Eighty Years to Right a Wrong

Panelists Jim Thorn, Dr. Lawrence Hogan, and Jim Robinson. Photo courtesy of Nick Diunte.

Baseball, Politics and the Press

A significant moment in baseball occurred in New York City on July 5, 1930, but the event was not covered by the traditional press.

For the first time ever, Yankee Stadium hosted a game featuring two teams from the Negro Leagues, but no one in 1930 could have read about the game in the New York Times.

On Monday night (July 26, 2010), the Museum of the City of New York hosted a panel to talk about the Negro Leagues and the game that was held on July 5. The panel was moderated by baseball historian Jim Thorn and featured Negro Leagues player Jim Robinson and Dr. Lawrence Hogan, a professor and author of Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball.
How the Negro Leagues Came About

Shortly after the Civil War, baseball became a popular sport for both blacks and whites. Professional baseball teams formed, and there were sporadic incidents of African-Americans playing on white teams, but that came to a halt in 1887 when white Hall of Famer Cap Anson (1852-1922), who served as both a player and a manager of Chicago’s White Stockings team, refused to let his team play an exhibition game against the Newark Giants because the squad had two black players. Only after the two men were ejected from the game would the White Stockings enter the field. Within a few years, professional team owners had come to a “gentleman’s agreement” not to give contracts to African-American players.

But the game was still popular; pick-up games could be played with little more than a bat and a ball, and the game grew among all socio-economic classes. By 1920, African-American entrepreneurs began to put together their own professional teams, known as the Negro Leagues. Crowds would and could come in big numbers to watch these baseball players, and the business owners quickly found they had little competition for the black entertainment dollar. Stadiums were built specifically for these teams, and the Negro Leagues also often barnstormed, playing wherever they could get a crowd.

So why did a clearly white stadium, Yankee Stadium, opened its field to the Negro Leagues in 1930? Baseball historian Jim Thorn indicated that generating income was almost certainly a factor. Thorn pointed out that the stadium had only been built in 1923 and that prohibition would have had a big impact on the Yankees’ owner, Jacob Ruppert, Jr., who was son of a brewing magnate. As the Depression deepened and prohibition remained in effect, the profits from the stadium would have been down in 1930. (The brewery kept its doors open by making “near-beer,” a concoction that the government allowed that contained less than .05 percent alcohol, but the company must have struggled.)

Ruppert surely saw the 1930 game as a way to open the gates to a new business opportunity. Starting that year, the Negro Leagues often played at Yankee Stadium if the Yankees were out of town.

Monday night’s speaker, Jim Robinson, who represented the players’ point of view, was born in 1930 and started out in the Negro Leagues. He moved up to a minor league professional team, and then finished his career in 1958 back with the Negro Leagues, the Kansas City Monarchs. He went on to get a masters degree in social work at the City University of New York and worked for the Housing Authority; later he taught and coached baseball at the college level.

A young man in the audience asked Robinson about the difficulties of playing for the Negro Leagues. Robinson expressed great love for the game and for his teammates but said the life was hard: “We traveled a lot, all by bus, and because of segregation, we weren’t permitted in many hotels or allowed to eat at a lot of eating establishments. That made life on the road more difficult [than for anyone playing on a white team].”

Additional Significance to the 1930 Game

Author Lawrence Hogan pointed out that the double-header played on July 5 was significant for another reason:

“The game was played as a benefit for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American labor organization to receive a charter from the American Federation of Labor,” he noted. The Brotherhood, headed by A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), went on to lay important groundwork for the civil rights movement.

Hogan also noted that despite the Negro Leagues’ popularity, the only way to get regular reports on these baseball games was to follow the black newspapers. One of Hogan’s previous books, Black National News Service, actually concerns what he described as the black Associated Press.

Integration of Baseball

The integration of professional Major League baseball began in 1945 when Branch Rickey, one of the owners of the Brooklyn Dodgers, made a deal with the first African-American ball player, Jackie Robinson, to leave the Kansas City Monarchs to play for one of the Dodger feeder teams (the Montreal Royals) for the 1946 season. A year later, Robinson moved from Montreal directly to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Other African-American players soon followed him to the Major Leagues.

Speaker Jim Robinson pointed out that what spelled opportunity for the players was the beginning of the end for the black entrepreneurs who had run the Negro Leagues and stadiums. As the best players got picked off by the white teams, the prospects for the Negro Leagues began to dwindle. Crowds dropped off as the teams began to have to fill their ranks with the “too old to move up” players or those who weren’t quite of professional caliber.

While white Major League team management soon saw the competitive wisdom of adding these great athletes to their rosters, the traditional types of acclaim to which white players could aspire took a long time to follow.

The Baseball Hall of Fame did not agree to admit their first black honoree until 1971. At an earlier date, the Hall of Fame had suggested a “separate but equal” distinction for Negro League players, but players, fans, and the press angled for equal treatment. Finally, in 1971 Satchel Paige became the first African-American inductee, and a few more followed over the years but there were still a great number of players who had been overlooked.

About five years ago, the Baseball Hall of Fame formed a new committee to correct the continuing inequities, and in 2007, the committee selected 12 former Negro League players and five Negro League executives to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

A comment made by player Jim Robinson during the evening offers the best conclusion:

“If progress involves standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, then this is too important a chapter of American history to be set aside.”

* * *

For more on this topic: Catcher Roy Campanella and the color line are discussed in “Baseball and Politics: A Reminder of a Time They Intersected.

To read about Jackie Robinson’s effort to travel via passenger plane from his home in Los Angeles to his first season of spring training with the Major Leagues in Florida, read “Airline Passengers Needed Their Own Rosa Parks.

To read about the dropping of the color barrier in public pools, see “Pools and Politics.”

There is a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, MO.

You might also like to visit Nick Diunte’s site: baseball happenings.

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