Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Colored Past ...


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.

In 1883, Moses "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.

During the 1930's and 1940's, the East-West All-Star game, which was played annually at Chicago's Comiskey Park, contributed greatly to the ever-growing national popularity of Negro League baseball. Conceived originally in 1933 by Gus Greenlee as a promotional tool, the game rapidly became black baseball's most popular attraction and biggest money maker. From the first game forward, the East-West Classic regularly packed Comiskey Park while showcasing the Negro League's finest talent ... the demands for social justice had swelled throughout America as World War II came to a close, and many felt that it could not be long until baseball's color barrier would come crashing down. African-Americans had not only proven themselves on the battlefield and seized an indisputable moral claim to an equal share in American life, the stars of black baseball had also proven their skills in venues like the East-West Classic and countless exhibition games against major league stars ... the time for integration had arrived.

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.

Despite a myriad of impressive collegiate and professional, athletic accomplishments over the course of Jackie Robinson's extraordinary and outstanding career, his integrity, courage and character off the field were indispensable attributes, not only in the life of the man, but more importantly in the melioration of the fragmented moral fabric of American society ... he not only possessed the courage to stare racism and hatred directly in the eye--he bravely defied it! ... while serving in the U.S. Army, Robinson was court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of a segregated military bus ... he was later acquitted and honorably discharged from the Army ... Jackie Robinson endured unspeakable mistreatment, abuse and threats while playing the game he loved ... but endure he did ... the many black players who came before him were genuine pioneers, true Americans (America must never forget them) ... they were steppingstones that led the way from the intolerance and discrimination of the Jim Crow era to the threshold of racial equality and integration in organized, professional baseball ... amid those stones rests a mighty cornerstone ... Jack Roosevelt (Jackie) Robinson (1919-1972).

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



--sja
Share

23 comments:

Housewife Bliss said...

I love how much time and energy you put into this piece. I had no idea he had a special day, thank you for letting me know.

Wanted to say thank you for joining the HB blog frog as well.

sja said...

Thank you Housewife Bliss, yes it's amazing how soon folks forget those who have affected their fellow man in a productive and positive way, such as Jackie Robinson ... thanks for the comment, visit often!

Stephani said...

Thanks for the wonderful story. Very interesting. Thanks for following me on BlogFrog. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

sja said...

Thank you Stephani, glad you enjoyed the post ... looking forward to seeing you often ...

Fat said...

WOW - I love this post! I am secretly a huge fan of sports history since so many important topics, such as grace and gender, come into play. So this was an exciting read for me! Thank you! I'll retweet your post. Thank you for following me on BF. I am now following you in every way possible, except for actually physically stalking you because that would be weird.
www.fatnutritionwriter.blogpost.com
www.twitter.com/healthyolga

sja said...

Thank you Fat -- you might also check out TheOldBarbershop (link in sidebar) where you can find other posts of interest including several baseball related stories ... also there is a General Discussion Area there where folks may discuss a myriad of topics amongst themselves, the more the merrier ... again thanks for your interest in TheSouthernJackAss ... visit often!

Mrs. Gertha said...

Hi SJA,

I love your site!!! Thank you for following me on Blog Frog. I am now a follower of SJA! Follow me on my blog, "Sites 2 Literacy"! I'm still partying and I'm glad we met:-)!

sja said...

Glad to meet you too Gertha, welcome to TheSouthernJackAss ... hope you'll be a regular visitor ... thank you!

Marg said...

That is a wonderful post. I love baseball and loved reading all this history. I did not know that this was Jackie Robinson Day.. Good to meet you. You have a great blog. We have two jackasses that live here but they are the miniature kind. They are donkeys. Take care and have a good day.

sja said...

Thanks Marg ... nice to meet you too, take good care of those little asses, they might be my kin!

Marjorie said...

Terrific post! Like Housewife Bliss and others, I had no idea today was Jackie Robinson Day. I've retweeted your post and linked on Facebook.

sja said...

Thank you Marjorie, I appreciate that ...

Patrice-The Soap Seduction said...

Great post! I don't follow baseball, but I love reading about black history in any form.

sja said...

Thank you Patrice ... great folks come in all colors!

Quincy said...

Wow. This is great. One of the better pieces I've read in a long time in regards to black history and sports. Excellent job.

sja said...

Thank you Quincy ... it was one of my favorites to write ...

Abiola said...

Well done! I learned so much AND you made me cry. Keep up the interesting work. xoxo

sja said...

Thank you Abiola, comments such as yours make writing these little stories worthwhile!

BOB said...

"A Colored Past" has always been one of me favorites, you know that ... that I missed it back last April, you'll understand ...

This piece is of the best, bar none! I like it better each time I read it!!

While I'm not a strong advocate of Black History Month or all the hype regarding Jackie and his 1947 debut, he handled it pretty well and though I was then a young Atlanta Cracker and Boston Braves' fan, he was one of my favorite players ... watching him stealing home was an especial, exciting thrill!

I suppose Continental pride is okay but, as a "European American", I wish we could eliminate such descriptors ... we're all Americans, regardless of our color ... even the Antarctican Americans, if there any ... our history is our history ... the good, the bad, and the ugly ... it is important to us, all of it!

Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, ... the list is long indeed of great players who happened to be black that I never got to see play in the MAJOR Leagues ... same goes for Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb ... they played but I didn't get to see them. Satchel Paige too, except that I saw him when he was nigh on as old as Uncle Virgil.

Certainly it wasn't a Southern thing ... In 1947, the National League consisted of Brooklyn, St. Louis, Boston, New York, Cincinnati, Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

In the American League it was New York, Detroit, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, and St. Louis.

Branch Rickey made a financial business decision that turned out well for the Bums ... and MLB. Does it not beg the question as to what prompted the business decision in 1890 to exclude blacks?

I was truly impressed with a Henry Aaron speech to to an audience of young school children during a "Black History" celebration this year ... while others were emphasizing the ugliness that others endured and overcame so that they could have the opportunities enjoyed today, Hank emphasized the importance of dedicated hard work if they were to realize their dreams ... whether it be as baseball players, scientists, doctors or teachers.

Just this... Alice said...

Thanks for this post. It needs to be shared with everyone. Many people worthy of the mention have been left out of American History books. Seeing as this is a Black Hostory article it is much appreciated as such. Good post!

healthybeautifulblog,blogspot.com said...

Enjoy reading this. Thanks for sharing. Visiting from theblogfrog.

PJ said...

Hey Guy! I just wanted to stop by and say hello! I didn't know there was a Jackie Robinson Day! Of course that could be because I'm not really a sports fan. The only sports I like are sitting in my innertube fishing, or sitting in front of this computer typing! LOL!

God Bless!
PJ

BOB said...

The "so called" Civil Rights' Game is being hosted tonight in Atlanta ... Braves vs Mets ... not sure why is so called but it's always good to remember Jackie.

Remember when Jack Kennedy said "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country? ..."

I just did! The answer came back ... "loan us money!"