• Jul 12, 2012

Gentleman’s Agreement: A Brief History of Negro League Baseball in America (From the Playbill)

For as long as it has been an organized sport in America, African Americans have been playing baseball.

Although Jackie Robinson is widely remembered as the first African American to play on an all-white major league baseball team, a number of black players played alongside whites on both minor and major league teams in the decades just after the inception of professional baseball. Some of these players even managed to build relatively long careers during this time. The best black players found tolerance, if not acceptance, in white baseball in the North and the Midwest through the 1880s. But this changed drastically in 1890, as baseball was rapidly becoming the national sport. Without a formal rule or announcement, a “gentleman’s agreement” had been struck that would cement the baseball color barrier for the next fifty-five years, and within just a few years no team in organized baseball would draft black players.

In the early 1900s, professional black baseball began to emerge, with teams cropping up all over the country, and by the end of World War I, it had become the most popular entertainment for urban black populations throughout the nation. In 1920, the first organized league was born. It was called the Negro National League and had eight teams in the Midwest, the South and as far east as Pittsburgh. Within three years, two other leagues were built: the Negro Southern League and the Eastern Colored League. These leagues fostered many talented young ballplayers, including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, and later Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

By the 1930s, Pittsburgh was the only city in the country to be home to two black professional teams: the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Grays were located first in a small steel town outside of Pittsburgh and, during World War II, played their home games at Forbes Field (Pittsburgh) and Griffith Stadium (Washington DC) when the white major league clubs were on the road. Originally, the Crawfords were composed of amateur players from the Hill District sandlots, but in 1935, they won the Negro National League Championship and were the team of five future Hall of Fame players. Owned by Pittsburgh gambling and numbers racketeer Gus Greenlee, the Crawfords were one of the best financed teams in the early years of black baseball.

The Negro Leagues managed to survive the national economic trials posed by the Great Depression and became one of the most successful black-owned enterprises in the U.S. After World War II, many felt that baseball’s color barrier would soon be broken, and it indeed was when Jackie Robinson started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Within a few years of Robinson’s historic admittance to the Dodgers franchise, nearly all of the Negro Leagues’ best players had either left to play on integrated teams or had grown too old to be considered by the major league scouts. Black fans turned their attention to watch their favorite players on integrated teams and the Negro Leagues saw a devastating decline in attendance, shutting down entirely in 1962.