Negro leagues opened door to players who would change baseball forever

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

*** *** *** *** *** *** ***

Imagine a world, a baseball world, where Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and newly-minted Hall of Famer Derek Jeter didn’t exist.

Locally, imagine no David Justice, Terry Pendleton, Ron Gant or even young Latino stars like Ronald Acuna Jr., of the Atlanta Braves.

But for more than 60 years, from the fleeting career of Moses Fleetwood Walker, the first player to openly play as a black man in Major League Baseball with 42 games for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884, through the debut of Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, players like future Hall of Famers Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, Martin Dihigo, Turkey Stearnes and Pop Lloyd essentially didn't exist and were victims of a "Gentlemen's Agreement," which kept black men out of Major League Baseball.

» MORE: Full coverage of Black History Month

On Feb. 13, 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster tried to formally give men like that a place to exist, with the creation of the Negro National League.

With eight teams scattered about the Midwest in cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, Dayton, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City and St. Louis, Foster — who in an earlier life was considered to be the best black pitcher of the first decade of the 1900s — stocked his league with some of the best players in the world, who just happened to be black.

Group portrait of players from the Monarchs and the Hilldale baseball teams in front of grandstands filled with spectators before the opening game of the 1924 Negro Leagues World Series on Oct. 11 in Kansas City, Mo. (J.E. Miller / Library of Congress)

icon to expand image

Raymond Doswell, vice president and curator at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., said there had always been independent black teams dating back to the late 1800s, but the creation of the league, which allowed teams to share revenue and lock down scheduling, came at a crucial time in the history of black America.

Black soldiers were returning from Europe after fighting in the Great War and were demanding equality. Black colleges had established staying power in the South and Mid-Atlantic and in 1918, an intellectual, social and artistic explosion called the Harlem Renaissance was coming out of a black neighborhood in New York City.

Andrew "Rube" Foster, seen here at the 1924 "Colored" League World Series, played for the Chicago Union Giants, Cuban X-Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Leland Giants and Chicago American Giants. He also managed the Leland Giants and Chicago American Giants. (Wikimedia)

Credit: Wikimedia

icon to expand image

Credit: Wikimedia

“There was a great sense of racial pride, and the Negro League was a product of that,” said Doswell, who is preparing today’s 100th anniversary of the Negro National League, which includes a fundraising initiative and the opening of the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center at the Paseo YMCA where Foster held his first meeting to create the league.

icon to expand image

After the Negro National League’s debut, other leagues sprang up through the 1920s and 1930s like the Eastern Colored League, Negro American League and the Negro Southern League – fielding teams like the Homestead Grays, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Newark Bears, Birmingham Black Barons, Pittsburgh Crawfords and Kansas City Monarchs, where Robinson played before signing with the Dodgers.

» RELATED: Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, first woman to play in the Negro Leagues

A team photo of the 1943 Homestead Grays baseball team (Pittsburgh). James "Cool Papa" Bell is standing in the back row, second from left. This roster includes several Hall of Fame players, including James "Cool Papa" Bell (standing, second from left); Josh Gibson (standing, fifth from left); Ray Brown (standing, seventh from left); Buck Leonard (standing, second from right); and  Jud Wilson (kneeling, first on left). (Wikimedia)

Credit: Wikimedia

icon to expand image

Credit: Wikimedia

“The Negro leagues were a great, important aspect to black life and it gave people a chance to have this leisure and entertainment opportunity. But it was also a business,” Doswell said. “Black people liked Babe Ruth and Gehrig and the Red Sox, but when black teams formed in places like Atlanta or Birmingham or Memphis, they could rally around those teams who created some level of honor and financial opportunity in a separate world outside of the mainstream.”

But in that separate world, Satchel Paige never faced Babe Ruth in a meaningful way.

Bob Feller never faced Josh Gibson.

Buck Leonard, the “Black Lou Gehrig,” never played with or against “The Iron Horse.”

A Negro American League baseball poster from 1945 featuring Satchel Paige and Goose Tatum. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

icon to expand image

Growing up in Mobile, Ala., Hank Aaron said watching the Negro leagues gave young boys hope while demonstrating that the players were just as good as their white counterparts.

In 1952, Aaron played less than half of the season as a 180-pound shortstop for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. In his book, “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron,” Howard Bryant wrote that in about 14 games, Aaron hit .483, with 28 hits, six doubles, five home runs and 24 RBI. But his full value to the Clowns would never be realized as the Boston Braves signed the 18-year-old immediately and made him an outfielder in their minor league system.

Aaron, who turned 86 on Feb. 5, made his Major League debut in 1954.

The fourth Negro League All-Star Game, a battle between the best of the East and West at Chicago’s Comiskey Park on August 23, 1936. The game featured Hall of Famers talent such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Willard Brown and Biz Mackie. (Wikimedia)

icon to expand image

“Playing in the Negro League meant an awful lot to me. It developed me into the player that I was,” Aaron told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I always felt that I had the ability to accomplish anything I wanted. And if you made it to the Negro leagues, you accomplished something.”

Aaron, who still lives in Atlanta, where he starred for the Atlanta Braves, played Major League baseball from 1954 until 1976.

When he retired, he was baseball’s all-time leader in home runs and RBIs, a record that he still holds.

Hank Aaron began his career in 1952 with a Negro League team -- the Indianapolis Clowns. He played for the Clowns for only three months before receiving offers from Major League teams. (Negro Leagues Baseball Museum)

Credit: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

icon to expand image

Credit: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

But Aaron holds another distinction: Aside from a stunt in 1980 by Minnie Minoso, Aaron was the last regular Major Leaguer to play in the Negro leagues. He was also the last Major Leaguer to make it to the Hall of Fame who was developed in the Negro League. After him, the best black players were developed and signed directly by big-league clubs.

» RELATED: The CIAA and how the annual basketball tournament shaped black America

“When I was playing in the Negro League, I never had any doubt that I was going to make it,” Aaron said. “And I tell everybody this — playing in the Negro League was one thing that I could always feel proud about. It was one of my greatest accomplishments.”

Ironically, Aaron’s signing was one of the final nails in the coffin of the Negro League, which had been on life support since Robinson left in 1947.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum officially marks 1960 as the end of the Negro leagues, although they were essentially dead as early as 1955.

Jackie Robinson only played for one season in the Negro League, in 1945 for the Kansas City Monarchs--a total of 47 games plus the East-West All-Star Game for that year. (Library of Congress)

Credit: Library of Congress

icon to expand image

Credit: Library of Congress

Early Major League players like Robinson, Aaron, Willie Mays and Larry Doby — the second player to break the color barrier and the first black player in the American League — proved what African Americans and Foster had known for decades, that blacks, who had incorporated the fast Negro League style of play into the Majors, could play baseball on equal footing with whites.

Consider this: In 1947, Jackie Robinson won the first-ever Rookie of the Year Award. Between 1949 and 1958, eight of the 11 National League winners were black.

Between 1949, when Robinson won the National League MVP, and 1969, African Americans and Latinos would win the award 16 times. In the 1990s and 2000s, Bonds himself would win the award seven times.

Bonds would go on to pass Aaron as the all-time home run leader. But no one has driven in more runs than Aaron. No one has scored more runs or stolen more bases than Ricky Henderson. No one has saved more games than Mariano Rivera, a Panamanian who is the only player ever unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame.

Now, imagine a world, a baseball world, where white players didn’t have a 60-year head start.

Pitcher Satchel Paige's best years were behind him when he joined the Cleveland Indians in 1947.  Before joining Major League Baseball, Paige played for at least ten Negro League teams, most notably the Birmingham Black Barons, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Kansas City Monarchs. (George Brace / AP file)

Credit: George Brace

icon to expand image

Credit: George Brace

Black History Month

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African American pioneer in the Living section every day except Fridays. The stories will run in the Metro section on that day.

Go to for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers.