A 20th Century Baseball Institution

By Matt Kelly | @mattkellyMLB

Telling the story of baseball in America in the first decades of the 20th Century while only using the names of stars like Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby and Joe DiMaggio is indeed only telling half the story. For while Major League Baseball powered on as America’s favorite sport through the turn-of-the-century, the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression and World War II, an equally talented and equally entertaining league – if not more so, in the eyes of some – was also thrilling fans in many of the same ballparks.

Black Americans have played the National Pastime since it first spread across the country like wildfire during the Civil War, but they were barred from the highest levels of organized baseball by unwritten rules and “gentleman’s agreements” as the 1800s came to a close. Black players still organized teams and barnstormed across the country, but it wasn’t in the organized forum fans have come to know today until one of those barnstorming players, a dominant pitcher named Rube Foster, envisioned a league where those Black stars could properly showcase their talents.

Foster formed the Chicago American Giants club in 1911 and negotiated for the team to play at the White Sox stadium, South Side Park, but he soon desired a way for his club to control its own destiny – including its gate receipts and its scheduling.

“The wild, reckless scramble under the guise of baseball is keeping us down,” Foster said, “and we will always be the underdog until we can successfully employ the methods that have brought success to the great powers that be in baseball of the present era: organization.”

Foster spent years convincing his fellow Black club owners that organization was necessary, but on February 13, 1920, those owners came together at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City to form the Negro National League. Operating under the slogan, “We Are the Ship, All Else the Sea” in a nod to its independence, the NNL took off; Foster’s American Giants club, for example, drew nearly 200,000 spectators during the ’21 season.

Legends were quickly born and grown within Negro League competition. Stars like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Martín Dihigo, Turkey Stearns, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston and many, many more would soon become household names for both Black and white baseball fans across America. The NNL remained strong until the eve of the Great Depression, which destroyed all but a few strong independent clubs by the early 1930s. However, organized Black baseball rose again in 1933 with the founding of the new Negro National League, soon followed by the Negro American League. Nineteen thirty-three also saw the introduction of the East-West All-Star Game in Chicago, which rivaled the Major Leagues’ All-Star Game (also introduced that year) in popularity and attendance.

Negro League Baseball remained wildly popular through the 1930s and early 1940s, with an estimated 3 million fans coming to ballparks during the ’42 season. The only event that halted the Negro Leagues’ run of success was something many Black players had desired all along: an invitation to prove themselves in the Majors. The death of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis – one of the major figures who kept Black players out of MLB for decades – in 1944 opened a new chapter, with Negro Leagues star Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and making his historic debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers three years later. Fellow Black stars Larry Doby and Satchel Paige quickly followed Robinson into the Majors, and the Negro Leagues dissolved soon after once more and more of its most talented stars were finally admitted into MLB.

Though the Negro Leagues were finished, their creation had done its job: Black ballplayers had proven that they could play on even terms with their white counterparts – and challenge Major League Baseball at the box office, too.