Photo Essay - The Negro Leagues

Batter Up!Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Batter Up! The first of the great American Negro Leagues, the Southern League of Base Ballists, was founded in 1885, and with its success more such leagues were to follow. In 1887 came the National Colored Base Ball League. In 1920 the Negro National League was created. Soon followed the Negro Southern League, the Eastern Colored League, and the American Negro League, among several others. Until Jackie Robinson broke Major League baseball's color line in 1947 (after which the Negro Leagues began to die off), and despite early attempts to integrate professional baseball, African Americans who wished to play baseball at the professional level had to do so in these all-black organizations. Among the great teams of the Negro Leagues were the Kansas City Monarchs, the Chicago American Giants, the Ethiopian (later Indianapolis) Clowns, the Atlanta Black Crackers, the Baltimore Black Sox, the Washington Elite Giants, the Philadelphia Stars, the Cuban Giants, and the Austin Black Senators. Scores of baseball's greats got their start in the Negro Leagues: Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and Hank Aaron, to name just a few of dozens. The heyday of the Negro Leagues represents the triumph of skill, sportsmanship, and entrepreneurial ingenuity over the narrow-mindedness of racial prejudice and intolerance.

The USS Maine Base Ball ClubCourtesy of Library of Congress.

Before the organization of the Negro Leagues—and long before the desegregation of Major League baseball—African Americans who wished to take part in this most American of pastimes took part in the game in any way and any place they could. The Maine Base Ball Club was the official club of the famous (and famously doomed) battleship. The photograph seen here was taken following the team's victory over the sluggers of the USS Marblehead in the Navy championship. Willie Lambert, seen corner right, was the Maine club's starting pitcher. All but one of the players was killed when the USS Maine exploded on 15 February 1898.

Octavius V. Catto

Perhaps appropriately, the worlds of baseball and civil rights in the United States have long been intertwined, and perhaps no historical figure so embodies that marriage as does Octavius V. Catto (1839—1871), an outspoken and learned advocate for African American rights and starting shortstop for the Camden, New Jersey, Pythian Baseball Club, which he also founded. For Catto, the desegregation of baseball was an important step along the path toward equal justice and treatment for all Americans. In 1867, however, the National Association of Base Ball Players banned from membership any club with an African American player on its roster. Catto was murdered on election day in 1871, the first year that African Americans were allowed to vote in the United States following the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution a year earlier in 1870. With Catto's death the highly regarded Pythians disbanded.

The Morris Brown College baseball teamCourtesy of Library of Congress.

Another step in the development of all-black baseball leagues may have been teams representing the country's historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Though there were exceptions, most college sports had yet to integrate, so African Americans who wished to play often had to attend all-black colleges or join amateur black leagues. The group seen here above is from Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia, founded by former slaves in 1881.

Moses Fleetwood Walker

The first African American to play professional baseball, Moses Fleetwood Walker (1857—1924) played for teams at Oberlin College and the University of Michigan before turning pro with the American Association in 1884. Walker went on to play for the Newark Little Giants and for teams in Cleveland and Syracuse, among others. Perhaps predictably, Walker encountered racism on the diamond—white players occasionally refused to take the field against him—and was forced out of professional baseball when the American Association and National League banned African Americans altogether. Baseball's Major League remained segregated until 1946.

The Chicago American GiantsCourtesy of Library of Congress.

Organized by Rube Foster in 1910, the Chicago American Giants were one of Negro League baseball's powerhouse units. Signatory of numerous leagues—among them two versions of the Negro National League, the Negro Southern League, and the Negro American League—the Giants piled on the wins, six pennants, championships in 1920, 1921, 1922, and a pair of Colored World Series crowns in 1926 and 1927. The club was broken up in 1952, having lost much of its talent to Major League baseball.

The Kansas City MonarchsCourtesy of Library of Congress.

Among professional baseball's most successful, long-running, and storied franchises, the Kansas City Monarchs ball club was organized in 1920 under the direction of the legendary J.L. Wilkinson. In 1937 the team joined the Negro American League and went on to take that year's championship. Among a veritable litany of baseball greats and future hall-of-famers who played for the Monarchs are Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, and Hank Thompson. Indeed, the Monarchs lost more talent to the majors than did any other African American franchise. In 1930 the team became the first to play a game at night, using a system of portable lights, a feat major league baseball would not duplicate until the Reds and Phillies took the field in May 1935. The Monarchs franchise ended in 1965.

Left to right: Toni Stone, Mamie Johnson, and Connie MorganCourtesy of Library of Congress.

Though a relatively uncommon phenomenon, women took part in Negro League baseball, among them Toni Stone, Mamie Johnson, and Connie Morgan. Stone played from 1949 until 1955 with such outfits as the New Orleans Creoles and the Indianapolis Clowns. Johnson (nicknamed "Peanut") was the first woman to pitch in the Negro Leagues, and built an impressive record of 38 wins and only 8 losses for her career. Morgan started in an all-women's league (where she had a .368 batting average) before joining the Clowns in 1954.

The Indianapolis ClownsCourtesy of Library of Congress.

Though a number of Negro League teams found success and large followings simply by playing ball, some teams were forced to turn to gimmicks to keep the fans in the seats. Among these novelty acts was the Indianapolis Clowns, the only team of its kind admitted into the Negro Leagues. The Clowns—formerly the Ethiopian Clowns—mixed comedic antics with skillful baseball play. Indeed, the club signed Hank Aaron in 1951 and was the first professional franchise to field a female player, the formidable Toni Stone. In 1952, the Clowns captured the Negro American League championship.

Jackie RobinsonCourtesy of Library of Congress.

Among baseball's greatest players, Jackie Robinson played baseball at the University of California, Los Angeles, before joining the high-profile and much-celebrated Kansas City Monarchs franchise in 1944. It was while playing for this longest-running of the great Negro League teams that Robinson fell under the gaze of Branch Rickey, president and manager of Major League baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers, who was determined to steal away the Negro Leagues' most talented and accomplished players. After a stint in the minors, Jackie Robinson was brought up, and on 15 April 1947, Major League baseball's color line was broken. Robinson became the first African American to play in the majors in more than half a century.