As we continue our tour of the Negro Leagues and black baseball this month, today we take a look at the East-West All Star game. A unique and fun tradition, the brainchild of Gus Greenlee were an annual event in the Negro Leagues from the pre-war 1930s until a fuller MLB integration of the 1960s.
Earlier this week our writers took at look at some of the top players in the Negro Leagues on both sides of the ball, and yesterday I took a stab at creating the All Time Negro League starting lineup. All the players mentioned in our top-fives and in the All Time Negro League team played in the East-West All Star game at one point or another.
In 1933, Major League Baseball started their annual mid-summer classic tradition of an MLB All Star game. Not to be outdone, Gus Greenlee, the owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the father of the Negro Leagues as we know them, decided to do the same for black ballplayers, designing an All Star game that put all the best black ballplayers on the field together. Rather than play their game in the summer, the East-West All Stars played their match in August or early-September.
The first Major League All Star game in 1933 was played on the South Side of Chicago at Comiskey Park. Geenlee figured a centrally that central location would do just fine for his All Star game as well, and despite the MLB All Star game moving around annually, the Comiskey Park became the primary home to the East-West game for the majority of the 30-year duration (with Philadelphia, multi ballparks in New York, and Kansas City serving as occasional hosts as well).
Despite a loosely structure ‘league’ of black teams, and prior to the formalization of the Negro Leagues as we know them, Greenlee managed to put together fan voting in a similar way that Major League Baseball setup their own All Star game. Because there was no formal Negro League in the early 1930s, with several teams barnstorming, and others playing in a loosely organized league of sorts, Greenlee structured the All Star voting and rosters geographically rather than by any league design.
Fans could vote by newspaper tally, with the African-American weekly newspapers the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier keeping track of the voting. Fans were eager to be involved, as Oscar Charleston led vote-getters in that first game, receiving nearly 44,000 votes. Charleston was a major part of Negro League baseball, including the East-West game. He started the first-ever game in 1933, and managed the East team in 1954, a game that was played two months prior to his death.
20,000 fans came out for the first ever East-West All Star game, and in 1934, that number increased to 30,000. In 1939, when Greenlee took the show on the road, and the game was played at Yankee Stadium, where 40,000 fans came out to watch. This was outdone in 1941 when the game returned to Chicago to a whopping 50,000 fans in attendance.
With more and more of the best players being accepted into Major League Baseball, the Negro League started to wind down, and subsequently the East-West Games of the 1960s no longer had the relevance it once possessed.
Still, it’s an important slice of baseball history that is often overlooked by modern fans. Some of the best players to ever don a professional baseball uniform played on those teams and in those games. Although we can only imagine what those star-studded teams could have done against MLB teams, the legends will live on as long as the stories continue to be told.
For further reading, a summary can be found here for each East-West All Star Game.