Before The Game Was Color Blind: The Two Negro Leagues in 1941

This article was written by Todd Bolton

This article was originally published in SABR’s The National Pastime, Vol. 11 (1991).


Although Josh Gibson and other stars jumped to Mexico, the Negro leagues boasted plenty of action in 1941 from players who, only a few years later, would make headlines in the white major leagues.

Negro baseball consisted of twelve teams and two leagues. According to Effa Manley, co-owner of the Newark Eagles, it cost a half million dollars to operate each league. Wilson was the official ball, each team had its own bus, and two uniforms for each player was the norm. The season lasted from May to September, and each team tried to play about forty league games, plus inter-league games. The remainder of the contests each year were exhibition games, mostly against semi-pro teams.

In 1941, Satchel Paige came back from a three-year sore arm that had almost ended his career and posted an 8-1 mark to lead the Kansas City Monarchs to their third straight pennant in the Negro American (Western) League.

In the East, Monte Irvin of the Newark Eagles hit .380 to take the batting championship in the Negro National League. (All stats have been reconstructed from box scores but were not known to the fans at the time.)

And twenty-old Roy Campanella, already in his fourth season with the Baltimore Elite Giants, won the MVP award in the East-West, or All Star, Game before 50,000 fans at Comiskey Park.

The Monarchs and the Gibson-less Washington Homestead Grays again dominated the two leagues.

Satchel showed the speed and control that made him a legend. During 67 innings pitched, Old Satch struck out 61, highest in the league, and walked only six.

Paige was also collecting his biggest paychecks. The Baltimore Afro-American stated that Paige was probably the highest paid player in all of baseball, earning over $37,000 a year. (Hank Greenberg, white baseball’s highest paid player in 1940 at $40,000, was in the Army. Joe DiMaggio replaced Hank as tops in ’41 with $35,000.) Paige started 11 games that year but completed only three. The Monarchs had already begun to capitalize on his drawing power by advertising him to start, then bringing in a reliever. It probably hurt Satchel’s victory total, since he often didn’t pitch the minimum innings needed for a victory.

But Paige wasn’t the best black pitcher in baseball, nor even on the Monarchs. Hilton Smith, Paige’s relief man, went 10-0 to lead the league in percentage for the third time in five years. He also saved three games. (Monarch rookie Connie Johnson, who later pitched for the White Sox and Orioles, was 2-2.)

The Birmingham Black Barons’ Dan Bankhead, in his second year in the league, had a 6-1 record. Six years later he would become the first black pitcher in the white major leagues, with Brooklyn.

Barons outfielder Lyman Bostock, also in his second year, ran away with the Western batting title, hitting .375. His son would later play for Minnesota and California.

Other leading hitters included Kansas City’s Ted Strong, a Harlem Globetrotter in the off-season, at .357, and the Monarchs’ Willard Brown, who batted .333 and was tops in home runs in the West. In 1947 Brown, then thirty-six, became one of the first blacks in the American League, playing briefly with the St. Louis Browns.

In the East, the Grays’ defending batting champ, Buck Leonard, fell off to .234, although he led in home runs. Their great pitcher, Raymond Brown, 13-6, carried the team to victory in the first half of the split season.

The Newark Eagles lost veterans Ray Dandridge and Willie Wells to Mexico but still finished second.

A twenty-two-year-old out of Lincoln University, Monte Irvin, had come up with the Eagles in 1939 and hit .403. In ’41 he took the batting title with .380.

Veteran pitcher Leon Day, back after a 12-1 season in Venezuela, pitched and played outfield. He was 1-1 on the mound and hit .336.

Campanella batted a sturdy .368 for the third-place Baltimore Elite Giants.

As usual, the highlight of the season was the annual East-West all star game. Newspapers reported that this was “the hottest voting campaign” in the nine-year history of the event. Paige led the vote-getters for the West, and little Dave “Impo” Barnhill, 9-6 with the New York Cubans, was tops in the East. Each received over 95,000 votes.

Paige and Barnhill had once barnstormed together against the American Association Toledo Mudhens. When Satchel blanked the Hens for five innings, the Toledo manager asked his counterpart to “put in the little guy,” and Barnhill blanked them the last four innings. The Toledo skipper was upset. ”You just took Satchel out behind the stands and cut off his legs,” he said.

The East-West game was played in Comiskey Park in 97-degree heat, but even with the sweltering conditions, it attracted 50,000, the largest crowd ever to see a black sporting event. An additional 5,000 fans were turned away.

The East won the game, 5-3, led by Barnhill’s pitching, Campanella’s defensive play, and Leonard’s home run. Paige pitched just two innings for the West, and he gave up one hit, to Campanella.

The Cubans edged the Eagles for the second-half title and played the Grays at Yankee Stadium for the league pennant. Brown won, 2-0, for the Grays’ fifth straight flag.

Unfortunately, no World Series was played.

It would be six years before baseball’s barriers would crumble and some of the heroes of ’41 would eventually have their opportunities to play in the majors. For others — Day, Leonard, Hilton Smith — it would be too late.

H.G. Salsinger, sports editor of the Detroit News, after viewing a doubleheader between the Elites and Grays, wrote:

“Colored cultural organizations have been trying to beat down the color line and gain admittance for colored ball players to major league rosters. The answer to all their campaigns has been that the colored league lacked players capable of making the big-league grade.

“Here was a chance to compare the play of the colored leaguers with that of the major leaguers, and the comparison, made after more than five hours of competition, was in favor of the colored players.

‘There is one thing that distinguishes the Negro National League ball players from their major league brethren, and that is their whole-hearted enthusiasm and their genuine zest. They play baseball with a verve and flair lacking in the big leagues. They look like men who are getting a great deal of fun out of it but who desperately want to win.”

Had America been color blind in 1941, we can only imagine what a season it could have been.