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The short life of the National Colored Base Ball League

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Lasting two short weeks, the National Colored Base Ball League embodied much of the Black baseball experience in the 1800s.

Depiction based on witness testimony

On October 28th, 1886, a group of rain-soaked dignitaries gathered on Bedloe’s Island to witness the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. His vision obscured by the cold sheets of rain cascading from the skies, President Grover Cleveland addressed this privileged white male audience, declaring that from the torch, a "stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man's oppression until Liberty enlightens the world.” But the torch did not light that day, and the emission of light three days later did little to pierce through the thick fog of racism enveloping the country.

One month after Lady Liberty shone her light, a group of Black baseballers gathered in Pittsburgh to finalize plans for the first national Black baseball league, intending to capitalize on the relative success of amateur Black teams and Black baseball players in white leagues. Led by Walter S. Brown, a former Pittsburgh correspondent for the nation’s most prominent Black newspaper, the Cleveland Gazette, the National Colored Base Ball League came into being. It consisted of six teams: the Baltimore Lord Baltimores, the Boston Resolutes, Lousiville Falls City, the New York Gorhams, the Philadelphia Pythians, and the Pittsburgh Keystones. Rejecting membership offers were the established Black team, the Cuban Giants, as well as a Cincinnati investment group headed by Black baseball player J.W. “Bud” Fowler. [1] Regardless, these six teams looked poised to usher in a new, fruitful era of Black baseball.

Black Baseball Prior to the NCBL

The league was the culmination of decades of Black dedication to the sport. In September of 1860, two Black teams, Weekfield and the Colored Union, played against each other for the first time. During the reconstruction period, Black baseball spread across the eastern seaboard, as ex-soldiers returned and brought the game with them. Teams sprouted in New York, Albany, Philadelphia, and even Chicago. Soon, Philadelphia, with its large Black population, became the center of Black baseball. Octavius Catto, civil rights advocate and keen baseballer, helped found the Pythians in 1865. Two years later, the club was denied admission to and recognition by the Pennsylvania State Commission of Baseball, relegating it to traveling the circuit as an amateur team. The team eventually gained credibility enough to play in the first interracial game, against the all-white Olympians in 1869, but the club disbanded two years later following the murder of Catto during white violence against Blacks on election day.

Following the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, allowing President Grant to use military force to suppress terrorist organizations like the KKK, Black people began filling political roles more rapidly than at any point in American history, culminating in 1873 with seven Black Congressional representatives. But then the Supreme Court ruled in the Slaughterhouse Cases that states did not have to provide Black people with citizenship, and the efforts to expunge Black people from power and from America doubled. Southern states began instituting the first versions of Jim Crow Laws, while Northern states largely reduced aid to Southern Black people. Racism across the country again became instilled through legal means.[2]

Mirroring this rise of legal racism, throughout the 1870s, Black baseball teams were repeatedly barred from joining the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. The association argued that controversy would arise if teams with more the one “colored person” were admitted, whereas “by excluding them no injury could result to anybody.”[3] This effort to prevent Black teams from becoming professional spurred a number of Black players to join minor league teams with the goal of working toward playing in the major leagues. Unsurprisingly, each Black player was forced out of the league due to clubs’ refusal to play teams with Black players and fans’ refusal to watch these teams. Though a few players, including Moses “Fleet” Walker and his brother Weldy Walker, made the major leagues, Black players were unofficially banned from major league baseball in 1884.

The beginnings of segregation gave rise to independent Black teams and planted in the head of Henry Bridgewater, manager of the St. Louis Black Stockings, the idea to create a national all-Black baseball league. As a white-passing Black man, Bridgewater felt confident he could draw in other businessmen to create an all-Black baseball league. He planned for a conference in 1883, hopefully involving all major cities in the country, but very few attended, and even fewer businessmen were willing to pour money into a likely doomed endeavor. All-Black baseball professional teams were too new a concept and had not established enough success to be worth the risk in these early years. But things quickly changed. Several teams emerged in the mid-1880s as Black baseball powerhouses. The Falls City dominated the South, the Uniques continued its domination of Chicago amateur baseball, and the Cuban Giants began to draw in Black and white crowds. Finally, a national Black baseball league no longer seemed so absurd.[4]

The NCBL Season

The six new professional teams drew in some of the largest names in Black sports in the first several months of their existence. Pittsburgh immediately snagged sprinting champion Charlie Brown, future Hall of Famer Sol White, and Toledo Blue Stockings’ Weldy Walker.[5] As professional baseball quickly embraced segregation in the winter and early months of 1887, more Black players sought out NCBL teams, creating relatively strong rosters for each club. On March 15th, the 6 teams agreed on a 40-game schedule and deposited bonds to guarantee the completion of the schedule. Boston at Louisville, New York at Pittsburgh, Philly at Baltimore, Cincinnati at Washington.[6] The league soon signed the National Agreement, legitimizing it as a professional league and granting its teams control over their players, shielding them from the highly unlikely scenario of being poached by the National League or American Association.

At the beginning of May, due to the volume of Black players wanting to join the league, two new teams were added, the Cincinnati Browns and the Washington Capital Citys. And as notable Black players—Fleet Walker, George Stovey, Frank Grant, Robert Higgins, William Renfroe, and Randolph Jackson—took the first month of the 1887 International League by storm, excitement for this all-Black league reached it peak. The season opened on May 6th with a game between New York and Pittsburgh at Pittsburgh’s Recreation Park. It attracted roughly 1,200 spectators as well as a pre-game parade and brass band concert. New York won 11-8.[7] Elsewhere, the Lord Baltimores defeated the Pythians 15-12,[8] and the Resolutes thrashed Falls City 10-3.[9] Both of these games drew about half the crowd size of the New York-Pittsburgh game, a slightly disappointing turnout in contrast to amateur Black teams who had drawn upwards of 5,000 fans for much of the decade. Nonetheless, the league received high praise in newspapers across the country and looked poised to put on a highly entertaining season featuring marvelous players.

But the teams soon found themselves overburdened financially, impeded by poor weather and increased train fare due to the enactment of the Interstate Commerce Act that failed to prohibit railroad companies from setting prices at will (increasing them exponentially for Black passengers). The Resulotes were the first team to succumb to financial burdens. The club, on its way to Louisville, had scheduled a number of exhibition games, most of which got rained out, forcing them to spend more in accommodations as they waited out each storm. Following the game against Louisville, the club discovered it did not have enough money for the rain ride to Baltimore, forcing it to leave the league and stranding its players in Lousiville. The stranded players were forced to take up jobs in barbershops and hotel wait staffs to earn enough money to return home to Boston.[10]

Several days later, both Philadelphia and Louisville ran into equally devastating financial trouble, the former realizing it could not afford to rent Athletic park and the latter being scared off by what happened to Boston. The league dwindled to three teams—New York, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh—after two weeks, and folded two days later.[11] Baltimore refused to travel to Louisville, and New York and Pittsburgh simply found themselves unable to continue a league as two teams. Only 13 games were played during these short two weeks, none by Cincinnati or Washington, who had both joined the league too late to be integrated into the schedule.

The Rise of Segregation

Two months later, Cap Anson refused to play in a game against the Newark Little Giants until the team agreed to bench Fleet Walker and George Stovey. Following this, the league unofficially banned Black players, relegating them to touring or local amateur teams. The Keystones and Gorhams remained intact and absorbed some of these newly-banned Black players, achieving success in front of Black crowds and against amateur white teams willing to play them. The country was now fully in the midst of the Jim Crow era, and the politically and economically white-dominated country rarely hesitated to ensure the continued suffering of its Black population, including Black baseball players. Many white teams refused to play against Black teams, and those who played against them frequently tried to injure Black players, resulting in the decline of Black teams during the middle years of the decade. It was made perfectly clear, time and again, that Black people were not welcome in baseball or America.

In 1893, the Statue of Liberty began watching over all those who immigrated to the country, standing as a promise of progress in all walks of life. And America did progress, ushering in new inventions focused on making life more convenient and ushering in the beginning of leisure. Precipitated by rise of machinery increasing leisure time, baseball began to thrive, heading toward the formation of the American League and the spread of fandom across the eastern coast. Conveniently, Black participation in baseball was forgotten, still 30 years from the formation of a successful all-Black league and 45 from Major League Baseball integration. The National Colored Base Ball League, wiped from so many history books, serves as a reminder of the promise of Black baseball players and the lengths to which society has gone to erase their excellence.


Notes:

[1] Sol White, “Sol White’s History of Colored Base Ball, With Other Documents,” ed. Jerry Malloy, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996).

[2] Joe R. Feagin, “Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations,” (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[3] Christopher Threston, “The Integration of Baseball in Philadelphia,” pg. 9.

[4]James E. Brunson III, “William Albert “Abe” Jones: Colored Baseballist and Old Chicago Settler, 1857–1931,” Black Ball 4.2 (2011).

[5] Philadelphia Times, November 14, 1886, pg. 11.

[6] Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, March 16, 1887, pg. 1.

[7] Detroit Free Press, May 7th, 1887, pg. 2.

[8] The Baltimore Sun, May 6th, 1887, pg. 6.

[9] Louisville Courier-Journal, May 8th, 1887.

[10] Baltimore Sun, May 12, 1887, pg. 6.

[11] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 25, 1887, pg. 3.


Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.