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Baseball - A Wheel Within a Wheel: The Negro Leagues

May 6th 2006

Baseball - A Wheel Within a Wheel: The Negro Leagues

Monte Irvin

Although many aspects of the early days of baseball have been well documented, historians are just beginning to chronicle the major role that Black athletes played in making professional baseball popular. Black ball players have played the game for about as many years as White players.

Players of color, both Black and Hispanic, were on mostly White ball clubs in the first days of amateur ball, but when the majors started to become popular in the early 1900's, an unwritten barbaric rule went into effect that kept players of color out of professional baseball.

At that time, segregation was the poison that had drained our society of its full potential. In baseball, it robbed us of the opportunity to witness some of the greatest athletes of all time on an even playing field. It was a time when legends such as Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Cy Young came to light.  What would be our perception of those legends if segregation had not skewed our vision?


Minority players who might have achieved greatness in the majors were relegated to the minor leagues or, as they were called, the Negro Leagues. Life was tough for the Black ball player in those days. There were many sordid incidents, including clashes with the Klan, spitting on players from the stands, and the throwing of rocks at team buses. Yes there was definitely a "color barrier," not only for baseball but for America.

Many of the statistics and numbers from the Negro Leagues are unknown, and the talking points about greatness in the league cannot be verified because the games, events and incidents were not documented properly.

Until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, much of the history of players of color was forgotten and lost. Mostly, all we have as a resource are the stories of the players that played in the Negro Leagues.


Walter "Dirk" Gibbons, a pitcher with the Indianapolis Clowns, said, "Nobody wants to believe we were as good as they say we were, but I can vouch for it, I was there. I know these guys were really that good. All we wanted was a chance to prove we could play the game. I knew sooner or later it would happen, but we had to go through so much before it really did happen." Walter Gibbons should know what good is; by his own account, he was a 19-game winner with 229 strikeouts in one season. The Indianapolis Clowns were also the team that produced Hank Aaron. In considering what happened, Gibbons succinctly noted, "It was segregation, and that is just the way it was."

At one time, much of what went on in the Negro Leagues was ignored. In fact, Gibbons claimed that Jackie Robinson wasn't the best player in the leagues. "He was good, but he wasn't the best," said Gibbons. Other players, like Satchel Paige and Larry Doby have a place in the history of baseball once they entered the majors, but what about their accomplishments when they were locked out of the all-White leagues?


At the end of the Civil War, the Negro Leagues started to develop with the creation of unofficial and unorganized teams. The first Black professional team took the field in 1885 in Babylon, New York. White reporters named the team the "Cuban Giants" in an attempt to attract White teams to play them. By the end of the 1860's, there were a number of Black baseball teams in the Philadelphia area that would play against any other team, professional or not.

By 1885, Black baseball started to organize with the official formation of the Southern League of Base Ballists. In 1888, the Middle States League appeared and admitted two all-Black teams, the Cuban Giants and the New York Gorhams. After a long and blurry history of organizational forming, dissolving and reforming, Bill Veeck attempted to buy the Philadelphia Phillies, announcing that he would recruit Black players for his club. The National League stepped in and bought the Phillies, handing the club over to William Cox, who had no such intentions.

Finally in 1945, Branch Rickey, a member of the Major League Committee on Baseball Integration, searched the national and international baseball scene. He was looking for the best player candidate to break the color line in Major League Baseball. His perfect candidate turned out to be Jackie Robinson. It has been suggested that Robinson wasn't the first player to break through the color barrier; that there were others before him. While there may be some truth to that, Jackie Robinson will always be remembered as the player who started to change the public's attitude toward segregation.

Today, there's a concerted effort to remember the past. In February 2006, a special 12-member panel was convened to start the electoral process of inducting players from the Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues into Baseball's Hall of Fame.  Although so many players of color never participated in Major League Baseball, the greats are starting to be officially recognized for their athletic achievements.

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By F. Penn
This article was written by FR Penn sponsored by If you’re looking for tickets to see your favorite team live in action, look no further than where fans buy and sell the hottest baseball tickets. Reproductions of this article are encouraged but must include a link back to


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