29 reasons to celebrate Black History Month: No. 19, the Negro Leagues

February marks Black History Month. Follow the AJC this month for a series of short stories and videos and people, places and events that played a significant role in the development of black people in America.

No. 19

By today, most major leagues baseball teams would have had pitchers and catchers report to spring training to get ready for the 2017 season. Among them will be a handful of black players, and that is progress.

Before 1946, blacks were barred from the Major Leagues, so they plied their trade in the Negro Leagues. It is tough to define the Negro Leagues as an actual body, rather than an amorphous network of teams and leagues that date back to the mid-1880s through the 1950s. What is clear is that these teams and leagues were filled with some of the greatest ballplayers of their eras – like Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell -- who happened to be black. Even future major leaguers Willie Mays and Ernie Banks played in the Negro Leagues.

But the death blow to the league came on April 15, 1947 when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson’s success confirmed that blacks were talented enough to play in the major leagues, so all of the best black players started getting snatched up and the Negro Leagues – once one of the biggest black business operations in the country – quietly withered away. Hank Aaron, who played for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1951, was the last Negro league player to play regularly in the Major Leagues. Aaron played his last Major League game in 1976, a year after several studies reported that 27.5 percent of the major leaguers in 1975 were African-American.

According to MLB, in 2014, just 8.3 percent of big leaguers were African-American.