From chapter 2, “Blackball’s Heyday”
On many a Sunday afternoon in the 1930s, Greenlee Field atop the Hill District in Pittsburgh was the crossroads of a black baseball world that stretched over a thousand miles southward into the Caribbean. The Hill, perched above downtown, had long been the traditional destination for Europeans and African Americans coming to Pittsburgh. Now, with Cool Papa Bell blazing around the base paths, Josh Gibson swatting balls farther than anybody had ever seen before, and Satchel Paige telling his fielders to sit down and watch while he struck out the side, it witnessed black baseball’s renaissance. Baseball fans were seeing a similar rebirth in Kansas City, where jazz bandleader Count Basie sat elbow-to-elbow with ministers and slaughterhouse workers at Muehlebach Stadium, home to the Kansas City Monarchs. Back East, forty-five hundred paying customers routinely packed the Dyckman Oval in upper Manhattan; on game days there, the staccato cadence of Caribbean migrants mixed with southern dialects, Italian, and Yiddish. But nowhere was the rise of black baseball more obvious than during the East-West Classic, when tens of thousands of African Americans gathered at Chicago’s Comiskey Park to celebrate what had become black sport’s biggest event, an annual all-star game featuring baseball’s best black players.
As far as Major League Baseball was concerned, these hotspots for black baseball bubbling up across the country hardly existed. The National and American Leagues had established themselves as the major leagues after the Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Americans inaugurated World Series play in 1903. Their power depended on eliminating competitors in the most lucrative markets and controlling an all-white labor force. By the 1920s, the major leagues had fended off would-be rivals, instituted a reserve clause that bound players to clubs, and smashed efforts to unionize. Major league executives like White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, who bullied his own players so much that several agreed to fix the 1919 World Series, and Branch Rickey, who was building a minor league farm system for the Cardinals so that he could monopolize as much talent as possible, dominated baseball. Other leagues collapsed or accepted minor league status, while the players, chastened by repeated defeat, acknowledged that owners held the whip hand.
Although major league executives aggressively sought dominion over all of white professional baseball, they felt no compulsion to control black ballplayers or fight for their fans. Nor did they or their players protest African Americans’ exclusion from the major leagues. White players benefited from segregation, which relieved them of competition for the mere four hundred jobs available in the majors. It also eliminated owners’ worries of alienating white fans, especially in southern cities like Washington, D.C., and St. Louis.
Moreover, white players and owners profited directly from black baseball. White major leaguers took advantage of black ballplayers’ drawing power by competing against them in lucrative postseason barnstorming games. Major league owners gained by renting their ballparks to black teams on days their facilities would have otherwise stayed shut. The Caribbean leagues, meanwhile, were far enough away to pose little competition for players or fans. But like black baseball, they offered Major League Baseball a source of income. Major league clubs profited by playing in the islands, especially Cuba, during the winter. These trips were often the difference between making or losing money for the year. Some major league ballplayers also headed to the Caribbean on their own to play for island teams and make a living doing what they did best.
But while Major League Baseball clung to its color line, African Americans were rebuilding a vibrant baseball domain in their rapidly growing northern and midwestern beachheads. Resonating as far away as the Mis sissippi Delta and San Pedro de Macorís in the Dominican Republic, where fans knew of Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige, and Josh Gibson and longed for the chance to see them play, organized black baseball was rapidly establishing the race’s sporting bona fides.
These ball clubs did more than display African American sporting excellence against segregation’s backdrop. They helped knit black America together, giving African Americans teams and heroes of their own. Sport offered a cultural counterpoint to the discrimination African Americans encountered at work and in politics. It became an arena affirming their business competence and athletic artistry. Yet baseball was also a bridge to white communities, as black teams played thousands of games against major league barnstormers and white semipros. Though whites participated in black baseball as opponents, spectators, promoters, and owners, this was a realm that black America created and sustained largely on its own. It rebuilt a baseball world that African Americans had first established in the aftermath of World War I, only to see it collapse during the Great Depression.
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As long as 90 percent of all African Americans lived in the South, as they did at the end of the nineteenth century, the chances of a viable black baseball league emerging were slim. The wrenching poverty of rural southern blacks, for whom segregation and sharecropping had come to replace slavery, left them little with which to build much of anything.
When conditions in the South deteriorated even further during the 1890s, thousands headed northward during the onset of what would become known as the Great Migration. They left behind Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and plunging cotton prices for the better jobs, educational opportunities, and relative freedom of the North. Most of these early migrants came from the upper South, especially Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Often from bigger towns and cities, these upper South transplants were somewhat better off and better educated than African Americans from the rural black belt that swept across the Deep South from Georgia to Texas. Decades later, World War I triggered a far more sizable exodus. As wartime demand for labor increased, the supply of available white workers fell due to the influx of men into the military and the dwindling number of European immigrants arriving from their war-torn continent. That allowed African Americans to enter factories and workplaces previously off-limits. Most of these newcomers were from the rural Deep South.
By the 1920s, the Great Migration had carried well over a million African Americans north aboard the “exodus trains,” on the Illinois Central, the Erie, and New York Central lines. Although New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia were the top destinations, black communities also grew substantially in Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. Chicago became the “bronze metropolis” as its black population more than quadrupled between 1910 and 1930 to over 225,000. With black professionals, merchants, and politicians establishing a power base on the city’s South Side, Chicago became black baseball’s capital and Andrew “Rube” Foster its mayor.
A Calvert, Texas, native, Foster left school after the eighth grade and pitched his way northward, starring for teams in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. Fans began calling him Rube after he outpitched future Hall of Famer George Edward “Rube” Waddell in a barnstorming duel. Foster established his reputation as black baseball’s top pitcher in 1903 by winning four of five games for the Cuban X-Giants in a series with the Philadelphia Giants billed as the “world’s colored championship.” But his enduring legacy would be founding the Negro National League, one of the first national black institutions to emerge after slavery.
After forming the Chicago American Giants in 1910, Foster set the bar for black teams by insisting that his squad receive at least 50 percent of the gate when playing white opponents. He partnered with White Sox owner Charles Comiskey’s son-in-law, John Schorling, who had refurbished the White Sox’s old ballpark on the South Side, near Chicago’s booming black community. Foster used South Side Park as his home field. Relinquishing playing for managing, Foster became a midwestern power broker, booking games for white semipro clubs as well as his own team, which toured Canada, California, and Cuba.
In 1917 the Freeman, a black paper in Indianapolis, made a public appeal for a “Moses to lead the baseball children out of the wilderness.”1 Three years later, Foster answered its call. The increasing vibrancy of black communities in the North created new possibilities, and Foster understood the benefits of a league with fixed schedules, high-profile rivalries, and championships. Unhappy with allowing white promoters to dictate the terms by which he played in the East, Foster gathered black club owners and sportswriters at the Kansas City YMCA in February 1920. They formed the eight-team Negro National League and elected Foster as the NNL’s first president.
The clubs were located in the Midwest, with two franchises in Chicago and one each in Dayton, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, where Cuban promoter Abel Linares based his Cuban Stars. There was one white owner among them, J. L. Wilkinson, who had earned his credentials with the All Nations ball club he founded in 1912. The All Nations had shattered accepted racial mores by fielding black, white, Native American, Latin, and Asian ballplayers, including future Hall of Famers John Donaldson, José Méndez, and Cristóbal Torrienti. The All Nations disbanded during World War I when several key players were drafted into military service. Afterward, Wilkinson added Kansas City sandlotters and players from the U.S. Army’s Twenty-fifth Infantry Wreckers, an allblack service team, to the core of his old All Nations squad and formed the Kansas City Monarchs.