It is well-documented in the history of baseball's storied past that it's once longstanding color barrier was soundly shattered on April 18, 1946, the day Jack Roosevelt "Jackie" Robinson, born in Cairo, Georgia to a sharecropping family on January 31, 1919, was signed to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization by owner Branch Rickey, becoming the first African-American of the 20th century to join Major League baseball. Robinson made his first appearance with the Montreal Royals in the International League, and after just a single season with Montreal, the gifted athlete made his big league debut as a Brooklyn Dodger on April 15, 1947, when he played first base against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. Jackie Robinson helped catapult the Dodgers to the National League Pennant, and earned National League Rookie Of The Year honors.
During those early years, Jackie Robinson endured hardhearted mistreatment from fellow ball players and baseball fans alike, all with quiet dignity, but his entrance into America's favorite pastime had served to spin rusted tumblers in the doorlocks of prejudice thereby enabling access by other players of color such as Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Joe Black and Larry Doby, the first black star of the Cleveland Indians. By 1952, more than 150 black players comprised of the "cream of the crop" from Negro League rosters had been enticed to join organized baseball's integrated majors and minors. However, few people have given much thought as to how Robinson came to the attention of major league scouts, where he had played before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, or what the nature of baseball might have been in the black community before integration in the major league. I would like to take a brief journey back in the history of American sports and society to the fascinating era of the Negro Leagues, and explore the events that brought about the great Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers ... and white America.
The original National Association of Base Ball Players, which formed in 1867, had banned all black athletes, but by the late 1870's, many African-American players were on active rosters of white, minor league teams. In the North, between the end of the Civil War and 1890, a good number of African-Americans played alongside their white counterparts on major and minor league teams, but following brief stays with white teams, most of these players felt the hurtful sting of regional prejudices, along with an unofficial color ban. However, there were some notable exceptions who built long and successful careers in white professional baseball. In 1884, John W, "Bud" Fowler, an African-American with more than a decade of experience as an itinerant, professional player, was signed by the Stillwater, Minnesota club in the Northwestern league. Fowler preferred to play as a second-baseman, but played virtually every position on the field for Stillwater, further heightening the reputation that had brought him to the attention of white team owners. Bud Fowler's baseball career continued through the close of the 19th Century, much of which was spent on the rosters of minor league clubs in organized baseball.
"Fleetwood" Walker, a former Oberlin College star, began his professional baseball career with the Toledo club, also in the Northwestern league. Almost from the beginning of his career, Walker was a better than average hitter, and considered by many to be among baseball's finest catchers. In 1884, the Toledo club joined the American Association, and Walker became the first black player to play with a major league franchise. By 1886, many black players were playing with teams in the "outlaw" leagues and independent barnstorming clubs along with Fowler and Walker, including George Stovey and Ulysses Franklin "Friendly Frank" Grant. The best black players found a measure of tolerance, if not acceptance, in white baseball in the North and Midwest until the end of the 1880's. But that situation made an abrupt change in 1890.
In 1890, as the season began in the International League, the most prestigious of the minor league circuits, there were no black players. With no formal announcement having been made, a "gentlemens' agreement" was made which barred black players from participation for the next fifty-five years. For a time, African-Americans were able to find work in lesser leagues, but within only a few short years no team in organized baseball would accept black players ... the color barrier was firmly in place by the turn of the century. As Walker, Fowler and Grant, along with many others struggled to find a spot (and keep it) in organized baseball, other black players were pursuing careers with the more than 200 all-black independent teams that performed throughout the country from the early 1880's forward. Through the close of the century, powerful Eastern teams such as the Cuban Giants, Cuban X Giants and Harrisburg Giants played both independently and in loosely organized leagues. Professional black baseball had began to blossom throughout America's heartland, and even in the South by the early 1900's.
The emergence of potent black teams during the early years of the 20th Century, such as the Chicago Giants, Indianapolis ABC's, St. Louis Giants and Kansas City Monarchs, rose to prominence and presented a legitimate challenge to the claim of diamond supremacy made by Eastern clubs such as the Lincoln Giants in New York, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Cuban Stars and Homestead (Pa.) Grays. Black baseball was also thriving in Birmingham's industrial leagues in the South, and teams like the Nashville Standard Giants and Birmingham Black Barons were establishing solid regional reputations. Black baseball had become, perhaps, the number one entertainment attraction for urban black populations throughout the nation by the end of World War I. It was then that one of black baseball's most influential personalities, Andrew "Rube" Foster, owner of the Chicago American Giants, determined that the time had arrived for a truly organized and stable Negro league.
In 1920, under Foster's leadership, the Negro National League was born in Kansas City, fielding eight teams comprised of the Chicago American Giants, Chicago Giants, Cuban Stars, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis ABC's, Kansas City Monarchs and St. Louis Giants ... "We are the ship; all else the sea" was how Rube Foster described his new league ... that same year, Thomas T.Wilson, owner of the Nashville Elite Giants, organized the Negro Southern League, with teams in Nashville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Montgomery and New Orleans. Just three years later in 1923, the Eastern Colored League was formed, featuring the Hilldale Club, Stars (East), Brooklyn Royal Giants, Bacharach Giants, Lincoln Giants and Baltimore Black Sox ... the Negro National League continued on successfully throughout most of the 1920's, until ultimately succumbing to the financial hardships of the Great Depression and sadly dissolving at the close of the 1931 season.
In 1933, Pittsburgh bar owner Gus Greenlee organized the second Negro National League, quickly taking up where Foster's league left off, and became the dominant force in black baseball from 1933 through 1949. From 1920 through the 1940's, the Negro Southern League was in continuous operation and held the position of black baseball's only operating major circuit for the 1931 season. The Negro American League was formed in 1937, bringing into it's fold the best clubs in the South and Midwest, and stood as the opposing circuit to Greenlee's Negro National League until the latter disbanded after the 1949 season ... the three major Negro League circuits had steadily built what was to become one of the largest and most successful black-owned enterprises in America, despite having weathered the storms of the difficult economic challenges thrust upon the entire nation by the Great Depression ... the existence and success of these leagues stood as a testament to the determination and resolve of black America to forge ahead in the face of racial segregation and social disadvantage.
Gus Greenlee had firmly intended to field the most powerful baseball team in America when he organized the Negro National League in 1933 ... and he may well have achieved his goal. In 1935, his Pittsburgh Crawfords lineup showcased the talents of no less than five future Hall-Of-Famers, including the likes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson and the great Oscar Charleston. During the mid-1930's, the Pittsburgh Crawfords were black baseball's premier team, but by the end of the decade that title was wrested away by Cumberland Posey's Homestead Grays, winning 9 consecutive Negro National League titles from the late 1930's through the mid-1940's. The Grays had bolstered their lineup with Hall-Of-Fame talent such as that of power-hitting first sacker Buck Leonard, along with featuring former Crawfords stars Bell and Gibson.
Virtually all of the Negro Leagues' best talent had either left the league for opportunities with integrated teams or had grown too old to attract the attention of major league scouts during the four years immediately following Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Black team owners witnessed a financially devastating decline in attendance at Negro League games as a result of this sudden and dramatic departure of talented ballplayers. The handwriting was on the wall for the Negro Leagues as the attention of black fans had forever turned to the integrated major leagues ... after the 1949 season, the Negro National League disbanded, never to return ... after a long and successful run, black baseball's senior circuit was no longer a commercially viable enterprise. Though the Negro American League continued on throughout the 1950's, it had lost virtually all of it's fan appeal, along with the bulk of it's talent. The league closed it's doors for good in 1962, after a decade of operating as a shadow of it's former self ... the era of Negro League baseball had ground to a halt ... "the ship" had sank ... however, it's rich and colorful history had a profound impact, not only on our national pastime, but on America's social and moral character.
Not only was Jack Roosevelt Robinson, son of a sharecropping family from Cairo, Georgia the first African-American to play on a Major League baseball team in the 20th Century ... Robinson was also the first recipient of the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947 ... the first African-American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 ... the first Major League baseball player to be honored on a U.S. postage stamp in 1997 ... the first baseball player to have his uniform number (42) retired in perpetuity across all teams by the Major League in 1997 ... the first UCLA student to earn a varsity letter in all four sports: baseball, basketball, football and track in 1948 ... the first African-American baseball player to receive the Congressional Gold Medal in 2003 ... and the first African-American to serve as Vice-President of a major American corporation, Chock Full O' Nuts 1957-1964 ... Jackie was also a recipient of the NAACP Spigam Medal in 1956 ... received an Honorary degree from Howard University in 1957 ... recipient of the Presidential Medal of Honor in 1985 ... and the Rookie of the Year Award was renamed the Jackie Robinson Award in 1987.
Please remember Jackie Robinson Day April 15th.
"There's not an American in this country free until every one of us is free." --Jackie Robinson