Negro Leagues: Early Troubles and the Golden Age

Now, it’s an organization, but for how long?

On May 2, 1920, Rube Foster’s Negro National League began with the Indianapolis ABC’s beating his Chicago American Giants 4-2 in the first game ever. The idea was such a good one that a group of teams in the South created the Negro Southern League as well in 1920, and they would join Foster’s league the following season. However, a bitter feud was boiling between Foster and fellow owner Nat Strong. Strong created a second league, the Eastern Colored League in 1922 to counter Foster’s, and the Negro National League began losing teams. In 1924, the two sides finally came to an agreement, and they decided to have Negro League World Series. After a gas leak nearly killed Foster, his behavior became erratic and harmful, leading him to be sent to an asylum in 1926. Without him in the picture, the owners were happier, but the leagues were beginning to decline. The Eastern League would have to close down in 1927, but the American Negro League replaced it with almost the same teams. Unfortunately, finances weren’t any better, and the league folded after one season. The Negro National League would succumb to the pressures of the Great Depression and went out of business in 1931.

When one door closes, another one opens and new men take center stage. Cumberland Posey took over the Homestead Grays, and after the Negro National League failed, he tried to start a new league, but it failed after one season. A year later, Gus Greenlee bought the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and Satchel Paige made his debut. In 1933, Greenlee created a new Negro National League. The teams involved included some old and some new faces: Pittsburgh Crawfords, Columbus Blue Birds, Indianapolis ABC’s, Baltimore Black Sox, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Cole’s American Giants (formerly the Chicago American Giants), and the Nashville Elite Giants. One of the most innovative things coming from this was the East-West Game, which was the counter to the All-Star Game, but it allowed the fans to choose the participants instead of the sportswriters as was the case in the major leagues.

The league continued fairly well for a few years, but World War II brought its really profitable years. Just as it happened during World War I, the demographics shifted again during the second war. As more men went off to fight, more blacks came from the South to take their places in factories in the North. With a larger fanbase, the league made more money. Although the Negro National League lost some players to the war effort, the league remained fairly recognizable while the white leagues were losing quite a few of their stars. The Negro National League was even starting to compete with the American and National Leagues. Along with this success came tough questions. African-Americans had shown themselves in the battlefield, the factories, and the ball field, so why were they still second-class (at best) citizens?

Unfortunately, integration, in baseball terms, would have its costs. On one hand, integration meant that African-American players would finally get the credit they deserve. On the other hand, one successful player would mean many more would follow. Therefore, the best players would leave and the stars would be gone. Without those stars, attendance was sure to drop. That meant one thing — the end.

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