The History of African Americans in Baseball
- Updated: December 22, 2008
Part 1 of 4
Even before the breaking of the color line, African Americans made baseball part of their lives by establishing very successful leagues of their own, known as the Negro Leagues. Barely anything is made of these leagues today, but obviously there was enough interest in baseball from African Americans to establish entire teams of their own across the country. Although there was always a fight for the talented players from the Negro League to play in Major League Baseball (MLB), researchers have argued that many of these players would have been just fine with staying in their own league. While there were a number of proponents of the integration of MLB early on, there were so many who were against the proposition of integration that the two leagues simply lived in harmony with one another for some time. A few well-known journalists as early as 1933 were suggesting that “change was needed if [MLB] was going to survive. The color line had to be broken” (Heaphy, 2003, p. 182). While this may have been true, both leagues still prospered over the next decade without integration. In fact, even after some of the Negro League’s best players started to leave for MLB, their league was still able to stay around for a few years, until most of the players who were in their prime retired (Everbach, 2005, p. 16).
Negro Leagues even had their own Babe Ruth in Josh Gibson, who holds the record for the most homeruns in Negro League history. They had their own awards too, such as the rookie of the year and the most valuable player. They even had their own all star game. What many baseball observers at the time overlook is the fact that perhaps many of these players did not want to play in what was considered the better league. Many actually felt they already were in the superior league. In fact, when it was first announced that baseball was going to be segregated, “even baseball’s color ban was not debated or protested” (Carroll, “Early,” 2006, p. 36). While the act of breaking the color barrier in MLB was seen as a great event for society, it would turn out to create problems for many people, most of whom were African Americans. Not only would many ball players lose their jobs since not all were seen to be good enough for MLB, but other jobs were lost, such as those in the black media business (Kaszuba, 2007, p. 200). What was special about this time in history when people were found without work, though, was that most of those who were losing their jobs were still in favor of the integration because they knew what it would mean for the country over time. During this time, many outsiders assumed that the black press may still keep their jobs because of the interest level in the individual players who switched leagues. Decades after the integration of baseball, research showed that these jobs were present “because black press writers and editors are prominent in the narrative of Negro league history and since the mainstream press largely ignored the Negro leagues, black newspapers provide an important [media outlet]” (Carroll, “From,” 2006, p. 71). This illustrated the fact that not only was baseball greatly segregated at the time, but so were so many other parts of life, which was why integration of the sport was so important to those now jobless people.
Although it was not well documented, black women even had their time in professional baseball as well when the male major leagues were in turmoil over labor agreements. While they were not accepted into the women’s baseball leagues which is now well known (thanks to the film A League of Their Own), they had to start their own. Despite the fact that they had two stereotypes running against them, “black women ballpayers in the 1940s and early 1950s had to look beyond the women’s league for a professional sports outlet, so a few brave women athletes defied [society]” (Everbach, 2005, p. 14). Black women’s leagues did not receive much media coverage or funding and did not last long, but the women from those teams continued to play at a high level for a few years after the league’s demise. Many of them illustrated that they were not afraid of being known as the weaker sex and tried out for some of the male Negro League teams (Everbach, 2005, p. 18). Some of these women did make the active rosters of the teams, but most did not get to stay long enough to make a name for themselves.
Bill Jordan is a contributing writer to BaseballReflections.com and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The bibiliography will appear after the last (4th) part of this paper.