When baseball teams began to organize into professional leagues in the late 1800s, the pay was meager and players had to take jobs out of season. This was especially true of those playing in the Negro Leagues. Pay scale for players varied greatly depending upon the team played for, the talent of the player and the decade in which one played.
The first professional - paid - Negro League players were members of the Babylon Black Panthers, later renamed the Cuban Giants. The weekly pay for players in 1885 ranged between $12 and $18. Pitchers and catchers earned the higher $18 salary while infielders were on the lower end and made $12. This may not have seemed like much pay but it was a good weekly wage and certainly more money than the men would have made in the majority of other industries.
Teams like the Cuban Giants barnstormed, playing other teams from across the country, to make their wage. During the winter months the Cuban Giants would travel extensively in the South and to other countries, particularly in Latin America in order to earn a consistent salary.
As the popularity of Negro League baseball grew so did the salaries. During the 1920s players could earn a monthly salary between $100 and $400. The money made by each player would correspond to the player's perceived worth on the team.
In order to set player salaries teams had to take into account their overall operating budgets. There were high costs associated with travel, meals and accommodations. All of this impacted the money that could be offered to players. By 1926 both the Eastern Colored League and Rube Foster's Negro National League had a monthly player salary cap of $3,000.
The high mark of $3,000 was not to last. By the end of the 1920s, the country was on the verge of the Great Depression and salaries began to decline. Just a year after the $3,000 monthly salary cap, the amount in both the Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League had been reduced to $2,700 a month.
Negro League teams were greatly impacted by the Great Depression and player salaries plummeted. The Hilldale Athletic Club, operating as an independent team, had a monthly salary cap of $2,200. Many teams, unable to have a set payroll, moved from a salaried system to that of a co-op or co-play system. Co-op or co-play meant that managers and players divided the gate receipts in lieu of a set salary.
Players did not like the co-op system because their pay was dependent upon how many people bought tickets, a number that was greatly reduced as people cut out leisure expenses, such as enjoying a baseball game, during the Depression. Fortunately, as the 1930s went on, the fortunes of teams began to creep back toward the status of the late 1920s. With the resurrection of the Negro National League under Gus Greenlee, the practice of co-ops started to fall away for those teams within his league. A co-op system simply did not work in a league setting and a salary caps again became the norm. By 1936, the Negro National League allowed teams a $2,600 a month salary cap and that increased the following year to $2,700. The Negro American League, founded in 1937, came in $500 lower with a $2,200 cap.
These caps seemed in great contrast to those of the mid-1920s. Players were now making up to $150 a month, which was much less than the up to $400 some players were making just a decade earlier.
It is important to note that baseball was not a year-round job for most. Some of the more talented players had the opportunity to travel during the winter months to warm climate countries such as Venezuela, Mexico and Cuba that supported baseball during the winter months. While the top players were afforded the opportunity to play year-round, not all players were as fortunate. During the offseason, players needed to find jobs to provide for their families. This was not an easy thing to accomplish, as jobs were not readily available.
Oddly enough, a hike in the salaries of Negro League players occurred in the 1940s as the country was in the midst of World War II. By 1943 players were making up to $300 a month and that figure continued to rise. By 1947, the NNL had a salary cap of $8,000. While this may seem like progress for the players, it was causing great strains on team owners who had to consistently fill the stands in order to cover their costs. While this raise in salary was a victory for players, it would not last long. With the integration of African-Americans into the Major Leagues, the interest in Negro League baseball began to lessen. As interest decreased so did the pay. In fact, Jackie Robinson's entrance into the Major Leagues spelled the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues.
Comparing Negro League Salaries
While it may seem that $150 a month is a meager salary, it is important to put this amount into context. The great majority of African-American households, nearly two thirds, had an annual income of less than $1,000. By this measurement, the players of the Negro League were bringing in a good salary and preferred playing baseball to other work options.
Negro League salaries were typically far below their white counterparts playing in Major League Baseball and even in the Minor Leagues. That discrepancy was not the main focus of many Negro League players. The life of a Negro League player included lots of travel, up to three games packed into a day and questionable field conditions. But they played for the love of the game.
A plaque hanging in Kansas City's Negro League Museum shares former Philadelphia Stars Gene Benson's thoughts on the game:
"I never felt that I wasn't making the money white players made, or I wasn't famous. I just wanted to play baseball. I loved the game. I'd have played for $100 a year, for a dollar. I'd have played for nothing just to get out there on that grass, that dirt, and play baseball."
Salary Cap: The salary cap is the total amount to be divided among all players on a team. The money does not need to be divided equally among players.
Great Depression: The Great Depression was triggered in the United States in early September 1929 with a fall in stock prices. The stock market continued to decline until October 29, 1929, known as Black Tuesday, when stock prices collapsed. Billions of dollars were lost and businesses and investors were wiped out. The Great Crash was a large part of what led to not just a countrywide, but a worldwide depression. By the early 1930s nearly 30% of the United States workforce was unemployed.
- Create a chart that details the varying Negro League salaries shared. What does the chart tell you?
- Based upon the assumption that there were 18 players on a Negro League team, come up with potential pay ranges for players on a team.
- Taking into account that the cost of living has risen over the years, what do you think about the salaries that the players in the Negro Leagues earned?
Negro League Team Owners
Negro League teams, often owned by African-Americans, provided more than an outlet for talented baseball players and an opportunity for fans to enjoy a game. The contests were also an opportunity to give back to the African-American community.
Negro League team owners relied on their fans to help keep their teams afloat and because the owners typically lived in the community where their team played, they felt the need to reinvest in the community. Community charities were selected and a portion of the gate receipt was donated to the designated charity. Games were also an opportunity for Negro League teams to promote African-American celebrities. In return, the games had a sense of showmanship that would help to attract fans.
Additionally, areas that Negro League teams were located saw a boom in their profits when the teams were playing. People went out and spent money leading to nearly 75% of game day revenues remaining within the team's community.
Negro League ballplayers could, on average, make more money than those working in other professions. By the early 1940s Negro League baseball was the largest African-American enterprise in the United States bringing in annual revenues of approximately $2 million. This was due in large part to the dedication of the fans.
- What impact did Negro League games have on the economy of the community in which they were located?
- Why do you think owners wanted to use their games to help promote those within the African-American community?
- Baseball was the leading industry of African-Americans in the early 1940s. What factors do you feel led to this fact?
Major Leagues rent to Negro League teams
The great majority of Negro League teams did not have first class facilities. Lights were lacking, locations were often not ideal and the fields were not well maintained. But this did not stop the high level of play or the fans from coming out. In fact, there were many occasions that fans could not be accommodated in the smaller Negro League ballparks. Therefore, it became somewhat common for Negro League teams to rent out Major League facilities. While some questioned why Major League owners would allow the use of their facilities when the game was segregated, the easy answer was always money. Ballpark owners knew that they could make a nice rental sum and require a piece of the gate in exchange for the use of their facility.
The Major League team's schedule would limit the available times that a Negro League team could play in the venue. In Philadelphia, the Stars had a unique challenge of wanting to play in Shibe Park, a facility that housed two Major League teams - the American League Philadelphia Athletics and the National League Philadelphia Phillies. The Stars, who began playing in Shibe Park in 1943, could only play there on Monday nights because that was typically the night that both the Athletics and Phillies didn't have games. Stars catcher Bill Cash remembers that the "only time we could play in Shibe Park was Monday nights. If they had 10,000 on a Sunday, we'd come in Monday night and have 35,000. That wasn't just sometimes, that was every time."
In 1945 the Philadelphia Stars played nine weeknight games at Shibe Park and the overall attendance was nearly 102,000 fans. This number was staggering when compared to the just over combined 773,000 fans that the Phillies and Athletics drew over the entire 1945 baseball season.
The numbers that the Stars could draw to Shibe Park was extraordinary and one that was replicated in other major league ballparks that opened their gates, for a fee, to Negro League teams.
The number of fans that the Negro League games could bring in, coupled with the large number of white fans in attendance began to shift the mindset that baseball should be segregated. The fact that white fans were attracted to the dynamic play produced by talented African-American players proved that the integration of baseball was not only possible but that it would become increasingly necessary.
- What benefits did professional ballpark owners receive when renting their facilities to Negro League teams?
- What did the Negro League teams get out of the experience of playing at a Major League facility?
Negro League games were a great social occasion. Fans would dress in their best attire. Negro League games, often be held on Sundays after church, found fans dressed "to the nines" as they went straight from the church to the ballpark. In fact, Negro League games were so popular that many churches cut sermons down so congregants could make it to the game on time.
The showmanship and excitement of the Negro League game style of play was appealing to both African-American and white fans. Whites were drawn to the game because the play was so different from the power game employed in white professional baseball. Large numbers of white fans attended Negro League games in Northern cities and there was a smaller population of whites who attended Negro League games in the South. Gene Benson of the Philadelphia Stars shared that, "We played more daring baseball. We had our own ballpark in Philly at 44th and Parkside and we had more white fans than black. They stayed because they liked the way we played. They knew they were going to see something if they came to our ballgame."
The attendance of whites at Negro League baseball games indicated to some that the integration of baseball was on the horizon.
Another indication was that the Negro League All-Star game was a huge draw with both whites and blacks. In fact the game regularly outdrew the Major League All-Star game with more than 50,000 fans attending the competition each year between 1933 and 1950. And it was not only white fans coming to the games, Major League scouts were also in attendance so they could checkout the Negro League talent. The scouts believed that the players they were not currently allowed to recommend would be the very players they would be recruiting in the future.
- Negro League games were attractive to white fans. Describe why this was the case.
- Why do you think Negro League games were social occasions for those attending?
- Think about how fans dress to attend a baseball game today. Why do you think that as the years progressed dress became more casual?