cobb and blocking him from stealing second base.