Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience
Cuban Giants season ticket, 1887
Courtesy of Larry Hogan Collection
National Baseball Hall of Fame Library Almost as soon as the game’s rules were codified, Americans played baseball so passionately that writers of the time called it a mania. African Americans were no different, but in baseball, as in much of American life, they played mostly in segregated settings, including southern plantations, as early as the 1850s. After the Civil War, African Americans had the opportunity to play ball with white players, even professionally, but those opportunities diminished as Reconstruction ended and segregation became entrenched as part of American culture.
By the late 19th century, African Americans had developed baseball to its fullest potential on their own sandlots and diamonds. Black communities took pride in these teams and their dynamic brand of the National Pastime. It was here that black baseball became the seedbed for those talented players who eventually paved the way to integrated baseball. Dozens of barnstorming black teams had developed and were playing around the country by the time the first successful black league was formed in 1920.
As the number of black baseball leagues changed and grew, this form of segregated ball was embraced by local towns and neighborhoods, with teams and players earning both legendary status as well as income for their communities. Following World War II and the loyal service of more than one million segregated African-American soldiers, the game itself finally became a testing ground for integrating American life. Jackie Robinson’s “breaking of the color barrier” in 1947 eventually led to desegregation of the sport at every level. Given new opportunity, many talented black players took the majors by storm, dominating the most important awards and making their mark in the record books.
By 1959, every major league team’s roster was integrated, but questions concerning true equality at every level of the sport, from the executive office to the locker room, remained. Despite progress on many fronts, such issues continue in baseball today. African-American participation in the sport is at its lowest level in almost 50 years, and limited opportunities for management and front office positions are still critical topics for discussion.
Finding a Way in Hard Times 1860 – 1887 “The prejudices of race are rapidly disappearing. A week
or two ago we chronicled a game between the Pythian
(colored) and Olympics (white) clubs of Philadelphia.
This affair was a great success, financially and otherwise.”
––New York Clipper, 1869
Following the Civil War (1861-1865), Reconstruction was meant to establish freedom and fairness for former slaves. It failed dismally, even in baseball, a game spread throughout the nation
by the war. In both the North and the South, opportunities for black players in organized baseball narrowed as racial prejudice deepened. As black communities became worlds of their own within the larger American society, African Americans established teams in clubs and schools. By the mid-1880s, they were also forming their own professional teams.
African-American ballplayer and his wife,
Carlisle, Pennsylvania, c. 1880
Courtesy of Bob and Adelyn Mayer,
Spring Fever Memorabilia, Putnam Valley, New York
The Closing Door Some journalists continued to fan the dying embers of hope for integration in the Reconstruction era, but many Americans were already busy closing opportunity to African Americans. Black teams like the Pythians of Philadelphia played all comers, including white teams, but opportunities for such interracial contests quickly diminished. Ironically, Pythians captain and star player Octavius Catto was murdered during riots in Philadelphia on the day of the first important election in which black men were legally allowed to vote, October 10, 1871.
Octavius V. Catto, Philadelphia schoolteacher, civil rights
advocate and captain of the all-black Philadelphia
Pythians baseball team, c. 1867
Courtesy of the Urban Archives, Temple University,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Scorecard from a baseball match between the all-black Pythians of Philadelphia and the Washington Mutuals,
a famous amateur white team, June 28, 1867
Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), Leon Gardiner Collection Integrated Ball in the 1800s By the late 1880s, more than 30 African Americans played in the major and minor leagues. They were confronted with the insults of teammates, rough play of opponents and threats and occasional violence of locals. In 1887, at least nine African Americans appeared on teams in the International League. Despite many obstacles, some of these black players succeeded, such as Bud Fowler, Grant Johnson, George Stovey, Frank Grant and the Walker brothers. Fowler and Johnson would soon help found the Michigan-based Page Fence Giants, one of the most successful black baseball teams of the 1890s.
Not only did black teams face white teams on the field, but African-American players played on the same teams with whites, including at the major league level. Moses Fleetwood Walker (back row, center) played on the integrated minor league Toledo team in 1883. In 1884, Toledo joined the major league American Association, making Fleet and his brother Weldy, who played on the same team, the last black major leaguers prior to Jackie Robinson in 1947. As seen in the letter below, Walker and the Toledo team routinely faced the specter of prejudice.
Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library Findlay, Ohio team with black players Grant Johnson
(second row, far left) and Bud Fowler (second row, far right), 1895
Courtesy of the Mae Huston Local History Resource Center,
Hancock Historical Museum, Findlay, Ohio We the undersigned do hereby warn you not to put up Walker,
the negro catcher, the evenings that you play in Richmond, as we could mention the names of 75 determined men who have sworn to mob Walker if he comes on the ground in a suit. We hope you will
listen to our words of warning, so that there will be no trouble;
but if you do not there certainly will be. We only write this to
prevent much bloodshed, as you alone can prevent.
––Letter from the Richmond, Virginia team to the manager of Toledo team regarding Moses Fleetwood Walker, 1883
Black Teams Become Professional The first African-American professional teams formed in the 1880s. Among the earliest was the Cuban Giants, who played baseball by day for the wealthy white patrons of the Argyle Hotel on Long Island, New York. By night, they were waiters in the hotel’s restaurant. Such teams became attractions for a number of resort hotels, especially in Florida and Arkansas. This team, formed in 1885 by combining players from Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia teams, was not Cuban at all. The reason for choosing the name “Cubans” is unknown.
The Cuban Giants, 1888
Courtesy of Lillian Dabney “Printmaker to the People” Currier and Ives, one of America's most popular pictorial records, cruelly ridiculed the ability of
African Americans to play baseball. Although no longer acceptable today, it was common for
remarks and images like these to appear in print during the 19th century. The following letter to
the editor of Sporting Life in 1887 echoed such prejudice.
A Foul Tip, Currier and Ives, 1882
Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library Good sherry has a fine nutty flavor and so perhaps we would then remark that the
colored club were darkhorses and that they played nobly and all that sort of thing, but please, Mr. Editor, can't we say that a brunette manager in search of colored
players is on a grand coon hunt?
—T.T.T., The Sporting Life, 1887
Timeline: African-American History 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford Decision
The Supreme Court allows slave owners to reclaim slaves who escaped to free states, stating slaves were property and not citizens.
1860 Frederick Douglass Returns to America from Europe
The great abolitionist, author and orator returns to his homeland from abroad. He influences many political decisions regarding African Americans from the Civil War until his death in 1895.
(Frederick Douglass, c. 1879
Courtesy of Library of Congress)
1861–1865 Civil War
Approximately 180,000 African-American soldiers comprising 163 segregated units serve in the Union army during the Civil War.
President Lincoln frees slaves in all states “in rebellion” and declares they “will be received into the armed service.”
Courtesy of Chicago History Museum)
1865 Thirteenth Amendment
Abolishes slavery within the U.S.
1865–72 Freedman’s Bureau
A federal agency responsible for improving education and attaining other civil rights is created to help freed slaves.
(First schoolhouse built for the education of Freedmen, Port Hudson, Louisiana
Courtesy of Chicago History Museum)
Federal troops are stationed in the South to help re-establish those states back into the Union.
1866 African-American Regiments
Called “Buffalo Soldiers” by Native Americans, African-American soldiers are recruited to serve in Army units in the West.
Civil Rights Act
Forbids discriminatory state laws or Black Codes, giving equal rights to all male citizens
Ku Klux Klan
Groups such as the KKK begin subjecting African Americans to a reign of terror, a campaign of intimidation and violence that would continue for more than 100 years.
1868 Fourteenth Amendment
Grants citizenship to all people born on U.S. soil, affording them equal protection and due process of law regardless of race
1870 Fifteenth Amendment
Makes it illegal to prevent voting based on race
1877 Segregation Expands
Following the contested 1876 Hayes-Tilden presidential election and the official end to Reconstruction, many state governments begin passing Jim Crow laws to deny equal rights to African Americans.
1881 Tuskegee Institute
Booker T. Washington serves as the first principal of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, one of the nation’s first black colleges. His influential autobiography entitled Up from Slavery was later published in 1901
Timeline: Baseball History 1845 Knickerbocker Rules
The Knickerbocker Base Ball Club establishes modern baseball’s rules.
1850s Plantation Baseball
As revealed by former slaves in testimony given to the Works Progress Administration 80 years later, many slaves play baseball on plantations in the pre-Civil War South.
1857National Association of Base Ball Players Founded
In the earliest recorded matchup of two black ballclubs, the Henson Base Ball Club of Jamaica, New York defeats the Weeksville Unknowns of Brooklyn.
1867 The Pythian Baseball Club
The Pythian Club, an amateur African-American baseball club from Philadelphia, is denied membership in the National Association of Base Ball Players because of its members’ race.
1869 The Cincinnati Red Stockings
Cincinnati becomes baseball’s first openly all-professional team.
(Cincinnati Red Stockings, 1869 Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library) 1871 First Professional League
Though plagued by financially weak franchises and players jumping from team to team, baseball’s first professional league, the National Association, operates for five seasons.
(Troy Haymakers of the National Association, 1871
Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library) 1876 National League
With tougher player contracts, the National League begins play with eight teams, including the four strongest franchises from the defunct National Association.
1878 First African-American Professional Player
Bud Fowler plays for pay in Lynn, Massachusetts, on a team in the minor league International Association.
National League teams agree to abide by the reserve clause, allowing them to continually hold a player’s rights and preventing players from voluntarily switching teams.
1882 American Association
Competing with the National League, a new major league begins its 10-year run.
1883 The National Agreement
The National League and American Association agree to respect each other’s contracts, solidifying the reserve clause.
1884 Last African-American Major Leaguers
Catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker plays the 1884 season with Toledo’s American Association team. His brother, Weldy, also plays briefly for Toledo. William Edward White, another ballplayer of African-American descent, played one major league game for the Providence Greys five years earlier.
(Moses Fleetwood Walker, 1884
Courtesy of National
Baseball Hall of Fame Library) 1886 Southern League of Colored Base Ballists
This segregated league in five southern states folds after only two months.
Broadside featuring the Belmont
Colored Giants of Harlem, 1908
Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library Barnstorming on the Open Road 1887–1919 By 1887, some black players were on organized baseball rosters, mainly in the minor leagues. But during that season, the International League owners agreed to make no new contracts with African-American players. In unspoken agreement, other leagues adopted similar policies over the next 15 years. Black players, in response, started their own professional teams. They barnstormed throughout many of the nation’s towns and cities, playing against all comers and building a reputation for great baseball. By 1910, more than 60 teams were on the road. Some were so good that no amount of prejudice could deny their talent. Even with the advent of organized black baseball in 1920, many black teams continued to
barnstorm all the way up through the 1950s.
Proclaiming themselves the “Colored World Champions” of 1909,
the barnstorming St. Paul (Minn.) Gophers were one of several
independent all-black teams trumpeting that title.
Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library The Mohawk Giants of Schenectady, New York, reached prominence in
the period 1913 to 1915. Their roster during that time included George “Chappie” Johnson (front row, second from right) at catcher and Frank Wickware (back row, second from left) as pitcher. Johnson is credited as being one of the first ballplayers, black or white, to line his catcher's mitt with goose feathers for increased padding.
Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library Tremendous Philadelphia Giants team with Hall of
Fame inductees Sol White (standing, third from right),
Rube Foster (standing, second from left), and Pete Hill
(sitting, second from left), 1904
Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library Sol White Hall of Famer Sol White, historian of early black baseball and player-manager for the Philadelphia Giants, blamed Adrian “Cap” Anson for racism in major league baseball because the powerful Chicago White Stockings manager often refused to play teams with black players. Anson was not unusual in voicing the widespread racism of the 1880s.
Sol White’s History of Colored Base Ball, printed in 1907, recorded much history of African-American baseball that might otherwise have been forgotten.
Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library Land of Giants Many black barnstorming teams took the name “Giants” arguably because of the prominence of the National League’s New York Giants, who were managed by John McGraw. These black teams, among them the Mohawk Giants of Schenectady, the Union Giants of Chicago and the Lincoln Giants of New York City, became giants in their own communities.
The New York Lincoln Giants featuring Hall of Fame catcher and
power hitter Louis Santop (second row, seated far right), 1912
Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library Cuban X Giants Partially made up of players from the earlier Cuban Giants team in Long Island, New York, the Cuban X Giants roster illustrated the frailty of contracts on African-American teams. In general, pay was scarce and traveling and playing conditions were usually marginal during the barnstorming era. Players would “jump” their contracts to play with more financially successful teams. It was difficult for teams to make a profit based on attendance at games because so many other costs, such as rental of a baseball field, decreased their revenues. Black teams scrambled regularly to make ends meet and to keep their best
players throughout the era of segregated baseball.
Cuban X Giants, c. 1895
Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library Timeline: African-American History 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Decision
In a test of Jim Crow laws, the Supreme Court allows “separate but equal” schools and public accommodations for African Americans, thereby supporting segregation of schools and commerce throughout the country.
1898 Battle of San Juan Hill
African-American troops play a critical role in the Spanish-American War.
1903 The Souls of Black Folk
W.E.B. DuBois publishes his essays on African-American life. Two years later he helps organize the Niagara Movement, created to promote African-American rights and racial equality.
Courtesy of Library of Congress) 1905 African-American Newspapers
The Chicago Defender begins publication, followed in two years by the Pittsburgh Courier. The papers soon have nationwide audiences and become strong vocal opponents against racial inequality.
(Chicago Defender masthead
Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library) 1910 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Six activists, including W.E.B. DuBois and Henry Moscowitz, found the interracial NAACP to fight for equal rights and black integration.
(Early cover of The Crisis, magazine of the NAACP
Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library) 1914-19 World War I
After the U.S. enters the war in 1917, more than 350,000 African Americans serve in the military.
1916-19 Great Migration
With many factory jobs available, the first mass migration of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North begins.
(New arrivals to Newark, New Jersey, 1918
Courtesy of Newark Public Library) 1919 “Back to Africa” Movement
Publisher and journalist Marcus Garvey starts his Black Star shipping line. Since 1914, Garvey had promoted uniting people of African ancestry through his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
Courtesy of Library of Congress) Timeline: Baseball History 1887 Gentlemen’s Agreement
Midway through the season, International League owners agree to sign no new contracts with African-American baseball players, sparking the tradition of barring black players from pro ball. Other leagues follow
and the era of integrated baseball soon ends.
National Colored Base Ball League
With teams from Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Cincinnati, Washington, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Louisville, this league fails within three weeks of its May opener.
1891 American Association Folds
Financially weakened by long years of competition with the
National League, the American Association fails.
1901 American League
AL President Ban Johnson declares the American League a major league, challenging the 25-year-old National League.
(Byron “Ban” Johnson
Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library) 1903 First Modern World Series
Boston defeats Pittsburgh in the first postseason meeting between the champions of the American and National leagues.
Black baseball pioneer Solomon White’s History of Colored Base Ball records much history of African-American baseball that might otherwise have been forgotten.
Separate Leagues, Parallel Lives 1920 – 1932 Jersey worn by outfielder James “Cool Papa” Bell, who played for the St. Louis Stars from
1922 to 1931
Photo by Milo Stewart, Jr./National Baseball
Hall of Fame and Museum Ball autographed by the Kansas City Monarchs, winners
of the 1924 World’s Colored Championship
Photo by Milo Stewart, Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Newark Eagles Pennant, c. 1940s
Photo by Milo Stewart, Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum The first of the Negro leagues, the Negro National League, was formed in 1920 by black owner-managers Rube Foster of the Chicago American Giants and C.I. Taylor of the Indianapolis ABCs. They hoped to lessen the effects of discriminatory practices of white-run booking agencies and to enhance opportunities for black players. A second league, the Eastern Colored League, formed for the 1923 season. These leagues prospered in the boom years of the 1920s, as many southern rural African Americans migrated to northern and midwestern industrial cities.
Rube Foster (back row, center) and the Chicago American Giants, 1920
also featuring Hall of Famer Cristóbal Torriente (back row, far left)
Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library Rube Foster and the First Successful Pro League Andrew “Rube” Foster played for numerous teams in the 1890s and early 1900s. By the 1910s, he had shifted to managing, first with Chicago’s Leland Giants and then the Chicago American Giants.
In 1920, he pioneered the first successful professional black league, the Negro National League. This league had teams from the midwestern cities of Chicago, Dayton, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Detroit and St. Louis, as well as the Cuban Stars. Sadly, no matter how successful the Negro leagues became, they were never considered equal to the white major and minor leagues as Foster had hoped.
“Organization is [black baseball’s] only hope. With the proper organization patterned after the men who have made baseball a success, we will in three years be rated as other leagues.”
Rube Foster quoted in the Indianapolis Freeman, 1913