This year, 2020, marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of Negro League Baseball. Led by the impressive Rube Foster, the Negro National League (NLL) organized itself in February of 1920.
The third decade of the 20th century was the beginning of the era I call “building alternative institutions.” Early in American sports history, African Americans tended to participate at the top levels in popular sports like baseball, golf, horse racing, cycling, and boxing.
However, racism and segregation became the order of the day by the first two decades of the 20th century. African Americans were pushed out of the sports they excelled in like baseball, golf, horse racing, cycling, and heavyweight boxing. And they were excluded from other sports that were becoming popular.
What were African Americans to do? The law supported this segregation. So, African Americans set about developing alternative institutions–sports organizations. Black colleges formed associations like the CIAA (the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association), formed in 1912.
In addition to college associations, several black national associations organized: the American Tennis Association in 1916, the United Golf Association in 1926, and the National Negro Bowling Association in 1939.
After failing to get any of the white leagues to integrate, Foster pushed for the development of a black baseball league, consisting primarily of teams already playing, just not in an organized league.
The NNL became the first black long-term league in any professional sport. It launched with eight teams: Chicago American Giants, Chicago Giants, Cuban Stars, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Kansas City Monarchs, Indianapolis ABCs, and the St. Louis Giants. Other leagues formed during these early years, but few lasted very long. Thus, the so-called Negro Leagues revolved around the NNL.
The League had its problems. One was the illness of Rube Foster. Because of his condition, Rube Foster was not involved with the league after 1926. The League faced a bumpy road but reorganized in 1933 under Gus Greenlee, the Pittsburgh Crawfords Negro League team’s well-heeled owner. In addition to the Crawfords, Greenlee owned a couple of hotels and several nightclubs. Word on the street was that Greenlee was a racketeer; however, the black community regarded him as a benefactor.
Greenlee was innovative. He built his own stadium, and he invented nighttime baseball before the Major Leagues by outfitting his team with portable lights.
The League tended to draw many fans, especially in cities with large black populations. For example, some Negro League teams in Major League Baseball (MLB) towns used the MLB stadiums and sometimes outdrew the MLB team. In 1933, the NNL began playing an all-star game at Comiskey Park in Chicago, where for many years they held the attendance record at that venue.
Many people have thought that Negro League players were inferior to the MLB players because, as they would argue, “the Negro league players did not face the white players.”
Knowledgeable sports reporters over the past few decades have tended to turn that around and say that the white MLB players did not have to play against the great Negro League players. However, we do not have to guess about these things because we have data.
You see, baseball was not segregated, just MLB.
According to sports historian John Holway,” Black teams opposed white professional teams in more than four hundred barnstorming games between the 1890s and 1947, and came away winners sixty percent of the time.”
A recent analysis of these all-star games’ results shows that the NNL players won 75 percent of the games when the Major League teams had less than 4-6 Major League players (with the extras being minor leaguers). When there were four or more Major Leagues in the games, the Negro Leaguers won 50 percent of the time.
Experts usually agree on two things in comparing the Negro Leagues with the Major Leagues. First, the Negro League teams lacked the depth of Major League teams; second, stars in the Negro Leagues would have been stars in MLB.
We also know how the Negro League players fared in the so-called Big Leagues. Starting with Jackie Robinson in 1949, former Negro League players dominated the Most Valuable Player award in the National League, winning nine out of 11 years.
After Jackie Robinson integrated MLB, the NNL began to flounder and finally went out of business in the 1960s.
The NNL (Negro National League) players won 75 percent of the games when the Major League teams had less than 4-6 Major League players. When there were four or more Major Leagues in the games, the Negro Leaguers won 50 percent of the time.