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 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?
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
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.