February is African American History Month. So it’s a good time to look at one of the most important organizations in history for black athletes: the Negro Leagues.
The Negro Leagues were four professional baseball leagues in which African Americans played from 1920 to about 1950. (The leagues are marking 100 years Thursday because February 13, 1920, was the date the owners of several black teams first met to create a league.)
A couple of things need to be explained right off the bat. First, the leagues were called Negro Leagues because that was the term commonly used for African Americans at that time.
Second, the leagues were separate because from about 1890 to 1947 (when Jackie Robinson took the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers), African Americans were not allowed to play in major league baseball. The teams had only white players.
Black players had formed and played for independent teams before the Negro Leagues, but white agents controlled when and where the teams could play. The agents also received a big fee.
The owners of black teams wanted to schedule their own games and keep the profits. There were many hardships and obstacles, but the Negro Leagues were remarkably successful. The leagues had dozens of teams throughout major portions of the United States. The leagues sponsored an annual all-star game called the East-West Game that attracted 45,000 to 50,000 fans.
The teams were resourceful as they traveled across the country. The Kansas City Monarchs, for example, traveled with light stands so they could play night baseball.
And the Negro Leagues had great players. Here are a few:
Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige was a fabulous pitcher but an even better showman. Sometimes Paige would instruct his fielders to sit down just to show how confident he was that he would strike out the next batter. The tall right-hander also gave his pitches colorful names such as “bee ball,” “Long Tom” and the “midnight rider.”
Josh Gibson may have been the greatest catcher of all time. No one knows how many home runs the powerfully built right-handed slugger hit (the Negro Leagues did not keep complete statistics). But he hit enough for fans to call him “the black Babe Ruth.”
Some say Oscar Charleston may have been the greatest baseball player of all time. John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs and saw Charleston play, said the left-handed center fielder was “like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker rolled into one.” That’s three baseball legends in one man.
Dozens more Negro Leaguers clearly could have played in the major leagues if the white owners had allowed them to play. Ken Burns in his book “Baseball: An Illustrated History” estimated that Negro Leaguers played white major leaguers 438 times in offseason exhibitions and won 309 of the contests.
The Negro Leagues ended a few years after major league baseball integrated with Jackie Robinson, as well as Negro League stars (and future Hall of Famers) such as Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron.
So, the Negro Leagues are a big, remarkable part of American sports history.