The Glory of the Negro National League

Patrick Yost Sports

By Jim Halloran

columnist

The game of baseball grew in popularity during and immediately after the civil war. Soldiers on both sides played the games at encampments with a variety of rules. Upon their return home many helped put together local teams to play against neighboring towns and villages. Many of these teams included players of both races. These intercity games became such big events that the National Association of Baseball came into being in the larger Northeastern cities. It was a very loosely organized group of Northeastern baseball teams that played a very rudimentary version of today’s game This pioneering league was not segregated. The first black player of record was John ”Bud” Fowler a pitcher for the Chelsea, Massachusetts team. ”Bud” jumped from team to team. He was cited in the national Sporting News publication as a top-flight player.

The fully organized and properly funded eight team National Baseball League was created in 1876 which marked the beginning of professional Major League Baseball. In 1884 two African American brothers, Moses and Wadley Walker, became the first black players associated with the major leagues when they joined the American Association league Toledo Blue Hens. The American Association was the forerunner to the current American League which was merged into the National Baseball League in 1901. Wadley only played 5 games batting a misery .222 while brother Moses played the entire 45 game schedule and batted .263.                                        

Many of the early black players outplayed their white counterparts. As these players grew in popularity the white owners of major league ball teams grew concerned of the potential dominance of the black player and in 1887 voted to ban all black players from their major and minor league teams. With no hope of playing in major or minor league baseball teams, black players turned to playing on their own teams in local leagues. The teams were primarily barnstorming teams that traveled from town to town bringing a highly energetic and creative style of play to the black baseball fans. Over the years the teams became better organized and played in loosely organized professional leagues owned by wealthy white men.  Exhibition games between the white and black teams proved that the talent was evenly matched. The growing popularity of these games gave way to the founding of the National Negro League largely from the efforts of star pitcher Rube Foster.

The 300 pound Foster, along with “Homerun” Johnson became the first well known black superstars and drew attention wherever they appeared. Foster’s ability and personality provided him with a growing power base that led him to managing and eventually owning the Chicago Giants which later became the American Giants.  Due to Rube’s efforts, the eight team Negro National League officially commenced in 1920.  The owners of the eight original teams each contributed  $500 to form the organization. The teams were Foster’s Chicago American Giants, the Detroit Stars, the Indianapolis ABCs. The Chicago Giants, St Louis Giants, Dayton Marcos, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Cuban Stars. The Cuban Stars were included due to the sizable crowds that they attracted and the friendship their owner had with Ruben Foster. They were a team with no home therefore they played all their games on the road.

The National Negro League quickly became more than a popular spectator sport –  it grew into one of the largest black owned and operated industries in America. Its popularity and acceptance generated great debate regarding racial segregation. However, it would be twenty seven years before one of its young stars, Jackie Robinson, broke the color line by signing a professional contract with the major league Brooklyn Dodgers.

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