Rival Leagues Series: Negro Leagues

The Negro Leagues

Stars of the Negro Leagues: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson & Cool Papa Bell 

This article is the first in a series that I will do on Rival Leagues to the Majors.  Today’s installment will be on the Negro Leagues.

The Negro Leagues are not so much a rival league as they were a series of leagues that co-existed with the ML and did not compete for players, market shares etc.  They were a neccessity for a segregated nation.

There were black players in the Major Leagues in the 19th C but by the 1890s all-black professional teams began to come of age especially in the South.  The level of these southern teams was not good but touring pro-teams based mostly in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago such as the Cuban Giants, X-Giants and Bacharach Giants were not affiliated with any league.  Also in the mid-west the Indianapolis ABC’s and the Fence Giants of Chicago were the top touring teams in that region.

During WWI many Black Americans moved north to man the positions abandoned by Whites going off to war.  This was a Golden Age for Blackball.  Visionary Rube Foster organised a league based around his All-Star Chicago American Giants.  He broke up his all-star team that included many futuer HOFers in order to make a balanced league.  By 1920 the Negro National League was represented in eight mid-west cities.  There were changes in the league roster, teams in industrial centres of  Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, Toledo all failed several times but the stable franchises were:

Chicago American Giants
Detroit Stars
St.Louis Stars
Kansas City Monarchs
Indianapolis ABC’s

Two southern teams were added and stabilised the league roster in the early years, they were Birmingham Black Barons, Memphis Red Sox. Shortly behind the creation of the NNL an east cost loop was developed.  The easterners depended much more on white sponsorship and viewed baseball franchise ownership as a money making business rather than a Rube Foster style black empowerment movement.The Eastern Coloured League was founded in 1923.  They had more stable membership as many of the teams that consituted this league were old touring teams and had been professional for years.  The normal eight teams in the ECL were:

Bacharach Giants (Atlantic City)
Baltimore Black Sox
Brooklyn Royal Giants
Cuban Stars (New York)
Harrisburg (PA) Giants
Hilldale Daisies (Philadelphia)
Lincoln Giants (New York)

Most of these teams were not in direct competition with the AL or NL.  They would appeal to the Black community and depended on the Black community to fill the stadiums and for sponsorship.  Most of the parks were built in the late 1800’s and had been abandoned by ML teams.  If a team was expecting overflow crowds or during play in the Coloured World Series ML parks were used. The Coloured World Series was played 4 times, the first one in 1924, between Kansas City and Hilldale is regarded as one of the most thrilling post season series ever played and should be investigated by any baseball fan serious about the history of the game.  Anyways, KC won the series only to be taken out by Hilldale the next year in a rematch.

Record keeping was shoddy from this period.  There are some seasons where simple things as complete final standings did not survive.  It is probably for this reason that stars such as Cool Papa Bell, Willie Wells, Oscar Charleston and Martin Dihigo do not gain as much respect as they should.  The seasons were typically of 80 games and were sometimes split into two halves.  The short schedule would give teams a chance to barnstorm or play other exhibitions during the many off days which allowed the better teams to make money.  Record keeping for these exhibition games, usually agaisnt white semi-pros, is virtually non-existant.

Many of these teams were just barely making money despite the economic boom in 1920’s.  However, by the end of the decade and the stock market crash strong teams dropped out of the leagues to go back to barnstorming and the weak teams folded.  The ECL folded halfway through their last season.

The stronger franchies regrouped after the shock on 1930 and 1931 to re-create two leagues in 1932.  the Negro East-West League and the Negro Southern League.  The NEWL was comprised of old ECL teams but strecthing as far west as Detroit and Cleveland but still centred in the New York to Washington corridor.

The NSL included the two strong southern teams from the old NNL as well as the Chi American Giants, Indianapolis ABC’s.  The competitiveness of this league was very sub par.  The other 6 teams were located across the south in Georgia, Alabama, Tennesse, Kentucky and Louisiana.  Both leagues folded after one season in 1932.  By the late 1930s until 1950 their were two Negro Leagues, the Negro National League had reformed as well as the Negro American League. 

These two leagues were much more stable.  The record keeping was much better than their predessors.  If is from these leagues that many of the heros of blackball are remembered.  Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil and later Jackie Robinson.  It is also from these years that the famous Negro League franchises arose, the Kansas City Monarchs, Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Indianapolis Clowns and the New York Black Yankees played.

The NNL folded again in 1948 and the NAL followed in 1950.  Like other rival leagues that I will explore in the next weeks  the Negro Leagues, as a whole were not actuallly a rival outfit.  The Negro Leagues whether they pursued it or not were encouraging the total integration of baseball and when this goal was reached they would solemly but proudly close up shop.  When Jackie Robinson took the field in Montreal in the IL in 1946 it really was a death sentence for the Negro Leagues.  With the top black players flooding the Major Leagues and the high minor leagues along with them went the Black fans, Black community sponsorship etc.  In 1948, Negro League greats and Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Larry Doby played for the World Series winning Cleveland team.

The Baseball Hall of Fame recognises Negro League players and builders who did not see a pitch in the Major Leagues.  There are no other such exceptions for professionals in Cooperstown.  Perhaps the Negro Leagues should be look at as a co-existant independant major league rather than rivals to the Majors.  The influence of the Negro Leagues in greater, by far, than any other league except the National Association and of course the two surviving Major Leagues.

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7 replies on “Rival Leagues Series: Negro Leagues”
  1. says: Kman

    Nice article Early, a very solid history of the negro leagues. What year did the Negro leagues stay open till? (1953, 1954, something like that right?)

  2. says: Early

    Many Black teams never joined leagues. They were merely touring and barnstorming teams. This is where the Eth Clowns and Coloured House of David (famous for their beards – Paige wore a fake beard when he suited up for them) fit in. They usually played in the west. These teams would be comparable organisationally to the Harlem Globetrotters, except they would play some real teams such as semi-pro, minor pro and NNL teams. Negro League teams, such as the KC Monarchs occasionally sat out NNL seasons to barnstorm – its where the money was at especially pre 1920 and in the 1930s.

  3. says: Early

    Thanks for the compliments. The Negro “Major Leagues” were gone by 1950, the superstars were all in the Majors by then. There were many other Negro Leagues that were not the six discussed above that would not be considered Major. The Negro Minor Leagues may have lasted into the early 50s but not much farther. This takes me into another topic, K you might be interested. Even though there was a distiction between the primere and secondary leagues in Blackball there were no farm systems as had been developed in the Majors. High level Negro League coaches were very, very adept at harnessing the raw talet of a player (esp pitchers) that had very little, if any, previous instruction…all this at a level that could rival the established major leagues!!!

  4. says: Ivan Seahorn

    I f you don’t learn from history you’re destine to repeat it. A prime example is the NBA today and the Black community!

  5. says: Niece

    Wonderful article. My Great Uncles played on team sin the Negro League. Clarence “Pint” Israel & Elbert Israel. I miss them & the stories they used to tell us. I have been searching for pictures & or memorabilia related to them. I have 3 sons & I want them know about their families baseball history.

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