Play Ball!! (But Not Everyone)

The major league baseball season begins on April 3, 2016. Until Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, America’s national pastime practiced  apartheid.  Only players with white skin got the chance to play ball in the only context where records mattered. Blacks had to play with separate teams in separate leagues.

In baseball’s early years, some black players found places on white teams.  However, as Jim Crow solidified and proliferated, black players were relegated to the Negro Leagues.  Unlike Jim Crow laws, segregation in MLB was never legislated.  There was no official rule mandating the exclusion of blacks. White players simply refused to play with blacks and that refusal hardened into baseball tradition. Unlike Jim Crow laws, exclusion impacted the North as well as the South.

The Negro Leagues exemplified the inherent inequality of separate but equal.  Teams were underfunded, and franchises frequently folded.  Central authority was weak. Players hopped from club to club in breach of contract, supposing they had one, but there was no way to discipline jumpers.  Sometimes players even skipped to foreign clubs in the Dominican Republic or Cuba because those countries were more hospitable to blacks.  Hobbling black baseball even further was the fact that clubs did not generally own stadiums.   They leased stadiums from white clubs, making scheduling games enormously difficult. (According to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the $100,000 in annual rent paid to predominately white stadium-owners was another reason that the owners of MLB clubs resisted integration.)  Renting stadiums did not mean that the black players were entitled to use the clubhouse and the showers.  Travel to games was complicated because of the difficulty of locating accommodations and restaurants that would accept blacks. Black players and teams supplemented income by barnstorming both in and out of season.

The Negro Leagues introduced night games, which increased attendance. Teams transported portable lighting systems from one game to the next in trucks. Prejudice could not stymie innovation.

Once Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, the days of the Negro Leagues were numbered. League play ended in 1960, with only four teams remaining.  The Indianapolis Clowns continued to play as a comedy/baseball team through 1968.

Conventional wisdom states that Negro League teams were equivalent to Triple-A minor league teams.  However, Negro League teams played under yet another tremendous disadvantage.  They did not have coaches, and virtually none of them had a farm team.  Black players learned on the job. Following Jackie Robinson into the majors were five other Hall of Famers who got their starts in the Negro Leagues: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, and Larry Doby.  A league that could foster six all-time greats including Mays, whom many consider the all-time greatest player, had to have boasted an extremely high level of play.

And what about the Negro League players for whom integration came too late?  In his Hall of Fame induction speech, Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams pleaded for inclusion of Negro League players in the Hall—not in the separate wing that MLB had proposed but together with all players. Ironically, Williams’ Red Sox had been the last MLB team to integrate. Williams’ speech spurred action.  There are now 35 Negro Leaguers in the Hall, including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, and Buck Leonard. Paige is widely considered the greatest pitcher to have played in the Negro Leagues and Gibson the Leagues’ best hitter.

And why Kansas City for the site of the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum?  The Kansas City Monarchs were the longest-running Negro League franchise.  It was from the Monarchs that Branch Rickey  plucked Robinson. It was with the Monarchs that Ernie Banks got his start. As a Monarch, Satchel Paige patrolled the mound for years. And Kansas City was where the Negro Leagues got their start.

For more: Robert Peterson, Only The Ball Was White (1970).


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