For more than 60 years during the early days of professional baseball (from 1884 to 1947), MLB owners did not allow African Americans to play for their teams. There was no specific rule against Black players, but the owners enforced a so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” against African Americans. Of course, anyone who keeps someone out of a game because of the color of his skin is no gentleman.
Denied the chance to play for MLB teams, Black players formed their own teams and leagues. The leagues were referred to as Negro Leagues, because at that time Black people were commonly called Negroes.
The Negro Leagues and teams struggled at times. Players went from team to team, looking for whatever team would pay them the most money. Some years, players went to the Dominican Republic or Mexico to play.
The teams did not always play balanced schedules like the White MLB teams. One team might play 80 league games while another team would play only 40.
In addition, the leagues and teams did not always keep complete statistics of the games. Of course, teams in the National Football League (NFL) did not keep complete statistics of their games for the first 10 or more years of that league.
The teams of the Negro Leagues also supported themselves by barnstorming. That means the players traveled across the country playing against local semipro teams or other barnstorming teams, including White professional teams.
Filmmaker and historian Ken Burns estimates that Negro leaguers competed against White major leaguers 438 times in offseason exhibitions. The Negro leaguers won 309 of the games. So the Negro League players could play.
Still, some White baseball officials claimed that African Americans were not good enough to play for MLB teams. The Sporting News wrote in 1946 that there was “not a single Negro player with major league capabilities.”
That wasn’t true. Once they got a chance, many Negro leaguers became MLB stars. In the 11 seasons from 1949 to 1960, nine of the players named as the most valuable player in the National League were former Negro League players, including Hall of Famers such as Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks.
Now,great Negro League players who never played for an MLB team, such as Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson and James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, will be in the MLB record books — where they always belonged.