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Baseball - EARLY, THE NEGRO LEAGUES, SOME GREAT NEGRO LEAGUE TEAMS, TWO GREAT NEGRO LEAGUE PLAYERS

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As “America’s pastime,” baseball is inextricably bound to the history of U.S. race relations and racism. At its 1867 convention, baseball’s first national organization, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), called for the banning “of any club which be comprised of one or more colored persons” (Peterson 1970, pp. 16–17). It did so based on the patronizing rationale that “if colored clubs were admitted there would in all probability be some division of feeling, whereas excluding them no injury would result to anyone.” (Tygiel, quoted in Hogan 2006, p. vii).

The development of professional major league baseball through the 1880s, however, saw the signing of about twenty black players. Segregation was reintroduced in the late 1880s, and by 1890 no integrated teams remained. This was consistent with the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson , which affirmed separation of white and black social institutions. As a result, the number of African-American teams grew, and in 1920 the Negro Leagues were formed. The segregation of professional baseball lasted until 1947.

Baseball was central to the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. Martin Luther King Jr. called the breaking of the color line by Jackie Robinson and his fellow black ballplayers fundamental to the desegregation of American society (Aaron and Wheeler 1992). At the same time, the abuse Robinson endured reflected the resistance of white Americans to racial integration.

Whereas the primary story line of baseball and racism pertains to African Americans, Latin Americans and Native Americans have played important roles in the history and evolution of baseball. Baseball’s globalization, beginning in the late twentieth century, continued to intertwine issues of race and ethnicity, especially with regard to players from Latin America and Japan.

EARLY BASEBALL

American baseball, which was probably derived from a form of English baseball, has been documented since colonial times. George Washington played “base ball” with his troops, while the earliest black baseball was played by slaves. The game became increasingly popular during the Civil War, when it was played in army camps and military prisons. By the late 1860s, baseball was becoming organized through the formation of more than 100 professional teams. African-American players were on the rosters of many of these minor league teams, although racist attitudes and Jim Crow laws made it difficult for black ballplayers to play and travel with their teams. Black players often had to eat and sleep on their team busses or stay in the private homes of black families in towns where they played.

One response to this discrimination was the formation of Negro teams and leagues. The Philadelphia Pythians, formed in 1869, was one the first Negro teams. When they were not allowed to join the NABBP, they joined the National Colored Base Ball League, which was the first professional Negro league. Unfortunately, the league ran out of money after two weeks and disbanded.

During the 1860s, black baseball teams formed in northern cities. The first intercity games were played in 1866 between Albany and Philadelphia teams. The Washington Mutuals’ third baseman was Charles Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass. The first baseball game between black and white teams occurred on September 3, 1869, when the Pythians played the Olympics. The final score favored the Olympics 44-23, but as Hogan notes, “the Pythians were … the real winners of the day, having had recognition from the white sporting community finally bestowed upon them” (Hogan 2006, p. 16).

The first nationally recognized black team was the Cuban Giants. This team evolved from the Keystone Athletics, formed in 1885 as a team of barnstorming all-stars comprising the best players from the Philadelphia Orions and Washington, D.C., Manhattans. They won many games against white teams, but perhaps their greatest accomplishment was playing (although losing to) two major league teams, the Philadelphia Athletics and the New York Metropolitans. The team was renamed the “Cuban Giants” to attract white fans. Team members also pretended to speak Spanish in order to pass as Latino.

THE NEGRO LEAGUES

The Negro National League was established on February 13, 1920, at a YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri. It was founded by Andrew “Rube” Foster, a star pitcher who served as the league’s first president. He undertook the challenge to create a league that would ultimately merge with the white major leagues. The Negro Leagues had great success, with the teams playing before big crowds in major league parks. Negro League teams also played against white teams in barnstorming tours and developed some of the greatest players in baseball history.

The Negro League World Series and All Star “East-West” Game were national events that attracted tens of thousands of fans and national press coverage. In 1924 the first Negro League World Series was played between the Kansas City Monarchs (Negro National League Champions) and the Hilldale Club (Eastern Colored League Champions). Kansas City won the series championship, five games to four. The first East-West Colored All-Star Game was played at Chicago’s Comiskey Park before more than 20,000 fans.

SOME GREAT NEGRO LEAGUE TEAMS

Most major cities east of the Mississippi River had great Negro League teams. The Newark Dodgers merged with the Brooklyn Eagles to form the Newark Eagles in 1936. The Eagles were owned by Abe and Effa Manley. Effa Manley, who was raised by a white mother and an African-American father, was the first woman to operate a professional baseball team. Though her biological father was white, she portrayed herself as black and was an important member of the black community. The Eagles rented Ruppert Stadium from the Newark Bears (a New York Yankees affiliate) for 20 percent of the gate receipts, providing an economic incentive to maintain the segregation of the leagues. The team also produced four Hall of Famers: Larry Doby, Leon Day, Monte Irvin, and Roy Dandridge. Both Doby and Irvin eventually played in the major leagues.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Pittsburgh was the home of two of the Negro League’s most talented teams. In 1935, Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords’ lineup showcased five future Hall-of-Famers: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, and Oscar Charleston. Cumberland Posey’s Homestead Grays won nine consecutive Negro National League titles from the late 1930s through the mid-1940s. They featured former Crawfords stars Gibson and Bell and Hall-of-Fame first baseman Buck Leonard.

From 1936 to 1948, the New York Black Yankees heralded such great players as Clint Thomas, Fats Jenkins, DeWitt “Woody” Smallwood, Barney Brown, “Crush” Holloway, and the powerful George “Mule” Suttles. In 1937, the Negro American League was formed from the best western and southern teams. The league featured some of the greatest players in baseball history, including Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron.

TWO GREAT NEGRO LEAGUE PLAYERS

Leroy “Satchel” Paige (1906–1982) is considered by some to be the greatest right-handed pitcher in baseball history. He was certainly the most durable, winning most of more than 2,000 games. He pitched almost daily, and claimed to have won 104 or 105 games in 1934. That same year, he refused a salary offer from Gus Greenlee and the Pittsburgh Crawfords and was banned from the Negro National League. He subsequently joined several Negro League stars to play in the Dominican Republic for the team owned by the country’s president, Rafael Trujillo. Determined to have his professional team win the Dominican championship, Trujillo recruited Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell. The Negro Leaguers played for one year and then returned to the United States. When Paige was sold to the Newark Eagles in 1938, he left again, this time to play in Mexico. He was again banned from Negro League Baseball, this time for life. In 1948, Paige was signed by the Cleveland Indians and became major league baseball’s all-time oldest rookie at the age of forty-two. Joe DiMaggio called Satchel Paige “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”

Josh Gibson (1911–1947), is considered by some to be baseball’s greatest hitting catcher. He is often referred to as “the black Babe Ruth,” though some baseball historians have commented that Ruth should be considered the white Josh Gibson. Gibson, who is reputed to have hit more than 800 home runs, desperately wanted to be the first black ballplayer in Major League Baseball. Tragically, he died at the age of thirty-five in 1947, the year baseball was integrated. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Negro Leagues Committee in 1972.

THE HALL OF FAME

The movement to induct black ballplayers who played before racial integration into the Hall of Fame began seriously in the 1960s. Baseball researchers began compiling information and statistics on early black baseball in the 1960s, and Robert Peterson’s seminal book Only the Ball Was White (1970) spurred additional research. John Holway’s Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues (1975) included interviews with ballplayers and Effa Manley. When the great Boston Red Sox player Ted Williams was inducted into the Hall of fame in 1966, he called for Negro Leaguers to be included in the Hall of Fame balloting process. The Society for American Baseball Research formed a Negro League research group in 1971 (Hogan 2006).

Beginning in 1971, Negro League ballplayers began being admitted to the Hall of Fame. The first group to be inducted included Satchel Paige, Rube Foster, Josh Gibson, Ray Dandridge, Buck Leonard, Leon Day, Monte Irvin, Willie Foster, Cool Papa Bell, Willie Wells, Judy Johnson, Bullet Rogan, Oscar Charleston, Smokey Joe Williams, John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, Turkey Stearnes, Martin Dihigo, and Hilton Smith.

From 1995 through 2001, Hall of Fame electors were given supplemental lists of Jim Crow era players, and several of them were elected. In 2003, Major League Baseball funded a project to research the statistics of preintegration black ballplayers. This has resulted in a comprehensive compilation of baseball statistics, as well as Larry Hogan’s Shades of Glory (2006) companion narrative. In 2005 the National Baseball Hall of Fame determined that there was sufficient knowledge to nominate more than seventy players and administrators from the Negro League and pre-Negro League eras for a special Hall of Fame election. In February 2006, seventeen players and administrators were elected to the Hall of Fame from this list. Among these were Effa Manley, the first woman voted into the hall of fame, and J. L. Wilkinson, the white owner of the Kansas City Monarchs.

LATIN AMERICAN BASEBALL

The first organized baseball game in Cuba occurred in 1868, only twenty-two years after the invention of the modern game of baseball on the diamond at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1846. In 1878 the first Cuban baseball league was formed. By 1871 Esteban Enrique Bellán, a Cuban who had studied at Fordham University, was playing for the Troy Haymakers, part of the National Association of Professional Baseball Players. Between 1890 and 1911, U.S. teams regularly visited the Caribbean. Racism intervened in 1911, when Ban Johnson, the president of the American League, banned these visits. Several white Cuban players were signed by U.S. teams around the turn of the twentieth century.

The corporate expansion of the Boston-based United Fruit Company into the Caribbean in the early twentieth century and the 1916 U.S. military occupation of the Dominican Republic helped spread the game throughout the Caribbean. Cuba built baseball into a national game, especially after the Revolution of 1959.

Prior to the integration of U.S. baseball, only light-skinned Latinos, primarily Cubans, could play professional baseball in the United States. Players who could not pass as white played in the Negro Leagues. Three Negro League Latino players from this time were eventually elected to the Hall of Fame: José Méndez (The Black Diamond), Cristóbal Torrienti, and Martin Dihigo. After integration, Latino players increasingly succeeded in U.S. professional baseball. In 1947, only three Latin Americans were playing in Major League Baseball. By 1854, this number had increased to fifty-four, and by 2006, almost 30 percent of the 750 major league players were Latino. The 2005 All-Star game had representatives from eight Latin American countries.

The proper recognition of Latin American ballplayers has been called into question by the omission of Roberto Clemente, a Hall of Fame Player for the Pittsburgh Pirates, from Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team. Clemente, who was of Puerto Rican descent, died in an airline crash while delivering supplies to Nicaragua after the 1972 earthquake in that country. In 2005, partly in response to this controversy, Major League Baseball launched a campaign to recognize great Latin American ballplayers, including those who played in the Negro Leagues. The result was the Latino Legends Team.

JAPANESE BASEBALL

The history of baseball in Japan goes back to the late 1800s, when Japanese plantation workers formed company teams. In 1903 a Japanese baseball team came to the United States for the first time, and this was followed by the formation of many Japanese teams in the United States. Kenso Nushida played in the Pacific Coast league as the first Japanese minor league player. Babe Ruth’s tours of Japan with other major league all-stars in the 1930s also spurred an increased interest in baseball.

The popularity of the game among the Japanese is illustrated by the fact that baseball was played in all of the World War II Japanese internment camps. After this unfortunate episode in U.S. history, Japanese Americans played widely on college teams and in Japan. The first Japanese player to play in the major leagues was Masonori Murakami, a pitcher who played for the San Francisco Giants from 1963 to 1965. It took thirty years for the next Japanese player, the pitcher Hideo Nomo of the Los Angeles Dodgers, to play Major League Baseball. Despite notions that Japanese players were not good enough to play positions other than pitcher, the first Japanese position players, signed in the 1990s, had great success. Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, have indeed become all stars, while Kenji Johjima was signed in 2006 as the first Japanese catcher. There have only been a few Japanese-American players, however. Ryan Kurosaki signed in 1975, while in 1977 Lenn Sakata became the first Japanese-American position player in the major leagues.

BASEBALL AND RACE

Baseball has always reflected U.S. race relations. At times it has reinforced racial division, as in the “gentleman’s agreement” that kept owners from signing black baseball players to professional contracts. At other times, it has led the way toward social justice, as the signing of Jackie Robinson demonstrates. The biographies of black ballplayers reveal the injustices of racism. Henry Aaron’s recounting of his Negro League team eating in a restaurant in Washington D.C., and hearing the wait staff break the plates that the players had used reveals the virulent, personal nature of racism (Aaron and Wheeler 1992). Throughout the history of the sport, baseball and American culture have remained intertwined.

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