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a brief social history of african-american baseball

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center fielder oscar charleston, hall of famer, hit .348 for his career and ranks fourth on bill james' list of all time great baseball players.
center fielder oscar charleston, hall of famer, hit .348 for his career and ranks fourth on bill james' list of all time great baseball players.

hola amigos, i know it's been a long time since i rapped at ya posted something substantive but i've been unable to keep up with my sources on revisiting negro league baseball. when i have had time to read, i've been simply unable to put down "the soul of baseball: a trip through buck o'neill's america" by joe posnanski, [many thanks to rosevilleredbird] which may be the best sports book i've ever read, and may actually rank pretty high on the list of best non-fiction books i've ever read. while praise for posnanski is easy to come across here, it struck me as i read that posnanski is not really a sports writer. posnanski writes about people; he simply happens to write about people who play sports.

it's hard to talk about the negro leagues and not feel like you're talking about something much bigger than baseball. so i will join joe and ken burns and lots of other folks and talk a little bit about the backdrop of the game. specifically, i was thinking about why the game developed in the way that it did. what made african-american baseball blossom between 1920 and 1950? i hope you'll forgive me if i try and write a little piece about the context of the league in history that's not a typical VEB front page piece.

as i touched on in a somewhat scattershot manner two weeks ago (some of the following is repetition, just because the first post was so poorly organized; i apologize), african-american baseball has a long history, starting from the mid-1800's. in april 1865, the civil war ended. that year, the first formal african-american teams began to play, including a washington, d.c. team featuring two sons of frederick douglass on the field.

the first truly remarkable period came in the 1880's.  remember for a minute where the country was. for ten years after the civil war, the country was tremendously polarized. radical republicans from the north rammed through legislation, including three constitutional amendments banning slavery, creating legal equality along racial lines, and granting the vote to african-american men. in response, the ku klux klan was formed, and lynchings established a new racial order; african-americans would be free but not equal in the south. after the closely-contested election of 1876, radical republicanism lost its hold on national politics.

in this context of waning movement towards integration, several african-american players joined white leagues. two players - fleet walker and his brother welday - played for a toledo team that joined the american association, part of the major leagues at that time. other african-american players played for white minor league teams. george stovey pitched for the jersey city team in the international league, setting international league records that still stand today. stovey had an ERA of 1.13 in 1886, winning 16 games and holding opponents to a .167 BAA. he only posted a braden looperesque 16-15 record, showing that pitcher won-loss records were stupid statistics even then.

however, integrated leagues would not last beyond the decade. america was not ready for integration; as noted above, the pendulum of national sentiment had begun to move away from integration even before the african-american players joined the white leagues. white ballplayers made their teammates increasingly unwelcome. cap anson is frequently credited with drawing the color line in baseball; though he was surely one of the more vehement and prominent proponents of segregation, anson lacked the authority to segregate baseball on his own. integrated teams simply found little support among white players or fans. by 1889, no black players were allowed in the international league. by 1899 - three years after the supreme court's "separate but equal" decision in plessy v. ferguson -  bill galloway would mark the last of black players in white leagues for almost fifty years, playing 20 games for a team in the canadian league. 

the trade-off was that baseball played by african-americans for african american audiences became more and more important. the first legendary team was the cuban giants. formed in 1885, the team sought to pass as "cubans" because the social stigma against being a dark-skinned cuban was less strong than that against being an american-born black. the cuban giants quickly became the greatest team among the african-american teams.

few teams lasted long in the late 19th-century though; players bounced from team to team; teams disbanded and reformed under different names or in other cities. most players from the cuban giants jumped to a team called the big gorhams. based in new york, the gorhams included the aforementioned stovey who remained among the best pitchers of the day. confusingly, a new team called the cuban x-giants formed in 1895 populated by many players who had previously played for the cuban giants.  during this era, black players also began to travel to cuba and puerto rico in the offseason to play ball in areas where the color of their skin was less of a problem.

early in the 20th century, the game played by african-americans would be dominated by the philadelphia giants for several years, with only a few major teams on the east coast comprising the major black teams. by 1910, the center of gravity for black baseball began to shift, to the chicago american giants and the new york lincoln giants. the st. louis giants appeared in 1911; the club would be succeeded by the st. louis stars in 1920. john henry lloyd would make a hall of fame career for new york. oscar charleston - often mentioned in the same breath as willie mays - took the field for indianapolis in 1915. 

in 1920, the official negro league was formed. the experiment was not just about baseball. integration was coming, some felt sure. the best way to ensure integration in baseball would happen would be to have an excellent league with elite players ready to compete in the majors. from 1920 on, the league would mark a heyday for black baseball until the league was killed by its own success, by the integration of its best players into the major leagues.

 so why did this era become a heyday? why cool papa bell and satchel paige and not george stovey and fleet walker? there are three factors i want to propose.

first, the founding of the league coincided with the rise of baseball nationally; in two words, babe ruth. baseball had long been a popular sport nationwide, but ruth was just a player unmatched in skill and ability. the rise of babe ruth lifted the profile of baseball generally. ruth's rise coincided nicely with the arrival of radios in households across the country, a technology that brought the excitement of baseball to those who couldn't attend in person. against this backdrop, the whole country was ready to embrace baseball. 

second, the harlem renaissance was taking place at the same time. joe posnanski's book is full of comments from buck o'neill to the effect that no one should feel bad for him because he got to play baseball in a great era with a great bunch of guys. inevitably, o'neill's proof of how lucky he was to play baseball in the 20's and 30's would include some story about going out to eat with duke ellington or with satchel paige and listening to count basie play, with joe louis and billie holliday sitting at the next table. his comment was about more than being able to hear great jazz. his comment meant that players in the negro leagues were a part of something bigger, of some national rethinking about what it meant to be black, about whether african-americans could see their own culture, their own institutions as equal to white culture or white institutions. given the prominence of baseball in the 20's and 30's, maybe it was just as important to have an oscar charleston or a josh gibson for every babe ruth or lou gehrig as it was to have a langston hughes for every t.s. eliot or a duke ellington for every george gershwin. 

the last and most important factor was the large-scale emigration of african-americans from the south. driven by jim crow and boll weevil infestations at their backs and drawn by the promise of northern jobs in the budding manufacturing sector, southern blacks moved out of rural areas to cities across the northeast and midwest (chicago, st. louis, indianapolis, and kansas city) - not coincidentally, teams from those cities would be most successful in the negro leagues. 

part of what drove the harlem renaissance was developing an african-american middle class to consume the culture. southern workers moving north to work in assembly lines inspired by henry ford's model of mass production had the steady income and the designated free time that allowed them to participate in the culture. prior to the large-scale emigration of african americans to midwestern and northeastern cities, many of these same consumers were agricultural workers, dispersed across a rural landscape with neither the cash nor the designated free time to attend a ball game. put those same workers in the middle of a city, where a ballpark was a streetcar ride away, with some spending money in their pockets, and designated time off from a limited workweek, and suddenly the explosion of african-american baseball in the 20's and 30's became possible. to make baseball marketed exclusively for an african-american audience a success, the audience had to get wealthier, more urban, and have more free time. in the 1920's, that's just what happened. 

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i had a throwaway line two weeks ago about the monarchs being kansas city's best baseball team. well, i sure wasn't far wrong. the a's were even worse during their stint in kansas city than i thought -- they didn't even have a winning season while in town. the royals made a slightly better case than i had thought they might - from 1976 to 1985, the royals regularly appeared in the postseason (i'm told there was a world series victory of some sort in that period but my memory remains surprisingly hazy in that era, almost as if something is being blocked out). under whitey herzog, the royals rarely missed the postseason in the late 70's. but since 1985 . . . well, whatever happened that year . . . after that time, the royals have not returned to the playoffs. the monarchs by contrast were a perennial powerhouse in the negro leagues, frequently challenging the chicago american giants or the st. louis stars for the championship, winning ten league championships and two infrequently played negro league world series (1924, 1942). the monarchs featured some of the best of the best in baseball - jackie robinson (briefly, before he was taken by the dodgers), buck o'neill, satchel paige, bullet rogan, hilton smith, and many more. while the brett-era royals were a great team, i think they pale in comparison to the monarchs.

* * * 

a final thought about buck o'neill: much is made of the refusal of the hall of fame to put buck o'neill in. posnanski tells the awful story of the day that buck finds out he won't go in. something that comes through so strongly in posnanski's book is o'neill's absolute unwillingness to give into bitterness about anything - about not being allowed to play in the majors, about not being paid well his whole life, about the endless frustrations and humiliations associated with play in the negro leagues. o'neill remained steadfast in maintaining an optimistic view of his baseball career. he would tell listeners to feel sorry for white fans who never got to see josh gibson hit, not for him, because he got to play baseball for a living. even after the veteran's committee denies him his last chance to join the hall of fame -  something that clearly breaks his heart - posnanski says that o'neill turned to him and asked if he thought the HOF would let him speak on behalf of all the ballplayers who were admitted, since none of the admitted players were alive. his outlook on life makes him incapable of bearing a grudge. o'neill did go to cooperstown to eulogize the group of players he hadn't been allowed to join. 

in a way, buck o'neill is like the negro league as a whole. the players of the negro leagues - by surviving, by enduring, by excelling under the worst of circumstances and the cruelest kinds of discrimination - showed that they belonged in the highest echelon of players. while it was obviously deeply unfair that these players were kept from the majors, in the end, their memory is not really diminished by not playing in the majors. it is major league baseball that was diminished by refusing to let obviously deserving players play. major league baseball ended up cheapened, not the negro league players.

by the same token, buck o'neill was the kind of man whose absence from the hall diminishes o'neill's legacy not at all. o'neill's record and legacy speaks for itself and needs no commendation. o'neill was the kind of man whose absence from the hall diminishes the prestige of the hall of fame itself. 

feel sorry for the hall of fame, readers, because it missed the chance to honor a man like buck o'neill.