This article was written by James Overmyer
This article was published in the
The Negro Leagues Come East: The Eastern Colored League and the American Negro League
After the initial success in the Midwest of the Negro National League, which was launched in 1920, there began a drumbeat on the East Coast for a black league there. There were enough good teams to support one, and as early as the spring of 1922 rumors of an organization were afoot among teams in the East.
These Eastern teams had proved to be financially attractive opponents for the NNL squads, which would take time out from their league schedule to make Eastern swings. Andrew “Rube” Foster, the powerful president of the Midwestern loop, had taken steps to bring the Easterners partially within his league’s control, hoping he could prevent the formation of a competing league. He offered the Eastern clubs, along with some from the Midwest, “associate memberships,” which guaranteed those teams potentially lucrative home-and-home series with the NNL while at the same time protecting them from having their players signed by clubs in his league (and, not insignificantly, protecting NNL teams from losing players to the associates). Until the NNL’s founding, the top black teams were independents, bound by no firm rules preventing clubs from “raiding” rosters by offering better salaries to players on other teams. Old habits, particularly one as successful as this one, die hard, and the owner of a Negro team always had to keep an eye out for poaching by his colleagues.
When the East organized, it did so through the leadership of its most prominent black owner, Edward Bolden, who had the Hilldale team of Philadelphia. Initially cool to Foster’s offer of an associate membership, Bolden had enlisted Hilldale in the NNL’s anteroom in 1921, but soon became disenchanted with his decision. As he pointed out, train fares to the Midwestern cities were costly, and “we have received more money for a twilight engagement in Philadelphia, where the players could walk to the park, than a Sunday game in the West, with over a thousand miles of railroad fare to cover.”He also felt restrained by his inability as an associate to sign NNL players who wanted to come East, where salaries were sometimes higher. The sports pages of the black papers in the East were also agitating for a league. The New York Age, for example, said that “the fans want to see these teams mix it, so they can tell ‘who’s who’” in the East.”
So it was that on Saturday, December 16, 1922, the owners of six top East Coast teams met at the Philadelphia YMCA (the segregated one for blacks) to found the Mutual Association of Eastern Colored Baseball Clubs. The black sporting press, ever mindful of names that could fit into snappy headlines, called it the Eastern Colored League. The teams were spread along a corridor of about 200 miles that ran roughly north and south between New York City and Baltimore. New York provided three of the six teams: the Lincoln Giants, Brooklyn Royal Giants, and Cuban Stars. The others were Bolden’s Hilldale club, the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City, and the Baltimore Black Sox. Rather than seek out a president or commissioner who had no vested interest in one of the teams, the founding owners made themselves a board of commissioners, with Bolden the chairman.
Although the ECL was a Negro League, and all the players were African-Americans or black Latinos, three of the six owners (Nat Strong of the Royal Giants, James Keenan of the Lincolns, and George Rossiter of the Black Sox) were white men. This immediately became an issue used by Foster to attack his new competition. His leading objection was the presence of the white owners, particularly Strong, a booking agent (or game arranger). Nat Strong’s tight grip on non-major-league ballparks in the New York City area was resented by black team operators, who had to pay him a slice of gate receipts to get a place to play. Bolden responded in print, pointing out, among other things, that Foster himself charged booking fees to his NNL teams.
The ECL continued its preseason organization and announced its 1923 schedule and team rosters in mid-April. Among the players, undoubtedly to Rube Foster’s chagrin, were some NNL starters from the previous season, including catcher-infielder Biz Mackey and second baseman Frank Warfield (both on Bolden’s team) and left-handed pitcher Dave Brown of the Lincoln Giants.
1924 Eastern Colored League
The Eastern Colored League’s six commissioners (the individual team owners) were of the opinion that the loop’s first season had been a success. At least, a December 7, 1923, article in the Baltimore Afro-American, containing pronounced press-release-type qualities, proclaimed that the first East Coast black major league “has been warmly received by an appreciative public and a marked degree of contentment is evidenced among the players.” The winter meeting the next day in Philadelphia followed this copacetic theme. Hilldale owner Edward Bolden, who had as much as anyone been responsible for the league’s birth, was re-elected league chairman, while James Keenan, owner of the Lincoln Giants, was re-elected secretary-treasurer.
But more importantly, the commissioners sorted through several applications from teams seeking to join their league. They chose two to bring the ECL to eight teams, a number that not incidentally equaled the size of the white American and National Leagues, to say nothing of the rival Negro National League. C.W. Strothers, a black businessman called “Colonel” by one and all in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, had founded the Giants of that city as an amateur sandlot team in 1908 and had made them into a well-regarded independent club. The Washington Potomacs had existed for only a year as an independent team, but their principals were owner George W. Robinson, whose Roadside Hotel in Philadelphia was a popular stopping place for black travelers, and playing manager Ben Taylor, a future Baseball Hall of Famer already becoming a black baseball legend. Before the season began Harrisburg, too, would have a famous manager – Strothers enticed future Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston to leave the Negro National League.
Charleston was the best of a number of players to forsake their NNL teams and migrate east, validating the predictions of NNL President Rube Foster that higher salary offers from the ECL would lead to defections from his organization. One of Charleston’s motives for coming to Harrisburg was a chance to manage. Outfielder Pete Hill left the NNL’s Milwaukee team to manage and play part-time for Baltimore. According to the New York Age, Keenan of the Lincoln Giants had strengthened his team by acquiring players “from other sections.” One of those sections was the NNL, the source of shortstop Gerald Williams and center fielder Harry Kenyon.
A subsequent meeting of the ECL’s scheduling committee in April produced a balanced slate of games, in which every team played its opponent 10 times. This was true on paper, but, as was always the case with the Negro leagues, completion of the schedule didn’t come to pass. Without access to the sort of capital borrowing from white-owned financial institutions that was needed to build their own ballparks, many black teams rented dates in existing minor and semipro ballparks, and could not always easily reschedule games lost to rainouts or transportation snafus. In addition, two of the ECL’s original teams, the Brooklyn Royal Giants and Cuban Stars, both based in New York City, did not have any home fields (although Nat Strong, the Royals owner, had booking control over dozens of venues in and around the city). This caused those two teams, in particular, to chronically fall short of completing their schedules.
The compact geographical size of the league, and the concentration of its decision-making powers among the owners, meant that many crucial decisions were made either through the modification of decisions made at the winter meetings or by dealing “on the fly” with issues that came up during the spring and summer. One of these was the making of a measure of peace between the ECL and NNL at a six-hour joint meeting on September 8, 1924, in New York City that produced the first Negro World Series that October. For the NNL, a combination of financial problems resulted in the folding of one club and the shifting of others among cities. This, along with continued criticism of Foster’s heavy-handed administration of the league and the continued leaking of players to the ECL, encouraged Foster to give in to demands of sportswriters and fans and agree to an interleague series. The settlement came with a nonraiding agreement and promises to have the two leagues work better together in the future. In the Negro World Series, the Kansas City Monarchs defeated Bolden’s Hilldale team, five games to four, as the Negro leagues took another step toward respectability in the eyes of black writers and fans by more closely resembling the success of the white majors.
1925 Eastern Colored League
The agreement to continue cooperation between the two Negro major leagues, which made that first World Series possible, resulted in a joint meeting of the Eastern Colored League and Negro National League in Chicago on December 4-6, 1924. All eight ECL club owners, who also constituted the league commissioners, traveled west to attend. Rube Foster was unanimously elected chair of the joint meeting, and ECL Chairman Edward Bolden presented a draft of an agreement that would substantially ease tensions between the rival leagues. The result was adoption of a pact that covered territorial rights, the honoring of player contracts, and other improvements that offered protection to the teams of both leagues. “Indications are that organized baseball will have a peaceful future,” is how the New York Age summed it up.
The most important facet of the agreement was the prevention of “roster raiding,” the signing of players under contract to a team in one league by a team in the other loop. There had been a steady migration of NNL players to the ECL in the first two seasons of the Eastern League’s existence, which was the cause of most of the bad blood. Now, each team submitted a list of 1924 players who were considered to be its property for the coming season, which made them off-limits to teams in the other league (and in the same league, for that matter) without a written release from the original club. Waivers were also required for movement of a player between teams in the same league.
Regarding territory, the leagues agreed that the ECL could locate teams only east of a line running north and south along the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, and that the territory to the west belonged to the NNL. This conformed with the existing distribution of the Negro-league teams, and while it was unlikely that the leagues had any intention of placing regular teams so far from their geographic bases (primarily for the purpose of travel expenses), the dividing line presumably also prevented a league from offering associate memberships in its rival’s territory, as the NNL had done on the East Coast prior to the Eastern League’s formation.
A three-member arbitration committee, with each league selecting one member and a third agreed upon by the two loops, was set up to police the agreement. And the World Series between the two pennant winners was authorized again. The agreement explicitly entitled second- and third-place teams, in addition to the pennant winners actually playing in the Series, a share of gate receipts. It set up a four-member commission, which could not include a representative of a pennant-winning team, to run the Series.
The maximum size of a team roster was set at 20 players. Although the subject of an across-the-board reduction in player salaries (something that might appeal to an owner now that he was no longer locked into a bidding war) was brought up, nothing definite was decided.
After this ground-breaking agreement, the representatives of the separate leagues had their own initial organizational meetings, which resulted in Bolden’s being elected for a third term as ECL chairman. Then, as arranged in advance, the ECL commissioners adjourned until January 24, 1925, when they met again in Philadelphia to take care of their league’s affairs. An important matter was approval of the transfer of the Washington Potomacs to Wilmington, Delaware, after a financially disappointing season in the national capital.
Another 70-game schedule was agreed upon, and promises were made to try to make sure all games were played, which would avoid the criticism leveled by fans and sportswriters in 1924 when some teams did not come close to playing their full schedules. But Philadelphia sportswriter Lloyd Thompson cut to the real cause of uncompleted schedules. Owners needed to supplement team income, which was limited by the fact that the Negro leagues’ market was big-city blacks, a minority of the population with generally lower per-capita incomes. Thompson candidly observed that “although the public has a perfect right to be exacting, they must also take into consideration the fact that with the clubs paying top salaries to players and with practically only one day per week at the respective cities being a paying proposition, the owners can ill afford to pass up lucrative bookings with independent clubs in their vicinity.”
At a further preseason meeting on March 25 to approve the schedule, William Dallas, a white sportswriter for the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, was named umpire supervisor as the ECL attempted to improve the quality of its officiating. In its first two seasons, umpires were hired by the home club for each league game, and the quality of their work was uneven.
1926 Eastern Colored League
The preliminaries for the 1926 Eastern Colored League season began, as had been the case the year before, with a joint meeting with the Negro National League. This time the representatives met in Philadelphia on January 6-8, with Edward Bolden, the ECL chairman, leading the meeting. The interleague peace that had enveloped the 1925 season continued; as one reporter characterized matters, “tranquility reigned supreme.” There were important issues to take up, though. Although some teams did well financially, the overall economics of Negro League ball were always tenuous. An apparent general anxiety about profits led to a decision to cut costs in what for the owners was the surest way – a player salary cap of $3,000 per month per team was instituted. Although the leagues decided to admit no associate member teams, it was made clear that playing nonleague games against independent black teams was welcome, so long as the team in question did not have on its roster any players claimed by a league club. Both of these measures seemed aimed at the most powerful independent team, the Homestead Grays of Pittsburgh. Grays owner Cumberland Posey was an aggressive businessman who had no qualms about luring players away from league teams, and who had a good-enough team to offer a well-attended (and thus lucrative) game to league outfits passing through Pittsburgh. As an indication of the relative ineffectiveness of Negro League rules on player contracts, the Grays continued to poach league players in 1926, and yet still wound up with games against Negro League teams.
Although all the teams from both leagues were at this winter meeting, only one player transaction was reported, the sale of right-handed pitcher Rube Currie to Foster’s Chicago American Giants from Bolden’s Hilldale team.
The two leagues then proceeded to hold their separate winter meetings. The ECL elected Bolden as chairman for the fourth straight year. James Keenan of the Lincoln Giants was again elected secretary, although the treasurer post that he also held was split off and handed to Charles Spedden of the Baltimore Black Sox.
George W. Robinson’s Potomacs, who had started as an ECL team in Washington in 1924 and had moved to Wilmington to start 1925, had gone out of business partway through the previous season. A new team, the Newark Stars, owned by Wilbur C. Crelin, a white regional baseball promoter, was admitted to fill the vacancy. But the team won only one league game, drew poorly, and failed to survive the first half of the season.
Newark actually began its losing streak at a subsequent ECL preseason scheduling meeting, held on February 20, when both Crelin and Cuban Stars owner Alejandro Pompez claimed the rights to right-handed pitcher Pedro San, a Dominican Republic native seeking to break into United States baseball. San had explained the confusion in a letter to the league, but it was in Spanish and the only person in the room who could read it was the bilingual Pompez. No action was taken because “apparently, the Commissioners were unwilling to accept Mr. Pompez’ interpretation of the letter,” although San eventually wound up with the Cuban Stars.
1927 Eastern Colored League
The foundation of the league was threatened after the 1926 season when Lincoln Giants owner James Keenan, unhappy with his perceived bad treatment by the league’s scheduling committee, announced he was pulling his team, a charter member, out of the league. ECL Chairman Edward Bolden was given credit for smoothing things over and keeping the Lincolns in the league, but it would be one of the last acts Bolden would perform as the ECL’s head.
Bolden, who had done more than anyone to found the league and had been the only chairman it had known, had nevertheless come under increasing criticism for his inability to enforce on-field discipline – players frequently contested umpires’ decisions, often arguing with them at length, which of course held up games, and sometimes even struck them. Bolden, who believed that successful black baseball could come about only through cooperation with the whites in majority control of the sport, was also felt by some owners to be too accommodating to the white booking agent Nat Strong of New York, who also owned the Brooklyn Royal Giants of the ECL.
While Bolden continued to sit as a league commissioner via his control of the Hilldale team of Philadelphia, he stepped down from the chairmanship at the winter meeting on January 11, 1927. He and the other league commissioners (the club owners) handed the job to Isaac H. Nutter of Atlantic City, a leading African-American lawyer and political figure there. Nutter, while a fan of the local Bacharach Giants ECL team, had no financial stake in the team and thus was the league’s first independent president. Keenan, having withdrawn his and the Lincoln Giants’ resignations, was re-elected secretary, and also given back the treasurer position he had held in the past.
For the third straight year the initial league offseason meeting was held in conjunction with that of the Negro National League, this time in Detroit, an NNL city. The National League was going through a leadership change of its own, much more of a crisis than that in the ECL. Founding president and organizing stalwart Rube Foster had suffered a mental breakdown, and would never run a league meeting, nor his Chicago American Giants team, again. Foster died in an Illinois state mental institution in 1930. The team continued on under a series of owners until the declining years of the Negro leagues, going out of business in 1950.
These leadership shifts were taking place against an ominous background for Negro League baseball. The manufacturing slowdown that preceded what is recognized as the full-fledged beginning of the Great Depression had begun to noticeably impact urban black workers, who tended to hold the jobs most at risk in an economic downturn. “Last to be hired, first fired,”
the fan base for black baseball was experiencing widespread unemployment. Consequently, both leagues voted to lower the $3,000 monthly team salary cap to $2,700, and to reduce the size of rosters to 14 for the ECL and 16 for the NNL.
The commissioners reiterated their ban on playing any independent team that had signed away ECL players, and imposed a five-year ban on any player who jumped a league team for an independent. This was, as usual, aimed at Cumberland Posey’s Homestead Grays, who specifically had signed right-handed pitcher George Britt away from the Baltimore Black Sox. As usual, these resolutions were honored as much in the breach as in the enforcement. The Grays played some games against league teams as the 1927 got further away in time from the league meeting when the bans were imposed. Britt remained with the Grays for the five-year period, but since Homestead as a team was doing better financially than Negro league ball in general, it’s doubtful he wanted to return to Baltimore anyway.
The ECL announced an ambitious split-season schedule of 120 games per team, which was a fantastical notion, given the vagaries of weather, travel problems, and the lure of good gate receipts from nonleague games with white or black independent teams. The Bacharach Giants, who won both ends of the split season, were among the games-played leaders with 88. No team was admitted to the league to replace the collapsed Newark Stars of 1926, and the ECL began play with seven teams. But in June, Keenan reversed his January reversal of the Lincoln Giants’ resignation, and the team became independent. The issue that led to the departure was a dispute over his signing of outfielder Alonzo Montalvo, upon whom an NNL club had a claim that was upheld by both leagues. But Keenan, who had a home field in the Bronx, had long resented a schedule that deprived him of lucrative Sunday home dates there, and may have decided that “the league will need the Lincoln Giants more than the Lincolns will need the league.”
1928 Eastern Colored League
The Eastern Colored League owners re-elected Isaac Nutter as league president when they convened their preseason meeting on February 11, 1928, in Philadelphia. Edward Bolden, the league’s first leader before turning over the top spot to Nutter in 1927, was re-elected secretary-treasurer, a post he had taken over in the middle of the previous season. Bolden’s right to not only hold a league office but to represent the Hilldale team he had founded, was challenged, however, by other Hilldale officials, who had earlier deposed him as team president. Bolden successfully maintained that despite no longer being club president, he owned a majority stock position, and the rest of the owners recognized him as Hilldale’s representative.
The owners made a few other decisions, such as deciding on a rotating crew of league-controlled umpires and requiring a $500 “good faith” deposit from each team to swell the league treasury. But the contretemps over Bolden’s eligibility was an omen for the ECL’s short and rocky future. The six teams that had finished the 1927 season had already shrunk to five with the withdrawal of the Harrisburg Giants and Brooklyn Royal Giants, partly offset by the return to the fold of the Lincoln Giants, who had left the league during the previous year. But Bolden himself made a move in March that nearly sank the league before any games were played. He took the keystone Hilldale franchise out of the league, committing it to playing more profitable independent ball. He blamed a lack of cooperation by self-interested owners and the absence of reliable home parks for all teams for “tearing the vitals from the Eastern League.” It was clear that, in the beginnings of a national economic downturn, most if not all Negro League teams were losing money, but Bolden’s accounting was specific – Hilldale had lost $21,000 since the beginning of 1927, a significant sum in the black baseball world of the late 1920s.
The remaining owners decided on April 19 that it was useless for the ECL to go on, but reversed their position before the month was out when a potential new team, the Philadelphia Tigers, found a home park and was admitted. The ECL’s resurrection surprised many who had believed it dead. A Baltimore Afro-American headline on April 28 captured their surprise: “Is Eastern League Dead or Fooling? Body, Last Week Reported Dead, Now Said to Be Alive and Kicking.”
But two months later, also sensing that more profitable bookings could be had outside of a league schedule, Alejandro Pompez and James Keenan took their Cuban Stars and Lincoln Giants, respectively, out of the league, and all the teams turned to independent ball. Although he was writing about the initial decision to suspend play (the one that had been reversed), Afro-American writer Bill Gibson succinctly summed up the league’s six-year history: “A child of Edward Bolden, Hilldale pilot, and spasmodically fed by the owners of seven clubs, the Eastern League always remained rather a puny thing, never developing the robustness and virility of its relative, the National League. The league led a sort of see-saw existence, assuming an ascendancy or soaring to minor heights on the wind of certain powers behind the throne who dictated to large measure the policies of its administration.”
1929 American Negro League
The Eastern Colored League had barely ceased operating when in August of 1928 the African-American sportswriters who had covered it began to make the case that an organized league, rather than independent baseball, was what black baseball in the East needed. “The public will never again patronize ‘independent’ baseball as it did in the days before it knew the association brand of the game. … The game and the men interested in it and the men who make their living by it need a strong, well-balanced circuit which will protect all of those involved,” Romeo Dougherty of the New YorkAmsterdam News wrote. He added that the sportswriters also wanted Edward Bolden, owner of the Hilldale team of the Philadelphia area and founder of the first Eastern league, to lead this movement, “because Ed Bolden means more to baseball than baseball can ever mean to Ed Bolden.
So the American Negro League was formed at a meeting on January 15, 1929, in Philadelphia, and Bolden was elected president. James Keenan, owner of the Lincoln Giants of New York City, was voted vice president and George Rossiter, owner of the Baltimore Black Sox, was treasurer. The league secretary position was given to W. Rollo Wilson, sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, in an innovative move that brought a representative of the black East Coast sports journalists, who had been ever more critical of the malfunctioning ECL, into the inner circle.
The new league was composed of five charter members of the old ECL: Hilldale, the Baltimore Black Sox, the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants, and the Cuban Stars and Lincoln Giants of New York City. The identity of the sixth team, like Wilson’s election as league secretary, was also ground-breaking – the Homestead Grays of Pittsburgh. An aggressively run franchise located halfway between the territories of the Eastern and Midwestern black leagues, it was on the one hand a lucrative barnstorming stop, but on the other a constant threat to lure star players “jumping” their league contracts.
The ANL had rules that made it a model for Negro league ball up to that point in time. Bolden was given broader powers than either he or predecessor President Isaac Nutter had possessed in the old ECL, particularly in policing on-field attacks on umpires or other players. To keep a lid on salaries, rosters were limited to 14 players at the beginning of the season, with expansion to 16 per team by July. The league also addressed the chronic early-season absences of players who had joined international barnstorming trips to the Far East and Hawaii, from which they often returned after the beginning of the Negro leagues season. This time, suspensions of one day for each late day in reporting were ordered, and made to stick.
The ANL lived up to many of its goals. It had increased the number of African-Americans on its umpiring staff, enforced compliance with the official schedule, and fostered cooperation among the owners. But attendance was still down, finances were still a serious problem around the league as the Depression deepened, and 1929 would prove to be the ANL’s only season.