The term Negro Leagues has become a catch-all for professional black baseball during the period when Major League Baseball chose to be segregated. In reality, the term Negro Leagues is generally referring to the Negro major leagues, which operated from 1920 until the 1950s. It’s understandable, as that was the highest level of black ballplayers in America, and the only leagues to offer players-of-color a legitimate alternative to Major League Baseball.
As important as the Negro major leagues are, the Negro Leagues didn’t just magically begin in 1920. They also didn’t consolidate into a handful of leagues for the entirety of the 1920 to 1950s timeframe; there were black baseball leagues and barnstorming teams for decades before Rube Foster started the Negro National League in 1920.
Throughout the run of the Negro major leagues there were other, numerous minor black leagues in operation as well. Below, when I talk reference the Negro Leagues I am referring to Negro Major Leagues as well as the lesser-known but no-less-impactful leagues and players.
From about 1855 to 1867 there weren’t any true Negro Leagues. There were teams of color, and there were also integrated teams, as no organization had yet made any decree barring people of color from playing baseball with their white counterparts.
The teams that were all black, like the Colored Union Club of New York, were of the traveling variety. The word traveling is used here because they weren’t quite yet ‘barnstorming’. These teams would travel in a certain region taking on all-comers regardless of the color or makeup of their opponents.
In 1867 the National Association of Baseball Players voted to ban black players from their ranks. The end result of this was a period, from 1867 until 1885, where the number of all-black teams increased and they became barnstormers instead of regional travelers.
Teams like the Philadelphia Pythians stormed wherever they could find teams to play. They never discriminated, they would play other all-black teams, all-white teams, basically, any team willing to line up next to them. This is the time period when black ballplayers, like Bud Fowler, could exceed for an all-black barnstorming squad and use that success to snag a spot on an integrated minor league club.
After 1885, things started to really change, mainly because the white baseball establishment got more openly racist, which was really hard to do. Various actors, from player/manager’s like Cap Anson to a large minor league like the International League, took actions to further along segregation. Anson refused to take the field in a game where his opponent’s team featured black player, George Stovey.
Setting the precedent, Stovey’s club acquiesced and concocted a scheme to remove Stovey from the lineup. A few years after that, the International League announced that all black ballplayers were banned from their league.
For the next 20 years baseball became more and more segregated until finally, black ballplayers could only play if they barnstormed with an all-black team or caught-on with a team in an all-black league. They would still barnstorm against white opponents, but the days of minor league teams having a scant few black players came to an end. The various Negro Leagues that were formed, both during this period and before, failed to gain traction as they lacked any central leadership. There were various incarnations of leagues like the League of Colored Baseball Clubs who had great intentions for black baseball but neither the means nor the will to bring those intentions to life.
All the while players like Homerun Johnson, Stovey, Fowler, Charlie Grant, Foster, and others established themselves as true legends of the game. Their prowess was well-known to anyone who watched them play.
Still, they were treated as second-class citizens due to segregation and the lack of an MLB-like centralized force behind the scenes. One of those men, Foster, started the process of changing and melding his team until he felt he had a true powerhouse in the form of the Chicago American Giants.
The period from 1910-1920 is regarded as one of the most prosperous in the history of the Negro Leagues. Foster was still ten years away from changing the baseball landscape but the barnstorming format had hit its zenith during this decade. Powerhouses like Foster’s club, the New York Lincoln Giants, Indianapolis ABCs, and Atlantic City Bacharach Giants dotted the landscape. Stars like Oscar Charleston, Bullet Rogan, Dick Redding, Smokey Joe Williams, and John Beckwith introduced an era of unprecedented talent.
All these teams and all this talent needed somewhere to go and finally in 1920 Foster made his move. The Negro National League was formed and for the first time in the history of black baseball, there was a strong central force to guide the players and teams. The Negro Southern League followed suit later in the same year, and then a couple of years later the East Coast joined the club with the Eastern Colored League.
Teams still barnstormed, there were still leagues, teams, and players who existed outside of the Negro major leagues. However, in 1920 everything changed for black baseball in America. A robust history of individualism gave way to a needed collective movement. Black baseball was great before 1920 and it would continue to be great for many years to come.
The individualism that had made the preceding years so great could never truly be shaken off and in some ways helped to bring about the demise of the Negro major leagues.
There was black baseball before 1920; it was storied, it was important, and it was outstanding.