The Negro Leagues received the kind of recognition they deserve Sunday a week ago. All Major League Baseball clubs celebrated the centennial of the founding of the Negro National League with all MLB players, managers, coaches and umpires wearing a Negro Leagues 100th anniversary logo patch on their uniforms during Sunday's games. The logo, a derivative of the official logo created by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, also was featured on base jewels and lineup cards.
The celebration was noted by former greats and by both Major League Baseball and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. On Sunday, August 16th, the AAGPBL Tweeted: “On this 100th anniversary, we reflect and tip our caps to the Negro Leagues. May the legacy of this League live on forever.”
The festivities, originally slated for June 27 but postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighted what has become a summer-long celebration of the league and its players, 100 years after the league’s founding. Bob Kendrick, who is the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, believes the big celebration would not have happened without Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, who made a joint donation of $1 million to the museum in February.
African-Americans were playing baseball in the late 1800s on military teams, college teams, and company teams. They eventually found their way to professional teams with white players. Moses Fleetwood Walker and Bud Fowler were among the first players to participate. However, racism and “Jim Crow” laws would force them from these teams by 1900. Thus, black players formed their own units, “barnstorming” around the country to play anyone who would challenge them.
Sadly, there are no films of these spectacular events. But we do have wonderfully written chronicles of these games from the gifted writers of local black-owned newspapers. Whenever I find one in some online archive, I devour it and read it again and again.
Then, on February 13, 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster led eight independent Black Baseball team owners into a meeting held at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, MO. Out of that meeting came the birth of the Negro National League, the first successful, organized professional Black Baseball League that provided a playing field for African-American and Hispanic baseball players to showcase their world-class baseball abilities. The Negro Leagues would operate for 40 years becoming a catalyst for economic growth in African-American communities across the country and helped spark social change in America.
“What Rube Foster accomplished in establishing the Negro Leagues against the backdrop of American segregation is monumental and richly deserves to be more than just a footnote in baseball history,” said Bob Kendrick, NLBM President. “The Negro Leagues would change the game and America too. This milestone anniversary creates a platform for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to educate the public about this powerful story of triumph over adversity while using the many relevant life-lessons to inspire a nation to embrace diversity and inclusion,” Kendrick added.
In 1945, Major League Baseball’s Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, recruited Jackie Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs. Robinson became the first African-American in the modern era to play on a Major League roster.
While this historic event was a key moment in baseball and civil rights history, it prompted the decline of the Negro Leagues. The best black players were now recruited for the Major Leagues, and black fans followed.
The last Negro Leagues teams folded in the early 1960s, but their legacy lives on through the surviving players and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Of the many players to go over to the Majors, here are the 10 most notable names on the list.
Before his historic MLB career, a teenaged Aaron had a stint with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League as a shortstop, but it lasted only a few months before the Braves purchased his contract. After two years in the Minors, Aaron made his Big League debut at age 20 in 1954 and went on to shatter Babe Ruth’s career home run record. Aaron finished with 755 homers, which stood as the all-time record until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007. But in my book, Bonds’ cheating doesn’t count.
Long before he was Mr. Cub, Banks was discovered by future Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell while playing for a barnstorming team, and he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the Negro Leagues preeminent franchises, in 1950. His tenure with the Monarchs didn’t last long, however, as he was drafted into the United States Army and served during the Korean War. The Cubs purchased Banks’ contract late in the 1953 season and immediately added him to their roster, making him the first Black player in franchise history. He spent 19 years with the club, hitting 512 home runs and winning two National League MVP Awards.
Campanella spent only 10 seasons in the Majors before a car accident cut short his career in 1958, but he managed to make quite an impact in that time. In addition to his eight All-Star selections and three NL MVP Awards, Campanella helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win the first World Series title in franchise history in 1955. Prior to joining the Dodgers, Campanella was a star in the Negro Leagues, debuting with the Washington (later Baltimore) Elite Giants as a 15-year-old in 1937.
Less than three months after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line when he debuted for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, Doby became the American League’s first Black player as a member of the Indians. Doby’s MLB debut came after a 1942-47 stint with the Negro National League’s Newark Eagles, which was interrupted when he served for the U.S. Navy in World War II. Doby would spend 13 years in the Majors, hitting .283/.386/.490 with 253 home runs.
Howard played three seasons for the Monarchs and was a teammate of Banks before the Yankees purchased his contract in 1950. Military service delayed his MLB debut until 1955, but Howard soon became a key cog for New York, making 12 All-Star teams, winning four World Series titles and taking home the 1963 AL MVP Award.
Known as “Toothpick,” as he was often chewing on one, Jones started his career in the Negro Leagues, playing for the Oakland Larks and the Cleveland Buckeyes before joining the Indians. Jones, a hard-throwing, 6-foot-4 righty with a sweeping curveball, was effectively wild, leading the league in strikeouts three times and walks four times. With the Cubs in 1955, he became the first Black pitcher to throw a no-hitter, and five years later, he finished second in the NL Cy Young Award vote with the Giants.
Mays joined the Birmingham Black Barons in his home state of Alabama as a 17-year-old in 1948 and helped them reach the Negro League World Series, where they lost to the Homestead Grays. Three years later, he was patrolling center field for the New York Giants, and after putting his career on hold briefly to serve in the Korean War, Mays returned in 1954 to win the NL MVP Award. This began a streak of 20 straight All-Star seasons, during which the Say Hey Kid cemented himself as one of the greatest players in MLB history and an American sports icon. In my estimation, Willie was the best all-around player to play in the Majors.
A native of the Matanzas Province in Cuba, Minoso played for the New York Cubans from 1946-48 before joining the Indians and becoming MLB’s first Black Cuban player. Following a short stint in Cleveland, Minoso was traded to the White Sox, where he became one of the most popular players in franchise history. From 1951-61, Minoso dazzled with his multidimensional skill set, hitting .305 with 179 homers and 205 steals and winning three Gold Glove Awards for good measure. Minoso continued his career in Mexico into his 40s, then re-emerged to play for the White Sox at age 50 in 1976 and 54 in ’80.
After two years in the Negro Leagues with the Newark Eagles, Newcombe landed with the Dodgers and pitched in their Minor League system until 1949, when he made his MLB debut. While he missed two full seasons due to his military service, Newcombe made four All-Star teams from 1949-56, going 112-48 with a 3.41 ERA. In 1956, he won the inaugural Cy Young Award as well as the NL MVP Award.
Although Robinson’s momentous debut came when he was already 28 years old, he didn’t have a lengthy career in the Negro Leagues before that. In fact, Robinson only played one year in the Negro Leagues, for the Monarchs in 1945, after serving in the U.S. Army from 1942-44. Following a season in the Minors, Robinson joined the Dodgers and became a perennial All-Star, earning NL MVP honors in 1949 and helping Brooklyn win six pennants and a World Series crown.
But even the great power of Hank “the Hammer” Aaron couldn’t compare to the power and precision of the great Josh Gibson, who never made it to the Majors. Nobody was ever as fast as “Cool Papa” Bell or could pitch like Satchel Paige and, even though Satch made it to the Majors, his great years were with the Kansas City Monarchs. And, as much as I love Willie Mays, no player ever played the game better than Oscar Charleston.
I’ll talk about them next week.
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