The Negro Leagues Revisited

This article was written by Jules Tygiel

This article was originally published in the SABR Review of Books: A Forum of Baseball Literary Opinion, Volume 1 (1986).


Those of us who discovered baseball during our formative years in the 1950s confronted a paradox which our youthful minds could not quite appreciate. We knew of Jackie Robinson and his heroic efforts to end segregation, and we gloried in the achievements of black players, who only a decade earlier could never have appeared in a big league game. Yet we had no sense of where the Roy Campanellas and Don Newcombes, the Larry Dobys and Monte Irvins had learned their craft and polished their skills while awaiting the call of the majors. For most of us these players had materialized out of thin air, sent by the gods of baseball to thrill and delight and to usher in a golden age of brotherhood and base stealing. That there had once existed a flourishing domain in America known as the Negro Leagues had been instantly forgotten. That several teams still struggled on the margins of the national pastime would have greatly surprised us.

Thus, the Negro Leagues, “invisible” during their best years, almost totally disappeared from American memory in the 1950s and 1960s. Even in the black community, baseball fans savored the hard-won fruits of integration and turned their gaze away from the legacy of black baseball. “The big league doors suddenly opened one day,” wrote sportswriter Wendell Smith, “and when Negro players walked in, Negro baseball walked out.” Not until 1970, when Robert Peterson published his path-breaking Only the Ball Was White, did the veil that had dropped over the Negro Leagues begin to lift. Today, while the stars of black baseball remain under-represented in the Hall of Fame, they have received a far fairer share of attention in the literature of the 1970s and 1980s, giving us a broad appreciation of the role of the Negro Leagues in baseball history and in t.he culture and community they served.

Nowhere is the neglect of the Negro Leagues more apparent than in the two primary academic histories of baseball. Both Harold Seymour and David Voigt in their multi-volume studies deal briefly with the exclusion of blacks in the 1880s. Black ballplayers then disappear from both narratives, reappearing again only in Volume III of Voigt’s work in a brief prelude to the Robinson saga. The Negro Leagues fared no better in accounts of baseball integration. Most biographies of Robinson written in the 1950s, including Robinson’s own Wait Till Next Year, co-authored with Carl Rowan, mention his stint with the Kansas City Monarchs, but provide few details other than a critique of the heavy travel schedule and loose style of play.

Those determined to learn more about the Negro Leagues in the 1950s and 1960s had to search diligently. The standard work on the topic was Sol White’s Official Baseball Guide. White, a former professional player, chronicled the nineteenth century travails of blacks in organized baseball, their ultimate exclusion, and the formation of the early black barnstorming clubs. But White’s book, originally published in 1907, had long since passed out of print. (Camden House in South Carolina reissued this classic in 1983.)

Brief glimpses of life in the Negro Leagues could be found in at least two of the books about the first blacks to cross baseball’s color line. Although “Doc” Young’s 1953 volume, Great Negro Baseball Stars And How They Made the Major Leagues, focused primarily on those players who had advanced from the Negro Leagues into the majors, chapters on the black stars of the pre-integration era and those in the minor leagues offered insightful information. A skillful, perceptive writer whose talents rank him with Wendell Smith and Sam Lacy, the deans of black sportswriting, Young provided an introduction to the stars, if not the world, of black baseball. In 1964 Jackie Robinson provided another overview of the integration process in Baseball Has Done It. This wonderfully revealing collection of interviews with black major leaguers also included reminiscences by Negro League stars Terris McDuffie and Bill Yancey.

Player autobiographies offered other information on black baseball. Roy Campanella’s It’s Good To Be Alive (1959) gave one of the best accounts of life in the Negro Leagues. Campanella chronicled his discovery by the Bacharach Giants as a 15-year-old prospect, his later career with the Baltimore Elite Giants, and his apprenticeship as a catcher under the tutelage of Biz Mackey. Campanella’s account, still fascinating reading, introduces the reader to barnstorming in the United States and winter ball in the Carribean. Intermingled with the interminable travels and poor accommodations was the special amalgam — power and speed, “spitballs, shine balls, and emery balls” — which characterized Negro League play. Campanella’s frustrations of being relegated to a Jim Crow league are evident, yet he concludes, “A Negro ballplayer playing ball in the United States might not have lived like a king, but he didn’t live bad either.”

Far less enlightening is Satchel Paige’s autobiographical effort, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, published in 1962. Paige’s legendary reputation had always transcended the Negro Leagues and his brief, but successful, major league stint had firmly fixed him in the public mind. Writing in a folksy style, fully in keeping with the image he had long cultivated, Paige and co-author David Lipman dwelled more on the pitcher’s skills, eccentricities, and exploits than black baseball itself. Nonetheless, the weak administrative structure of the Negro Leagues and the team-hopping habits of the players are readily apparent.

For the remainder of the sixties, books about the Negro Leagues or books even mentioning the era of black baseball, remained rare. Both Willie Mays and Hank Aaron devoted a few pages to their brief tenures with the Birmingham Black Barons and Indianapolis Clowns respectively in their early autobiographies Willie Mays: My Life In and Out of Baseball (1966) and Aaron, r.f. ( 1968). Jack Orr included a chapter on the Negro Leagues in The Black Athlete in 1969. Little existed to sate the curiosity of those who remembered black baseball or younger people who had seen references to it.

The long drought came to an end in 1970 with the publication of Peterson’s Only the Ball Was White. Poring over black newspapers and interviewing former players, Peterson painstakingly pieced together the history of blacks in baseball from the days of Bud Fowler, a nineteenth-century second baseman, to Jackie Robinson’s historic breakthrough. Peterson introduced a new generation of readers to John Henry Lloyd, “Cool Papa” Bell, Rube Foster, and a host of other Negro League stars. Appendices to Only the Ball Was White included capsule biographies of Negro League greats, year-by-year standings for the leagues, box scores for the East-West All Star Games, and an alphabetical listing of hundreds of players and the teams they had performed for. Peterson’s book, still the best overview of the subject, marked a watershed in the historiography of the Negro Leagues, opening up a broader interest in the research of others and spawning a new generation of Negro League historians, most of whom had never seen a segregated contest.

Two events in 1971 further contributed to the sudden growth of interest in black baseball. The National Baseball Hall of Fame, succumbing to pressures from fans and the media, belatedly began to recognize the Negro Leagues by admitting Satchel Paige and setting up a Negro League committee to consider additional nominees. (The Hall of Fame insensitively planned to commemorate these stars in a separate section until protests of “Jim Crow” forced full inclusion.) In August 1971 the “Cooperstown 16” launched the Society for American Baseball Research. As the organization grew, it established a Negro League committee to coordinate research and facilitate communication among members interested in black baseball. SABR journals, most notably the annual Baseball Research Journal and later The National Pastime, offered a place for Negro League writers to publish their works and a forum for discussion.

The new breed of Negro League aficionados faced a difficult task in recreating baseball in the Jim Crow era. As Peterson had warned, unearthing the history of the Negro Leagues was “like trying to find a single black strand through a ton of spaghetti.” Team records were largely unavailable. Major newspapers and mainstream sports journals like The Sporting News had rarely covered black games. Black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender offered a more promising source, but only major public and university libraries held significant collections of back issues. As a result, oral history became the primary tool of the Negro League chroniclers. The most prolific of the interviewers was John Holway, whose Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues (1975) became the model for the genre. Holway had sought out Negro Leaguers since the 1960s and his collection includes talks with 18 players and Effa Manley, the former owner of the Newark Eagles. Using their own words, the black athletes brought alive the itinerant lifestyle and flamboyant play of the Negro Leagues. One controversial theme ran through both the player accounts and Holway’s writing: that in the age of Jim Crow the quality of black baseball was equal, if not superior, to the major league variety. In addition to editing the colorful accounts of the long-forgotten stars, Holway compiled records of games between black players and major league squads between 1886 and 1948. In the 445 contests which he unearthed, Holway discovered that blacks had won 269 and lost only 172, with four ties.

In 1973 two unique and entertaining looks at the Negro Leagues appeared simultaneously. Some Are Called Clowns by Bill Heward is one of the most unusual and delightful baseball books ever written. Heward, an aspiring pitcher, described his three seasons in the early 1970s with the Indianapolis Clowns, the final remnant of the old Negro Leagues. Heward complements his own experiences on the barnstorming tour with a keen sense of the club’s history. The result is a fine blend of entertainment and analysis, a glimpse into a dying world which has now passed into oblivion. Novelist William Brashier offered another look at black barnstormers in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, a fictional account which became a very entertaining and underrated feature film.

By the mid-1970s national interest in black baseball had reached a level surpassing anything that had existed while the leagues were still alive. Ocania Chalk amassed information on the Negro Leagues in Pioneers of Black Sports (1975). Art Rust Jr. combined his own reminiscences with those of Negro League players in “Get That Nigger Off The Field” (1976). Sam’s Legacy, a second novel dealing with black baseball appeared in 1974. By 1977, the Hall of Fame had admitted eight Negro Leaguers, before abruptly and inexplicably disbanding the special committee which considered them, effectively barring the door to future admissions.

Long ignored by the media and the baseball establishment, players. like Buck Leonard, Ray Dandridge, and Willie Wells found themselves besieged by amateur and sometimes professional historians armed with tape recorders. Interviews with former Negro League players began to appear in numerous regional and national periodicals and in SABR publications. In one of the best of these interviews, Pulitzer Prize winner Theodore Rosengarten teamed with Lorenzo “Piper” Davis to produce “Reading the Hops” in Southern Exposure. James A. Riley and Dick Clark produced additional articles based on player reminiscences. In 1983 Riley produced a Who’s Who of Negro League play, The All-Time All-Stars of Black Baseball, which profiled several hundred athletes who had appeared during the Jim Crow era. John Holway continued his contributions with a series of short profiles including Bullet Joe and the Monarchs (1984) and Smokey Joe and the Cannonball (1985), as well as numerous articles.

Two books by Negro League participants supplemented the work of the oral historians. In 1976 Effa Manley published her own account, Negro Baseball … Before Integration, which unfortunately proved far less out­spoken and interesting than the author herself. The following year, Quincy Trouppe, a former catcher, who had once had a “cup of coffee” in the majors, offered his autobiography 20 Years Too Soon, which lovingly recreated his decades in the Negro Leagues, on the barnstorming tours, in Latin America, and finally in organized baseball. Trouppe’s book, generously decorated with photographs from his scrapbooks, contains a wealth of information about black players and black baseball.

The oral histories and autobiographies of the 1970s and 1980s capture the flavor of life in the Negro Leagues and greatly enhance our knowledge, but as analytical tools they have severe limitations. Human memories tend toward the exaggerated and romantic. They deal largely with selected moments and places rather than the broader picture. As oral history piles upon oral history, the reader often receives variations on the same theme with little focus or historical direction. Contrary to popular opinion, oral histories do not speak for themselves; they require commentary to place them into historical perspective.

Often, good biographers will provide this perspective, but book length chronicles of Negro League stars have been rare. In 1978 William Brashier published Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues, a good effort which amply demonstrates the pitfalls of books of this type. Brashier knows the Negro Leagues and writes well, but apparently could not gather enough information to fill a book about the great catcher. This slim volume includes both Brashler’s personal recollections (not of Gibson, but of Ted Williams) and a chapter on what happened to Gibson’s best friend, Sam Bankhead, after Gibson’s death. Thus Brashler’s book is pleasurable, and in spots, revealing, but ultimately unsatisfying. One author who has attempted to move beyond the usual Negro League focus is Jerry Malloy. Malloy has published two excellent articles in The National Pastime. In “Out at Home” (1983) Malloy gives a detailed account of the 1887 International League season: the key turning point for black exclusion in the nineteenth century. “Black Bluejackets” (1985) examines the history of the Great Lakes Naval Station team, which included numerous Negro League stars and future major leaguers Larry Doby and Chuck Harmon during World War II.

In the early 1980s academia belatedly discovered the Negro Leagues. My own volume on baseball integration, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, appeared in 1983. Although primarily concerned with black players in organized baseball, the Negro Leagues took their rightful place as an integral part of the story. In the 1940s and 1950s they became the fount of major and minor league talent, an important transitional agency in the recruitment of black players. I chronicled their ultimate decline and the fate of the great black stars of that age, and analyzed the manner in which Negro League playing styles transformed the national pastime and improved the game.

Baseball’s Great Experiment was published simultaneously with Donn Rogosin’s Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues, the first major overview of the subject since Peterson’s book. Rogosin’s work derived from his Ph.D. thesis in American Studies and offered a rich cultural panorama of “The World That Negro Baseball Made.” Rogosin addressed not only the activities on the field or the internal league dynamics but the importance of baseball in black communities during the first half of the twentieth century. Rogosin stressed the origins of the players, their role in black America, their itinerant lifestyle, and the “Latin Connection.” Based on extensive interviews, Invisible Men provided a systematic and in-depth look at the black athletic experience in the years before integration.

While both Rogosin’s book and my own received widespread publicity, a more recent study, The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball (1985) by Janet Bruce, has gone largely unnoticed. This is unfortunate, because not only has Bruce produced one of the best books about the Negro Leagues, but her work marks an important new direction for baseball history in general. Relying not only on oral histories, but local newspapers and archival sources, Bruce examines the often talked about, but seldom studied, relationship between team and community. She places the history of the Monarchs firmly within the context of the evolution of black life in Kansas City, describing how blacks embraced their baseball representatives and where the team itself fit into black society. Bruce also traces the impact of the club’s decline on Kansas City itself. Historians studying any baseball team, black or white, will benefit greatly by Bruce’s pioneer work.

A soon-to-be-published manuscript, Rob Ruck’s Sandlot Seasons, takes a similar, yet equally original approach. Ruck studied the history of black sports in Pittsburgh, the home of both the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. Ruck’s emphasis, however, is not only on professional sports, but on their relationship to the games played in the city’s sandlots. En route, he takes us on a tour of the black community rarely seen in most histories, from bourgeoisie to numbers runners, and from schoolyards to stadiums. While some readers may find both Ruck’s and Bruce’s books too “academic,” no serious student of black baseball should bypass them.

Thus, after forty years of baseball integration, and two decades of relative obscurity, the Negro Leagues have become a fertile ground for both baseball history and broader sociological approaches. Black baseball has attracted both widespread interest among baseball “buffs” and a level of respectability in academia. Dozens of taped interviews exist as primary sources for future writers. Yet much work remains. Additional team studies, analyses of the barnstorming phenomenon, and bicultural attempts to understand Latin baseball represent but a few of the areas requiring further efforts. If indeed baseball played a significant role in the black community, we must also assess how the disappearance of the Negro Leagues affected black culture. No one has yet attempted a thorough analysis of how integration changed the way in which baseball is played or the large number of sons of Negro Leaguers who have reached the major leagues. In addition, evidence must continue to be amassed on behalf of the many black athletes still unfairly barred from the Hall of Fame.

Those who tread in this arena must also bear in mind the ultimate irony of baseball integration. The Jackie Robinson saga stands as one of the most sacrosanct in our folklore. It symbolizes American fair play and the beginning of the end for the national disgrace that was “Jim Crow.” The universal acceptance of blacks in baseball stands as a testament to the achievement of Robinson and those who followed him. No one would question that the appearance of the Negro Leagues marked a step forward in our social evolution. Yet something vital and distinctively American died with the passing of black baseball. At their height, the Negro Leagues were a $2 million empire, largely controlled by blacks, employing hundred of players and offering a form of cultural identification to millions of fans. Today more blacks play in the major leagues, yet fewer make their living frotn baseball. Black athletes serve as role models for both black and white youth, but they do so in an economic and organizational context far removed from their own ethnic and racial communities. We cannot resuscitate the Negro Leagues, nor would we want to. Nonetheless as the efforts of Negro League historians demonstrate, we can honor them and utilize them as portals to our divided past.

JULES TYGIEL is Professor of History at San Francisco State University, Commissioner of the Pacific Ghost League, and author of Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy.



The following is a list of books and articles referred to in this review. This is by no means a complete listing of all writings on the Negro Leagues.

Aaron, Henry as told to Furman Bisher. Aaron, r.f. (Cleveland World Publishing, 1968).

Brashler, William. Bingo Long and His Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

—. Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues (New York: Harper and Row, 1978).

Bruce, Janet. The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball (University Press of Kansas, 1985).

Campanella, Roy. It’s Good To Be Alive (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1959).

Chalk, Ocania. Pioneers of Black Sport (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1975).

Heward, Bill and Oat, Dimitri V. Some Are Called Clowns: A Season With the Last of the Great Barnstorming Teams (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and Co., 1974).

Holway, John. Bullet Joe and the Monarchs (Washington, D.C.: Capital Press, 1984).

—· Smokey Joe and the Cannonball (Washington, D.C.: Capital Press, 1985).

—· Voices From the Great Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975).

Malloy, Jerry. “Black Bluejackets,” The National Pastime (1985): 72-77.

—· “Out At Home,” The National Pastime (1983): 14-28.

Manley, Effa and Leon Hardwick. Negro Baseball … Before Integration (Chicago: Adams Press, 1976).

Mays, Willie and Charles Einstein. Willie Mays: My Life In and Out of Baseball (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1972).

Neugeborn, Jay. Sam’s Legacy (New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Win­ston, 1974).

Orr, Jack. The Black Athlete: His Story in American History (New York: Pyramid Books, 1970).

Paige, Leroy “Satchel” and David Lipman. Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever (New York: Doubleday, 1962).

Peterson, Robert. Only the Ball Was White (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1970).

Riley, James A. The All-Time All-Stars of Black Baseball (TK Publishers, 1983).

Robinson, Jackie. Baseball Has Done It (New York: Lippincott, 1964).

Rogosin, Donn. Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues (New York: Atheneum, 1983).

Rosengarten, Theodore. “Reading the Hops: Recollections of Lorenzo ‘Piper’ Davis and the Negro Baseball League,” Southern Exposure (1977): 62-79.

Rowan, Carl T. with Jackie Robinson. Wait Till Next Year (New York: Random House, 1960).

Ruck, Rob. Sandlot Seasons (Evanston: U. of Illinois Press, 1986).

Rust, Art, Jr. “Get That Nigger Off The Field” (New York: Delacorte, 1976).

Seymour, Harold. Baseball. Vol. 1: The Early Years (New York: Oxford, 1960).

—· Vol. 2: The Golden Age (New York: Oxford, 1971).

Trouppe, Quincy. 20 Years Too Soon (Los Angeles: Sands Enterprises, 1977).

Tygiel, Jules. Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: Oxford, 1983).

Voigt, David. American Baseball, 3 vols. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966, 1970, 1983).

White, Sol. Sol White’s Official Baseball Guide (Columbia: Camden House, 1983).

Young, Andrew S. “Doc”. Great Negro Baseball Stars and How They Made the Major Leagues (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1953).