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date: 20 June 2021

Chicago, Negro League Baseball infree

Chicago, Negro League Baseball infree

  • Ryan Whirty

Shortly before the Civil War a new pastime began to sweep the gentlemen’s clubs and social societies, one that would eventually evolve into the “national pastime”—baseball. The game quickly gained momentum throughout America, with amateur, leisure clubs springing up across the eastern portion of the country, followed by professionalized teams in the 1870s.

Almost from the beginning the nascent pastime caught fire within African American communities just as it did in white society. However, for most of baseball’s first century of existence, a largely informal but nevertheless real “color line” divided the players, owners, journalists, and fans with the same type of racial segregation that plagued almost every other aspect of American society.

But despite this discrimination the passion for, and subsequent quality of, baseball was just as vibrant in African American culture as it was elsewhere, and Chicago developed into what was arguably the strongest and most vital locus of “blackball.”

It didn’t take long for the African American squads of Chicago to earn the respect of sports enthusiasts. In August 1870 the Chicago Tribune published a lengthy article discussing a contest between a local “colored” team, the Blue Stockings, and a similar club from Rockford, which Chicago ultimately won, 18–14 ( Tribune 1870 , p. 4). The paper said the top-notch brand of ball played by the “dusky athletes” dispelled any previously standing negative stereotypes of black athletes: “This fallacy, like many another with reference to the same subject, was thoroughly exploded at Ogden Park yesterday afternoon. Our colored brethren can play baseball [italics in original], and do it well into the bargain…. There were about four hundred spectators in attendance, being largely of the African persuasion, with about an equal apportionment of the sexes, while a small element of the pure and unadulterated (so-called) Caucasians were on hand for the sake of curiosity…. To sum up the game in general, it need only be said that, saving the single item of color, it was like other well played games.”

Such a description reflected how popular the nascent pastime had become in local African American society, as well as how seriously the players and enthusiasts took the matter at hand. Baseball had already become a way for black citizens to demonstrate cultural pride and togetherness, with numerous local African American clubs—such as the Lake Citys, Unions, Oaklands, Gordons, Aetnas, and Uniques—clashing against each other, as well as the best teams from far-flung locales such as St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, and New Orleans (Lomax 1998 , Heaphy 2006 ). In August 1888, for example, one of the South’s championship teams, the Pinchbacks of New Orleans, made the long haul to Chicago to face the Chicago Unions. The Windy City squad nabbed regional bragging rights with a 4–1 victory ( Tribune 1888 , p. 5).

Another key facet of nineteenth-century baseball in Chicago was that black and white teams frequently took the same field together, competing in interracial games and tournaments, such as an eight-team affair in August 1874 that was billed as the amateur championship of the state. The bracket featured two colored teams, the Socials and Uniques, who dominated play and faced each other in the title game, with the Socials nearly doubling their opponents score, 30–16 ( Daily Inter Ocean 1874 , p. 3). The Chicago black baseball scene even drew national attention as in May 1885, when a local colored unit, the Acmes, drew coverage in Sporting Life magazine, noting that the club was soliciting games with anyone interested ( Sporting Life 1885 , p. 7).

However, the 1880s proved a pivotal point in the evolution of the American pastime, both on a local and a national scale; while the decade featured the coalescing of the first fully professional African American squads, it also signaled the gradual development of what became known as organized baseball’s gentlemen’s agreement, which drew a rigid color line that excluded any black players or teams from competition.

The development forced colored squads to fend for themselves, becoming independent clubs that toured the country taking on all comers. Although early attempts at forming all-black leagues were launched, none of them succeeded (Lomax 1998 ). However, other, more small-scale ventures did assist black baseball squads; for example, the formation, in 1882, of the Chicago Amateur Baseball Association expanded the reaches of the sport and enhanced opportunities by booking and advertising games, making travel plans, and negotiating leases at ballparks (Heaphy 2006 ).

But while the segregation of the game cast a pall over the American pastime, it also gave the African Americans an opportunity to create their own thriving baseball scene, including in Chicago, which, boosted by the Great Migration, swiftly became the Midwestern hub of black baseball.

Baseball in black Chicago exemplifies the efforts of black businessmen to pursue sport as an entrepreneurial endeavor. Their attempt to establish baseball as a profitable business illustrates the efforts of black businessmen to counter both discrimination and the exclusion of African Americans from places of amusement…. “These entrepreneurs operated a segregated enterprise within the fabric of the national economy” (Lomax 1998 ).

The Chicago Unions and Columbia Giants became the city’s prominent professional black teams, with the former emerging in the late 1880s, only to be overtaken by the Columbias by the turn of the century. The Columbia Giants’ owner, John W. Patterson, lured some of the best talent from within the Windy City and beyond. At various times, the Giants’ roster included eventual African American legends such as Home Run Johnson, Charlie Grant, Chappie Johnson, Sol White, Harry Buckner, and William Binga (Lomax 1998 , Heaphy 2006 ).

However, the Chicago black baseball landscape underwent a seismic shift in 1901, when local businessman Frank Leland took the best talent from the Unions and Columbia Giants to form a new superpower, the Leland Giants, a team that dominated the regional and then national scene. Throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, the Giants took part in several “Negro world series” with teams from around the country. They also squared off with top white clubs in exhibitions. The roster was loaded with talent like National Baseball Hall of Famers Rube Foster, Pop Lloyd, Cyclone Joe Williams, and Pete Hill, as well as Bill Gatewood, Bruce Petway, Walter Ball, Frank Wickware, and Home Run Johnson (Lomax 1998 , Heaphy 2006 ). In October 1908, for example, the local community feted the Giants with a huge banquet upon their return from a successful tour ( Broad Ax 1908 , p. 3). According to the Broad Ax, a local African American newspaper, “nothing has contributed to the lessening of race prejudices in this community more than this gallant manly scientific gentlemanly aggregation of ball players, who have wrung from the throats of our enemies more praise that was ever showered upon us and have thereby served as a deterrent to the avalanche of hate that oftentimes comes our way” [spelling and grammar in original].

Moreover, Giants’ growth also reflected the burgeoning influence Chicago’s black community had on the sociopolitical scene. In June 1908, for example, the Tribune reported that while other delegates to the Republican national convention, held in Chicago, adjourned to the major league game between the White Sox and Washington Senators, C. P. Taft, brother of presidential candidate William Taft, opted to attend a Leland Giants game at Gunther Park in an effort to reconcile a chasm between African Americans and William Taft. The Giants provided a warm welcome to their guest, and the local paper applauded his assurance “that there was no occasion for any ill feeling” between the races ( Daily Tribune 1908 , p. 2).

Black baseball in Chicago also gained recognition on the national scene, including from white fans, one of whom wrote to Baseball Magazine urging the editor to “write an article on the negro in baseball.” The writer noted that “only last spring the Chicago Giants (colored) beat the Portland team of the Pacific Coast League four games out of five. Incidentally, Portland has all but clinched the pennant in the Coast League” (Seixas 1913 , p. 95).

In 1910 star pitcher Andrew “Rube” Foster, a Texas native, gained financial control of the Giants, a development that would place Foster on the path to becoming the most important figure in African American baseball history. In fact, the usurping of local black baseball dominance was perhaps embodied in a showdown series between his team and Leland’s club in summer 1911 that was clinched by the upstarts ( Daily Tribune 1911 , p. 12; Defender 1911 , p. 4).

While his team continued to dominate, Foster renamed the club the Chicago American Giants, birthing one of the towering black baseball clubs for the next half century. Foster and his team revolutionized the business by becoming a full-time, extremely profitable endeavor that capitalized on hectic barnstorming schedules, proactively sought out media coverage, and reached out to white fans as well.

On the field, the brand of baseball Foster instituted for the American Giants served to shatter preconceived notions of blacks lacking the type of selfless cohesion and intelligent play. Foster’s ballgame was heady, disciplined, and efficient.

“I try to pick my players according to their ability to play baseball,” Foster told The Chicago Defender in 1915. “Real team work is necessary to make a winner, so every player must be up to the standard or, in spite of personal friendship or public opinion, I insist on judging my men by their ability to play winning ball” (Mason 1915 , p. 9).

Foster’s—and Chicago black baseball’s—greatest moment came in 1920, when he shepherded other blackball owners to form the Negro National League (NNL), the first sustained, successful, nationwide circuit of professional black baseball teams. Foster’s American Giants were an anchor franchise in the NNL, winning five pennants during the league’s twelve seasons (Heaphy 2006 ). The circuit served as a model for African-American commercial and athletic endeavor, and its profitability and longevity marked a crucial landmark in African American history. Wrote Lomax: “Foster accomplished what previous black baseball entrepreneurs sought to achieve in creating an institution that served as a source of racial pride and solidarity through self-help” (Lomax 1998 ).

Foster is viewed by many researchers and officials to be the most important icon in segregation-era black baseball, a visionary trailblazer who toiled, and often suffered, in the shadows of injustice and bigotry. Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent called Foster “a combination, one can say without hyperbole, of such baseball luminaries as Connie Mack, Judge Landis and Christy Mathewson. As a player he was as a fine a pitcher as ever played in black baseball, and he surely ranks among the finest baseball executives” (Lester 2012 ).

Sadly, Foster’s life suffered a tragic ending. Beginning in the 1920s an undiagnosed syphilis infection ravaged Foster’s mind, at first impairing his faculties, and eventually incapacitating him and forcing him into a state sanitarium, where he died in 1930.

The loss stunned the baseball world, especially in Chicago, where he was regarded as a legend and icon. Thousands viewed his body as it lay in state and filled St. Mark’s Methodist Episcopal Church, and two cars full of flowers were part of a half-mile-long funeral procession that ended with his burial at Lincoln Cemetery ( Defender 1930 , p. 1).

But the American Giants kept Foster’s spirit alive and persevered for several more years, initially with Foster acolyte Gentleman Dave Malarcher, Negro baseball’s Renaissance man, a college graduate who wrote epic poetry and was sportsmanlike to a fault but who also managed the team to two Negro World Series championships (Whirty 2016 ).

However, the lack of firm leadership eventually crippled the NNL, which collapsed and disintegrated in 1931, forcing the American Giants to become a barnstorming team. However, a new Negro National League was birthed in 1933, soon followed by the creation of the Negro American League, and the American Giants enthusiastically rode the surge of energy and prosperity, joining the second Negro National League in 1933, then served as an anchor franchise in the Negro American League from 1937 through 1950 (Heaphy 2006 ).

With the revitalization of black baseball, Chicago thus retained its place as the fulcrum of the African American game, a status that was further cemented by the creation of the East-West All-Star game in 1933. Held in yearly at Comiskey Park in Chicago, the star-studded affair eventually drew fifty thousand fans—including many white enthusiasts—outshining similar contests in organized baseball and thriving financially despite the Depression. With rosters selected by the public, the East-West Game gradually attracted major league scouts looking for hidden black talent, a process that contributed greatly to the crumbling of segregation in the national pastime (Lester 2002 , p. 1).

Importantly, though, the American Giants and the East-West All-Star Game weren’t the only things happening in the local black baseball scene. Dozens of other squads, from amateur to college to semipro to barnstorming, existed in the Windy City between 1910 and 1950. Some of the outfits included the Palmer House All-Stars, an aggregation composed of hotel employees; Joe Green’s Chicago Giants, which existed as a successful barnstorming team for sixty years; the Chicago Monarchs, owned by business kingpin and political player Armand Tyson Sr.; the Gilkerson Union Giants, a semipro squad that barnstormed across the Midwest, one year compiling a reported record of 122–26; and the Chicago Brown Bombers, an entry in the United States League, a circuit of black teams formed by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Heaphy 2006 ).

Another vital squad was the Great Lakes Naval Training team, an aggregation of African American servicemen during World War II marshalled by Ensign Elmer Pesek. The squad played most of its games at Constitution Field at the naval base, squaring off against other service teams, as well as Negro Leagues and all-star troupes. Although the strength of the Great Lakes club was its pitching rotation, its best known player was Larry Doby, the first African American to play in the American League and an eventual Hall of Famer (Heaphy 2006 ).

The Great Lakes squad’s most successful season arguably was 1944, when the Bluejackets, as the club was known, won the Midwest Servicemen’s Baseball League title with a 6–2 victory over the Glenview in front of ten thousand recruits at Constitution Field ( Tribune 23 July 1944 , p. A3). By the beginning of August the Bluejackets had a reported season record of 36–1, with pitcher Johnny Wright anchoring the squad during the season, including a no-hitter against the Naval Air School in July ( Tribune 9 July 1944 , p. A3).

Even though they didn’t become Hall of Famers, dozens of additional standout black athletic luminaries came from every corner of America and beyond, such as brothers Ted and Alec Radcliffe, Jimmie Crutchfield, Dan Bankhead, Webster McDonald, John Beckwith, Steel Arm Davis, Frank Duncan, John Donaldson, and Jelly Gardner (Heaphy 2006 ).

For nearly a century of segregation in baseball, black teams played at numerous ballparks and stadiums across the city. Not only did the higher-level, fully professional Negro League squads play at major league buildings like Comiskey Park, Wrigley Field, and Soldier Field, African American squads suited up at school and neighborhood diamonds such as Normal, Logan Square, Tortenson, McNichols, Brotherhood, Lake Front, Grand Crossing, Gunther, and, most importantly, Schorling Park, which hosted contests by the Giants, Leland Giants, and Columbia Giants (Heaphy 2006 ).

Beginning in the 1930s, African-American journalists—including writers at The Chicago Defender and other nationally distributed African American papers, as well as the prominent communist newspaper the Daily Worker—lobbied tirelessly for the crumbling of the color line that kept black players out of the major leagues and other levels of organized baseball.

In 1942 the Chicago Civil Liberties Union organized the Midwestern Conference on the Negro and the War, at which attendees hatched an ultimately unsuccessful effort to persuade the owners of the city’s white teams to sign Negro League players (Heaphy 2002 ).

The American Giants, meanwhile, continued as the city’s top-level Negro baseball team, even after changing ownership and management and despite the type of near-constant roster turnover that characterized Negro Leagues play. In the mid-1930s they operated as Cole’s American Giants under the direction of their new owner, local businessman Robert Cole. Later in the decade they were bought by Dr. J. B. Martin, a Tennessee dentist who had been involved in the national black baseball scene for many years. The Giants remained competitive, usually finishing near the top of first NNL, then the NAL (Heaphy 2006 ).

By the late 1940s, however, integration of organized baseball, led by Jackie Robinson, slowly sapped the Negro Leagues of their best players as major league teams scrambled to sign blackball’s top talent. With the gradual decline in the quality of the on-the-field product, the Negro League’s attendance and revenue dried up, forcing team after team to fold. That included the Chicago American Giants, which dropped out of the Negro American League (the last remaining top-level black circuit) in 1952 and shuttered operations that same year. The NAL itself would collapse by 1960, ending the century-long history of African American baseball.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s A resurgence of interest in the Negro Leagues and their history led to a flood of new research and books about blackball, as well as the induction of Negro Leagues legends into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Rube Foster was inducted into the Hall in 1981, while several other players who starred in Chicago—such as Joe Williams, Bill Foster (Rube’s half-brother), Cristobal Torriente, Oscar Charleston, Pop Lloyd, Mule Suttles, Pete Hill, and Martin Dihigo—were ushered into the hallowed hardball institution.

The Negro Leagues in Chicago have been recognized in other ways as well, including the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project, a nationwide effort that places headstones or markers at the previously anonymous or unmarked graves of segregation-era African American stars. Several of the project’s posthumous beneficiaries are interred in Chicago-area cemeteries, including Burr Oak and Restvale cemeteries in Alsip and Oak Woods in Chicago.


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