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Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues
By John Holway
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2010 John Holway
All rights reserved.
THE MAJOR LEAGUE NOBODY KNOWS
We had eleven out of the top twelve hitters in the National League last year  and four out of the top five in the American. Hell, we've always had players of that caliber, only we never got any recognition.
—BILL YANCEY, shortstop New York Black Yankees
IN THE BEGINNING, 1872–99
In 1920 the Paris Academy of Sciences reported that mosaics from the ruins of a Carthaginian nobleman's home depicted an early baseball game of 2,000 years ago. Whether or not baseball was actually born in Africa (Russia, Mexico, Britain, France, and the American Indians also claim it), it has been played by Afro-Americans for a century or more.
Back in 1872 Bud Fowler, a Negro, broke the color line and became the first man of his race to play in organized ball. Other blacks followed, and in 1884 two brothers from Ohio, Welday and Moses Fleetwood Walker, briefly crashed the major leagues with Toledo of the old American Association.
The first organized Negro team we know of was formed in 1885 in Babylon, Long Island, by waiters of Babylon's Argyle Hotel. They talked gibberish on the field, hoping to pass themselves off as Cubans, and played the best white semipro teams in the area. Most of the Babylon players later turned professional as the Cuban Giants, the first great black team in history. By 1886 they were strong enough to beat the Cincinnati Red Stockings of the National League. A year later they almost beat the champion Detroit Tigers, losing 6–4 in the ninth on an error.
Would the majors open their doors to them? That hope was dashed one April morning in 1887 in Newark, New Jersey. The Chicago White Stockings were scheduled to play Newark of the Eastern League, whose pitching star, thirty-five-game winner George Stovey, was a light-skinned Negro from Canada. Chicago captain Adrian "Cap" Anson, the greatest player of his day, stomped off the field rather than face Stovey. His walk set a pattern that would last for exactly sixty years. One by one the blacks were eased out of organized baseball. The long blackball decades had begun.
THE NEW CENTURY, 1900–1909
In 1902 the great John "Muggsy" McGraw tried to sign a black second baseman for his Baltimore Orioles, who were then in the American League. The man was Charley Grant, whom McGraw tried to pass off as an Indian, "Chief Tokahoma." The masquerade worked fine until the Orioles reached Chicago for an exhibition, and every black in town turned out to present Tokahoma with an alligator handbag and cheer "our boy Charley Grant" on every ground ball he fielded. White Sox manager Charles Comiskey quickly became suspicious, and it was back to the reservation for Charley.
The "reservation" was the Cuban X-Giants, then based in Philadelphia, and probably the best black team in the country. The X-Giants' main rivals were the Philadelphia Giants, managed by the first great black organizer, mustachioed Sol White. In 1903, just one month before the Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Red Sox played the first modern white World Series, the X-Giants and White's Phillies had played the century's first black World Series, won by the X-Giants two games to one.
The next year White enticed Foster to jump to the Phils, who trounced the X-Giants in a September rematch and remained king of the black baseball roost for the next few years. In 1906 the Phillies won 108 and lost only 31, and their white owner, sportswriter Walter Schlichter, sent a letter to the New York papers challenging the winner of the white World Series to meet his club "and thus decide who can play baseball the best, the white or the black American." Unfortunately, the White Sox, who defeated the Cubs that year, didn't take him up on it.
In 1907 Foster led a walkout from Schlichter's team to the Leland Giants of Chicago. He challenged the Cubs to a threegame series in 1909, and though the Cubs won all three, the games were close. The Cubs' great Mordecai Brown won a squeaker 1–0, and Foster lost a disputed contest when the winning run scored after Rube thought time had been called.
The Lelands voyaged to Cuba, where they found a well-developed baseball establishment only a decade after the end of Spanish rule—as touring white big-league clubs were also finding out. In 1908 the Cincinnati Reds had visited the island for eleven games. The Cubans won seven of them, including a one-hit shutout by young José Mendez. The next year the American League champion Detroit Tigers made the trip, minus Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford but with the rest of the club intact. They could only win four and lose eight—one of their losses a no-hitter by Eusaquio Pedroso. Even the Reach Guide conceded that the tour had been "disastrous." An all-star club featuring pitchers Addie Joss, Mordecai Brown, Nap Rucker, and Howie Camnitz followed the Tigers and did little better, splitting the four games they played.
The Tigers returned for revenge in 1910, this time with Cobb and Crawford. They won seven and lost four, though Cobb was thrown out every time he tried to steal and three American blacks all outhit him—John Henry Lloyd, Grant Johnson, and Bruce Petway. Ty stomped off the field vowing never to play blacks again. The world champion Philadelphia A's were next, and their performance was enough to bring a blush to Connie Mack's cheek. In six games the only victory they could salvage was 2–1 over Pedroso.
In 1911 the Philadelphia Phils tried their luck, winning five and losing four. Then the world champion New York Giants arrived to win nine and lose three, though Pedroso and Mendez combined to whip the great Christy Mathewson 7–4. Thus after four years and sixty-five games on the island, the big leaguers had won thirty-two, lost thirty-two, and tied one.
RAGTIME BALL, 1910–19
Meanwhile, New York was developing into the capital of black baseball in the East. In Harlem the Lincoln Giants, transplanted from Lincoln, Nebraska, boasted two of the best pitchers in black ball history, Cyclone Joe Williams and Cannonball Dick Redding. Williams, since voted the greatest black pitcher of all time, hooked up in many a memorable duel with the best white pitchers of his day, including Grover Alexander, Walter Johnson, and Rube Marquard, and beat all three of them.
Just out of Howard University, Lincolns' shortstop Frank "Strangler" Forbes—who would go on to play with the New York Rens basketball team—played in many of those battles. "That's where we made our money," he says. "I was only getting $115 a month in the regular season. But in October, aw hell, we would clean up in October. They didn't allow Negroes in the league, but we were very attractive to them in October. Hell, we would practically get more games in October than we could play. I'll tell you how good we were: We would win 60 percent of our games against the big leaguers. We played the Giants. The Yankees were nothing—we used to call them the Highlanders—hell, they were no competition. We played against the Braves when they had Dick Rudolph, Bill James, Rabbit Maranville. Yeah, we beat 'em—we beat everybody. In 1915 we beat the Phils three out of four ball games. Alexander started three times against us, never got by the fourth inning. Sure."
Out West several new clubs had been founded: the Indianapolis ABC's, the St. Louis Giants, and the All Nations, a multiracial team out of Kansas City. And in Chicago Foster had broken with Leland to form his own club, the Chicago American Giants, and challenged the Cubs and White Sox in a head-to-head attendance war. On one Sunday when all three teams were playing at once, the Cubs drew 6,500, the Sox 9,000, and Foster's American Giants 11,000.
What about a contest on the field as well as at the box office? Booker T. Washington's paper, the New York Age, clamored for a four-way series among the Giants, Yankees, Lincolns, and Royals for the championship of New York. At least one white paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, took up the cry. "There is some doubt," it wrote, "if baseball, after all, is the great American game. We play it, to be sure, but the colored people play it so much better that the time is apparently coming when it shall be known as the great African game.... It requires some courage to predict that colored baseball, like colored pugilism, is to supersede the white brand, but someone has to think ahead and indicate whither we drift, and we therefore go on record as having said that it will."
The Giants and Yankees, however, replied only with silence.
But their players continued to meet the blacks in October and split some tidy gate receipts. On one of those autumn afternoons in 1917 Smoky Joe Williams faced the National League champion New York Giants with their entire World Series lineup intact and set them down on a no-hitter with twenty strikeouts! (He lost 1–0 on an error.)
JAZZ DAYS, 1920–29
After World War I the black players returned from their segregated regiments to their segregated teams. In 1920 the "Black Sox" scandal erupted, and several members of the Chicago White Sox were thrown out of baseball for throwing the 1919 World Series. It created a flurry of hope that the big leagues might try to woo the disillusioned fans back by signing some of the most exciting stars of the black leagues. Of course nothing ever came of it.
Ironically, black baseball was on the threshold of its finest decade.
Rube Foster had called a meeting of several western club owners in Kansas City in February 1920 and proposed a revolutionary idea, a Negro National League. It would cut down on the mutual raiding, he argued, and would replace the hand-to-mouth scheduling with something more dependable, thus assuring the players a regular payday. And so the first black league was born. It included the American Giants, Indianapolis ABC's, St. Louis Giants, Detroit Stars, and Kansas City Monarchs—the old All Nations team but now all black. Casey Stengel himself had discovered most of the Monarchs playing on the all-black 25th Infantry team on the old Indian outpost of Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
At last a professional black player could enjoy a measure of security. Without Rube Foster's historic achievement, it is fair to say, black baseball might not have survived for another quarter century, and the nation might never have heard of Jackie Robinson, who at the time of Foster's meeting was a baby not yet one year old.
Foster's American Giants were a team of "racehorses" built around speed and bunting. Their specialty: the hit-and-run bunt. The runner broke for second, the batter bunted down the third base line, drawing the third baseman off the bag, and a really speedy runner could make third on the play. If the third baseman was foolish enough to throw to first, some runners could even continue flying around third and score on the play! They ran away with the pennant the first three years.
Meanwhile, the East began signing some of the best stars away from the West. Pop Lloyd, the great shortstop, and Biz Mackey, who later taught Roy Campanella how to catch, made the jump. So did Oscar Charleston, regarded by most authorities as the greatest black player of all time. Now Ed Bolden of the Philadelphia Hilldales was ready to propose an Eastern Colored League, including the Hilldales, Atlantic City Bacharachs, Baltimore Black Sox, New York Lincoln Giants, Brooklyn Royals, and the Harrisburg Giants. The league was formed in 1923, and Bolden's Hilldales won the first pennant. But the enraged Foster would hear nothing of a World Series.
So instead, Bolden had to content himself with playing white big leaguers that autumn. In seven games against them, Hilldale won six. Out West the American Giants played the Detroit Tigers (still minus Cobb, who was sticking to his vow) and divided them neatly— one win, one loss, one tie. The Detroit Stars, however, did better against the St. Louis Browns, sweeping three games straight.
That was the last time a big-league club could play the blacks while wearing its own uniform. The new commissioner, the hardbitten Carolinian Kenesaw Mountain Landis, perhaps embarrassed by the scores, issued orders against it. Henceforth, the big leaguers would have to call themselves "all-stars" if they wanted to barnstorm.
The Hilldales repeated as Eastern champs in 1924, and at last Foster was ready to make peace. The Kansas City Monarchs had won the pennant in his own league, and Foster magnanimously went to Philadelphia to open the first modern black World Series, meeting Bolden at home plate with a symbolic handshake. It was a spectacular series, going ten games, including one tie, before the Monarchs finally won it. But it was a disappointment at the gate. Only 45,000 fans turned out to see the ten games at one dollar apiece. One valuable Saturday date had to be missed because the Kansas City stadium was hosting a high school football game.
In 1926 tragedy struck in Chicago. Foster suffered a severe mental breakdown and had to be rushed to the state insane asylum.
Down South the Birmingham Black Barons, a team of coal miners, joined the Negro National League in 1927, with their skinny rookie named Leroy "Satchel" Paige. In postseason barnstorming that year, the maverick Homestead Grays, who were not in the league, won three straight from the big leaguers; two of them were shutouts by Joe Williams. The Baltimore Black Sox won five straight from their big-league opponents.
In 1929 Baltimore's Laymon Yokely beat the big leaguers three more times, giving the blacks a final record for the decade of seventy-four victories and forty-one defeats against major league competition. A week earlier the stock market had crashed. Black baseball didn't know it yet, but it would be a long, cold decade ahead.
THE BLUES, 1930–39
Nineteen-thirty was a watershed year for black baseball. Rube Foster died in December, raving about one more World Series win. His death closed an era. Just eight months earlier, a new era had been born when J. L. Wilkinson, the white owner of the Monarchs, threw a switch to begin the first modern night game in baseball history, beating Des Moines of the white Western League by a scant few days. Soon afterward he took his lights to Pittsburgh for the first night game there, and a young Samson, nineteen-year-old Josh Gibson, walked into the spotlight and began bashing eye-popping homers over every fence he saw.
There were no black leagues that year; the Depression had killed them. Salaries were suspended and players passed the hat, dividing the receipts among themselves after expenses had been paid. Many of the oldest and proudest clubs were forced to go under.
Nineteen thirty-two was an Olympic year, and in the games at Los Angeles blacks like Eddie Tolan, Ralph Metcalfe, Ed Gordon, and Cornelius Johnson brought home gold medals. In pro football Joe Lillard, a black, signed with the Chicago Cardinals.
Baseball, its attendance badly hurt by the hard times, desperately needed an attraction to bring the fans back. Could Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson do the trick? Sportswriter Westbrook Pegler declared in print that he couldn't understand why Negroes weren't playing in the majors. In Washington, old Clark Griffith watched Mule Suttles and Rap Dixon blast some long pokes in Griffith Stadium, agreed that they looked pretty darn good, but merely counseled them to continue to play a high caliber ball. He didn't suggest that they play for the Senators. Pegler would just have to wait for his answer.
The highlight of 1933—one of the biggest events in all black ball history—was the first East-West, or all-star, game, a showcase for the best black talent and the financial savior of the black teams. Often in the years to come the only profit some teams would make would be their share of the receipts of that one game, which drew 40,000 to 50,000 people to Chicago's Comiskey Park. The classic may also have been the wedge that finally opened the big leagues to blacks. When the white owners saw all those black fans rushing the turnstiles, integration began to look more attractive.
Gus Greenlee of Pittsburgh gets credit for reviving the Negro National League that same year. It included clubs in both the East and the West, from Baltimore to Chicago.
Excerpted from Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues by John Holway. Copyright © 2010 John Holway. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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