A Brief History
On February 13, 1920, the Negro National League of professional baseball was founded, not the first all African American baseball league, but the first to last more than one season and the foundation for African American professional baseball in the United States. In honor of Black History Month, February of every year in the US, we ran an article appropriately titled February 9, 1971: In Honor of Black History Month…. Just 4 days ago in which we discussed some of professional baseball’s Black pioneers. Until the Brooklyn Dodgers hired Jackie Robinson to play second base in 1947, African American players had been excluded from major league baseball in the United States, leaving the Negro Leagues as the only place for professional quality African American ball players to make a living.
Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Rube Foster, owner and manager of the Chicago American Giants, got together at a Kansas City YMCA with other owners of Negro baseball teams and drew up the plans to form the Negro National League. The original league boasted only 8 teams, all in the Midwest portion of the US, but at that time there were also only 8 teams in the Major League Baseball National League, with St. Louis being the furthest West. The American League also had only 8 teams, with St. Louis again being the furthest West, so the parallel with the Negro National League seems pretty consistent.
The Negro National League would see teams come and go, with a total of 22 teams at one time or another being part of the league. The South made an appearance in the Negro National League, represented at different times by the cities of Birmingham, Alabama, Memphis, Tennessee, Nashville, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky. A notable member team was the Cuban Stars, which in 1921 was known as the Cincinnati Cubans, and another version of the team called Cuban Stars (West) to differentiate them from the New York version. The Negro National League also made it as far West as Kansas City. The original teams were joined by a pair of “club” teams that played games against the other teams but did not qualify for the League Championship. They were the Hilldale Club of Darby, Pennsylvania, and the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City, New Jersey.
With the Great Depression hitting the United States in 1929, things got hard for the Negro National League, and financial woes drove the League out of business by 1931. During the interim, professional African American baseball teams operated without a major league umbrella. In 1933, a new Negro National League was formed in 1933, but with no connection to the original. The original Negro National League is usually referred to as “Negro National League I,” and the newer version as “Negro National League II.” The new league was strictly an Eastern league and was eventually complemented by Negro American League in 1937, which became the de facto Western version of a Negro league. Believe it or not, the last Negro American League team was not disbanded until 1988! Of course, once African Americans started playing major league baseball on a regular basis the raison d’être of the Negro Leagues was gone, and the great American institution withered away.
(Note: The State with the most representation in the Negro National League by number of teams that played based in that State during the League’s history was Ohio, with a total of 8 of the 22 teams that had played in the League. Among them, the City of Cleveland had 5 different versions of Negro National League teams.)
Many really great baseball players starred in the Negro Leagues and never got a chance to play in the major leagues, most notably Josh Gibson, the greatest slugger in Negro League history. Gibson’s name is almost always mentioned with the additional mention of “The Black Babe Ruth,” but with over 800 home runs to his credit, perhaps we should call Babe Ruth “The White Josh Gibson!” Gibson is also often referred to as the greatest baseball player to never play in the major leagues, and in exhibition games played against major league teams he hit a recorded .426 batting average! Sadly, the heavy drinking Gibson missed out on becoming the first African American to play in the major leagues, because of his reported drinking habits, but more likely because of his health problems, being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1943. He died of a stroke in 1947, at the young age of 36.
To learn more about the Negro Leagues of American baseball, click on out links in this article and see the “For more information” portion after the text. Or you can visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
Question for students (and subscribers): Were you aware of the Negro Leagues? Do you know how many former Negro League players have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Brashler, William. Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues. Harper & Row, 1978.
Lanctot, Neil. Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
Peterson, Robert. Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams. Oxford University Press, 1992.
The featured image in this article, a photograph from http://agatetype.typepad.com/agate_type/pittsburgh-keystones/ of The Negro National League annual meeting held in Chicago on January 28, 1922, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924. See this pagefor further explanation.