This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, established in 1920 by Rube Foster. The Negro Leagues endured until the late 1950s, dying out after Major League Baseball began integration with Jackie Robinson in the National League and Larry Doby in the American League.
The Negro League developed in response to African American athletes being excluded from professional baseball starting in 1887. At that time, baseball team owners agreed to exclude African American ballplayers from signing contracts.
Foster’s league was a success for many years and became a training ground for some of the greatest athletes to grace a ball field. In addition to Hall of Famers Robinson and Doby, the Negro Leagues were also a starting point for other Hall-of-Famers such as Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, and my personal candidate for Greatest Baseball Player Willie Mays.
The history of the Negro Leagues is replete with evidence of great ballplayers excluded form the wihites-only Major Leagues. If you take the time to learn about the Negro Leagues, you will learn of ballplayers such as Josh Gibson (called the black Babe Ruth) and Buck Leonard (known as the black Lou Gehrig).
Josh Gibson is a particular tragic figure. Integration came to late for him. As his remarkble career wound down, he developed a brian tumor and died at the age of 35 just months before Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The main figure in August Wilson’s great play Fences is suggestive of Gibson.
The Negro Leagues provide us with other remarkable ballplayers — the five tool great Oscar Charleston (the black Honus Wagner), the ageless great pitcher Satchel Paige, Ray Dandridge, Judy Johnson, and my personal favorite James “Cool Papa” Bell.
These and countless other men were subjected to unimaginable discrimination and harassment. There is no doubt that many would have been quite successful in the white Major Leagues if given the opportunity And yet they showed up to play ball.
The history of the Negro Leagues certainly speaks to inexcusable racism. But it also speaks to heroic perseverence and, most especially, to the love of the game.
There are increasing numbers of books on the history of the Negro Leagues as well as books on specific men to include Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige. (I am greatly looking forward to a new biography of Cool Papa Bell).
As a final note, I consider myself privileged to have spent some time with a man who played in the Negro Leagues and shared stories with me of his teammate Roy Campanella as well as other greats to include — you guessed it — Cool Papa Bell (“He was as fast as everyone has said”)
So take the time to learn about the Negro Leagues. Should you find yourself in Kansas City MO make sure to visit the Negro League Museum.
As with the many seen below, I too tip my Boston Redsox hat to the Negro Leagues. Thank you!
Further Viewing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeQ5aHhkyVI