The Negro Leagues were the highest level of black professional baseball prior to Jackie Robinson's signing with the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers' Triple-A farm club, in October 1945. Rube Foster, a pitcher, owner, and manager for the Chicago American Giants, founded the original Negro National League in 1920. The original NNL consisted of Midwestern teams, with Eastern clubs forming the Eastern Colored League shortly thereafter. Both leagues folded during the Depression. In 1933, Gus Greenlee, the owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, re-formed the Negro National League (NNL) around Eastern teams. NNL teams included the Crawfords, Homestead Grays, Newark Eagles, Philadelphia Stars, Baltimore Elite Giants, New York Cubans, and New York Black Yankees. The Negro American League (NAL) formed around Southern and Midwestern teams. NAL teams included the Kansas City Monarchs, Chicago American Giants, Birmingham Black Barons, and Indianapolis Clowns. Many owners of Negro League teams were black men involved in underworld activities including an illegal lottery known as the numbers.
The Negro Leagues were not leagues in the modern sense. There was no 154-game league schedule. Statistics were not well kept. Most teams did not own their ballparks. Teams made their money traveling around the country in buses playing white semi-pro teams, which was known as barnstorming. They often rented major league ballparks when the major league teams were out of town. Based on their barnstorming schedules and the availability of major league ballparks, NNL and NAL teams played anywhere between 40 and 70 league games a season. The league season was divided into first half and second half schedules. The winners of each league usually (but not always) played a Negro League World Series consisting of any number of games and locales. Beginning in 1933, the Negro Leagues played an annual all-star contest at Comiskey Park known as the East-West All-Star Game.
Although the organization of the Negro Leagues was haphazard, the players and teams were top-notch. From the late nineteenth century until Robinson's signing, there was an unwritten rule preventing blacks from playing in the white major or minor leagues. As a result, much of the country's best baseball talent was unknown by White America but worshipped by Black America. Many great players received their starts in the Negro Leagues, including Jackie Robinson (Kansas City Monarchs), Hank Aaron (Indianapolis Clowns), and Willie Mays (Birmingham Black Barons). Integration, however, left many of the older players behind. The relative obscurity of these teams and the lack of available statistics give these forgotten Negro League players the unfortunate air of myths or legends. These were real men, with real faults, but undeniable talent. Beyond the Shadow of the Senators tells some of their stories.
Photo Credits: Art Carter Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.