Jackie Robinson 75: Baseball's Re-Integration

Before Jackie: Baseball’s Color Line

The 1888 Syracuse Stars included two Black players, Moses Fleetwood Walker (top row, far left), and pitcher Robert Higgins (bottom row, far left). The previous year, International League owners had voted to ban future contracts with Black players. Higgins quit the team in mid-season due to racist antagonizing and Walker, the league's lone remaining Black player, was released in 1889, thereby cementing segregation in professional baseball for the next six decades. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

The 1888 Syracuse Stars included two Black players, catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker (top row, far left), and pitcher Robert Higgins (bottom row, far left). On July 14, 1887, International League owners voted to ban any future contracts with Black players. Fed up with the racism he had experienced in baseball, Higgins quit the team in midseason and Walker, the league’s lone remaining Black player, was released in 1889. No Black player would appear in an International League game again until Jackie Robinson with the Montreal Royals in 1946. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, we need to look back at the history of the color line. As early as the 1860s, the Philadelphia Pythians were kept from playing in an all-White league. In the 1880s, Cap Anson and the Chicago White Stockings refused to take the field with Black players Moses Fleetwood Walker and George Stovey. In 1887, International League team executives voted to ban future contracts for Black players — and thus, the color line was born.

There were attempts from the 1890s to the 1940s to break the color line at the major-league level, but none succeeded. By the 1890s, most Black professional players had to play on all-Black teams, barnstorming across the country. Teams like the Cuban Giants, the Page Fence Giants, and the Chicago Unions played all comers, Black and White, but not in any major leagues. Black and White teams continued to play one another until 1947, but always outside the official channels of what was then considered Organized Baseball.

A few individual players, such as Jimmy Claxton and Charlie Grant, tried to break the color line unsuccessfully. Some Black teams played against White opponents in the prestigious amateur Denver Post Tournament and later for the US Navy’s Great Lakes team. These efforts did little to change the racial attitudes present in baseball.

Some players were invited to tryouts with big-league clubs in the 1930s and 1940s. None of these opportunities dented the color line. Sports writers Wendell Smith, Fay Young, Sam Lacy, and Joe Bostic pushed to make many of these efforts happen, but were disappointed with the lack of follow-up by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Boston Braves and Red Sox.

Sports writers were not the only ones pushing for change. Communist Party organizations and newspapers such as The Daily Worker took up the call for ending the color line to no avail. World War II caused some people to question the idea of men going to die for their country but not being able to play baseball together. Branch Rickey founded the United States League in 1945 as a way to begin looking for a player to break the color line. His efforts led to the signing of Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers organization, resulting in his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. Robinson’s debut finally broke a color line that had existed since just after the Civil War.

On this page, enjoy learning more about the players and figures who helped pave the way for Jackie Robinson to make his debut with the Dodgers in 1947.

— Leslie Heaphy

“Before baseball became the victim of its own preju­dice, there was a period of uncertainty and fluidity, however brief, during which it seemed by no means inevitable that men would be denied access to Organized Baseball due solely to skin pigmentation. It was not an interlude of total racial harmony, but a degree of tol­eration obtained that would become unimaginable in just a few short years.”

— Jerry Malloy, baseball historian

Octavius Catto and Philadelphia’s Pythian Club

In 1869, just four years after the Civil War ended, the first recorded inter-racial baseball game was played on September 3 in Philadelphia. The all-Black Pythians were captained by Octavius Catto, an influential educator and civil rights activist who also played shortstop. The Olympics were Philadelphia’s oldest all-White ball club, dating back to 1832.

The game was the most highly attended in the city since the famous Cincinnati Red Stockings had played the Olympics earlier that summer. Although the more experienced Olympics won, the Philadelphia Inquirer said the Pythians “acquitted themselves in a very creditable manner.”

Unfortunately, Catto’s belief that social and political acceptance could be promoted by competing against “our white brethren” on the “field of green” was shattered soon afterward. While rallying Black citizens to vote during the racially charged 1871 mayoral election, he was assassinated by two White men near his home.

Civil rights activist Octavius Catto founded the Philadelphia Pythians in 1866.

Civil rights activist Octavius Catto founded the Philadelphia Pythian Base Ball Club in 1866. (COURTESY OF JERROLD CASWAY)

William Edward White’s 1879 appearance for Providence made him the first Black player to play in a major league game. He played on Brown University’s 1879 championship baseball team. White is sitting directly behind the man in the suit holding the bat. (COURTESY OF JOHN HUSMAN)

William Edward White’s 1879 appearance for Providence made him the first Black player to play in a major league game. He played on Brown University’s 1879 championship baseball team. White is sitting directly behind the man in the suit holding the bat. (COURTESY OF JOHN HUSMAN)

William Edward White: The First Black Major Leaguer

Black baseball players have shared the field with White players for nearly as long as the sport has existed. In 1870, Frank Stewart and Charles Bannister played on an all-White team for a game against the all-Black Washington’s Mutual Base Ball Club in Rochester, New York. Future Hall of Famer John “Bud” Fowler (see below) spent almost two decades playing professionally in early minor leagues beginning in 1878.

But the first documented appearance of an African American in a major league game came on June 21, 1879, when William Edward White — who was born as an enslaved person in Georgia but lived his life passing as a White man — had a one-game career for the National League’s Providence Grays. White attended Brown University and played on the school’s championship baseball team. When the Grays’ veteran first baseman, Joe Start, broke his finger, White was pressed into service as his replacement. He had a single in four at-bats, two stolen bases, scored a run, and played errorless ball, recording 12 putouts.

Other Black players would appear in the major leagues into the 1880s, but William Edward White would only make one appearance before returning to Brown University.

Bud Fowler: 2022 Hall of Famer and Black Baseball Pioneer

John “Bud” Fowler was one of the true pioneers of American baseball, one overlooked by the National Baseball Hall of Fame for more than a century after his death until he was elected in 2022 to Cooperstown — the same village where he had grown up as a teenager. He played for more clubs and in more games in the minors than any other Black player before the 1950s, hitting .308 in more than 2,000 at bats in Organized Baseball.

In Black baseball history, Bud Fowler is the pioneer. His resume includes a long list of firsts. He is the first acknowledged African-American professional player — in 1878 before there were any Black teams of consequence. He was the first to play on integrated teams, typically the only dark face on the roster. He was the first African-American to captain an integrated club. He was also one of the first significant Black promoters, forming the heralded Page Fence Giants and other clubs and leagues. Wherever there was an effort to form a Black league during the nineteenth century, Fowler could be found in the mix.

Fowler was a stellar player — on the mound, behind the plate, in the field, and with the bat. The fact that he bounced from team to team, at times playing for four or five clubs in a calendar year, had nothing to do with his skills. He wasn’t wanted because of the color of his skin.

John

John “Bud” Fowler was selected as SABR’s Overlooked 19th Century Legend in 2020 and he will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2022. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Other Black players in early professional baseball

Check out SABR biographies of notable players below:

 

Moses Fleetwood Walker (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Moses Fleetwood Walker was a catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings when Chicago White Stockings captain Adrian “Cap” Anson objected to his presence on the field during an exhibition game in 1883. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Cap Anson vs. Fleet Walker

August 10, 1883: The beginning of the end of African American participation in Organized Baseball probably dates to an in-season exhibition game less than two decades after the close of the Civil War. Cap Anson’s Chicago White Stockings, the three-time defending National League champions, scheduled an exhibition game in Toledo, Ohio. The Toledo catcher was Moses Fleetwood Walker, a mulatto man and one of just a few Black men playing in the minor leagues at the time. He and his brother, Welday Walker, would each make their major-league debuts a year later.

When Anson objected to Walker’s presence, Toledo manager Charlie Morton called Anson’s bluff, forcing the White Stockings onto the field in order to secure his interest in the day’s gate receipts. Toledo took the mighty Chicagos to extra innings before losing 7-6. Anson vowed to never play again with a Black man on the field.

Anson was not entirely responsible for baseball’s more than half-century of segregation, but he had a lot to do with it. The incident of August 10, 1883, in Toledo certainly brought the issue to the forefront and began an open, blatant, and successful effort to bar Black players from Organized Baseball.

Out at Home: Baseball Draws the Color Line

July 14, 1887: 1887 was a watershed year for both the International League and Organized Baseball, as it marked the origin of the color line. As the season opened, Black players like Fleet Walker, George Stovey, Sol White, and Frank Grant had plenty of reasons to hope they would be able to ply their trade in an atmosphere of relative tolerance. By the middle of the season, they watched helplessly as the IL drew up a written color ban designed to deprive them of their livelihood. By the time the league held its offseason meetings, it became obvious that Jim Crow was closing in on a total victory.

The Newark Little Giants were led by two Black stars. At age 21, left-handed pitcher George Stovey began the season by capturing his first 10 decisions and Moses Fleetwood Walker was one of the better defensive catchers in the International League. Before Newark’s July 14 exhibition game against the Chicago White Stockings, Cap Anson again objected to the presence of Black players on the field. That morning, International League owners voted to ban any future contracts with Black players on their teams.

Stovey remained active in minor league and semiprofessional baseball as a player and umpire for a number of years. Walker remained in the International League through 1889 despite the ban. But Organized Baseball effectively committed to a policy to exclude “colored players.” The prohibition remained in effect until Jackie Robinson re-integrated the International League six decades later.

The 1887 Chicago White Stockings. 1-Billy Sunday, 2-Ned Williamson, 3-John Clarkson, 4-Marty Sullivan, 5-Shadow Pyle, 6-Mark Baldwin, 7-Tom Burns, 8-Cap Anson, 9-Fred Pfeffer, 10-Jimmy Ryan, 11-Jocko Flynn, 12-Dell Darling, 13-Lew Hardie, 14-Sliver Flint, 15-Tom Daly. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Cap Anson (center), captain of the Chicago White Stockings, again objected to playing in an exhibition game with Black players on July 14, 1887, in Newark, New Jersey. That morning, International League owners voted to ban any future contracts with Black players on their teams. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Sol White (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Sol White founded the first professional league for African Americans in 1887, the National Colored League. While it did not get off the ground due to lack of funding, it served as an inspiration for Andrew “Rube” Foster to create the Negro National League in the 20th century. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

National Colored League forms

1887 was a pivotal, destructive year for Black baseball. Cap Anson protested an exhibition game versus Moses Fleetwood Walker and George Stovey, the St. Louis Browns refused to play the Cuban Giants, The Sporting News declared the “color line” had been drawn, and the major leagues and minor leagues effectively agreed not to hire any more Black players.

In the middle of all that, 28-year-old Sol White formed the first professional league for African Americans, the National Colored League. The league struggled for funding and never made it off the ground, but it was a monumental effort to organize and served as a precursor for Rube Foster’s Negro National League that began play in 1920. White returned to play in the integrated minor leagues until 1895 and spent the rest of his life managing, promoting, and writing about Black baseball.

Creating A Black Baseball Ecosystem

With the all-White minor and major leagues effectively closed off to African Americans by the turn of the twentieth century, Andrew “Rube” Foster transformed from one of the most talented pitchers in the game to one of the most significant executives in baseball history. His vision and leadership helped provide a place to play for anyone who was otherwise barred by the color of their skin.

In 1920, Foster convened a meeting in Kansas City to form the Negro National League, the first Black-owned baseball league that enjoyed sustained success. Besides Foster’s Chicago American Giants, the charter members of the league were Joe Green’s Chicago Giants, the Indianapolis ABCs, Kansas City Monarchs, St. Louis Giants, Detroit Stars, Cuban Stars, and Dayton Marcos. The various Negro Leagues remained in existence long after Foster’s death, through Jackie Robinson’s National League debut in 1947 and into the 1960s.

As Larry Lester writes, Foster was “a phenomenal pitcher, a magnificent manager, a powerful organizer and even greater humanitarian. He had the face of a Koala bear, the heart of laborer John Henry, the smile of Billy Dee Williams, the essence of Malcolm X, the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, the oratorical skills of James Earl Jones with the creative genius of Ray Charles. Rube Foster was the most robust blend of baseball expertise ever assembled.”

Rube Foster of the Chicago American Giants, J.D. Howard, and C.I. Taylor of the Indianapolis ABCs (NOIRTECH / LARRY LESTER)

Rube Foster of the Chicago American Giants, J.D. Howard, and C.I. Taylor of the Indianapolis ABCs pose for a photograph before an exhibition game in 1916. By the early 20th century, Black players were effectively barred from segregated White leagues. In 1920, Foster and other executives formed the Negro National League to give African Americans and other players of color a place to compete at the highest level. (NoirTech Inc. / Courtesy of Larry Lester)

Wendell Smith (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier spent many years advocating for the re-integration of White professional baseball leagues in the 1930s and ’40s. He and other sports writers published open letters to owners, polled White managers and players, brought Black players to unscheduled tryouts at spring-training centers, and kept the issue before the public.  (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Fighting Back: Baseball’s Civil Rights Movement

In the 1930s and 1940s, civil-rights activists fought against discrimination in housing and jobs, mobilized for a federal anti-lynching law, protested against segregation within the military, marched to open up defense jobs to Blacks during World War II, challenged police brutality and restrictive covenants that barred Blacks from certain neighborhoods, and boycotted stores that refused to hire African-Americans. The movement accelerated after the war, when returning Black veterans expected that America would open up opportunities for Black citizens.

As part of that movement, the Black press, civil-rights groups, progressive White activists and unions, the Communist Party, and radical politicians waged a sustained campaign to integrate baseball. The coalition included unlikely allies who disagreed about political ideology but found common ground in challenging baseball’s Jim Crow system. They believed that if they could push the nation’s most popular sport to dismantle its color line, they could make inroads in other facets of American society.

These reporters – including Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, Fay Young of the Chicago Defender, Joe Bostic of the People’s Voice in New York, Sam Lacy and Art Carter of the Baltimore Afro-American, and Lester Rodney of the Daily Worker took the lead in pushing baseball’s establishment to hire Black players. They published open letters to owners, polled White managers and players, brought Black players to unscheduled tryouts at spring-training centers, and kept the issue before the public.

🔈 Listen: SABR Oral History interview with Sam Lacy (2000)

© SABR. All Rights Reserved