Centuries before they were brought to America as human cargo on ships, free Africans played a variety of games that involved hitting a ball with a stick and running.(1) On antebellum southern plantations, slaves played a form of baseball with sticks or broomsticks and balls made of cotton or boiled chicken feathers tightly wrapped with cloth.(2) After the Emancipation Proclamation, freed slaves, African-American soldiers, and white soldiers played baseball together at Union Army camps as recreation between battles.(3) Although innumerable Africans and African-Americans had thus played baseball or its precursors for centuries, it is likely that none played it at a higher level of artistry than Harlem's New York Lincoln Giants did for three years beginning in 1911. During their twenty-year existence, the Lincoln Giants provided entertainment and excitement for their community, an unmistakable example that white superiority was foolish, and eventually a clearer path for Jackie Robinson and all African-Americans to integrate baseball and other important American institutions.
Though the story of the Lincoln Giants and of all African-Americans in baseball is one of eventual triumph, it is equally a tale of tragedy and treachery. The obvious tragedy is simply that people who were clearly as talented as their white counterparts in major league baseball were never recognized as such. The treachery is that, even within the framework of black baseball, white business interests often made every effort to take as much as possible from the game and the players and to make sure that black business interests, black players, and the black community received as little as possible.
The road from apparently harmonious, integrated baseball games at Civil War camps to strictly all-black teams such as the Lincoln Giants three or four decades later is perhaps the first sign that the path to triumph was not to be a smooth one. For just as the Emancipation Proclamation, Civil War, constitutional amendments, and Reconstruction did not magically obliterate slavery's legacy of white supremacy and discrimination, baseball was on its own path to Jim Crow by the turn of the century.
After the Civil War, African-Americans and whites played amateur games on the same teams or sometimes against each other. Beginning at some time between 1872 and 1878, John A. Jackson, who played under the name Bud Fowler, was the first African-American to play integrated baseball on any professional level. Fowler's experiences over twenty years of baseball provide a microcosm of black baseball in the nineteenth century. He met successively with grudging acceptance, then discrimination, then physical abuse, and ultimately exclusion. Though he was regarded as one of the best players at his level, Fowler was continually being dropped by his teams and never promoted to a higher level. Fowler was known to play second base with his shins protected by wooden guards to prevent constant spikings from white players who slid into him repeatedly and viciously. In 1887, despite an extraordinarily successful year, Fowler and all other African-Americans in the International League were advised that their contracts would not be renewed for the next season. He thus spent the rest of his career playing for black teams. Thus did the first African-American professional baseball player's career symbolize integration, discrimination, violence, and eventually Jim Crow.(4)
The first African-American to play in the major leagues met a similar fate. Moses Fleetwood Walker was born in 1857 in Mount Pleasant, Ohio. He spent his childhood in Steubenville, Ohio, one of the important stations on the so-called Underground Railroad. In 1881 Walker played baseball at Oberlin, an early hotbed of abolitionism and one of the first integrated colleges. After also attending Michigan University, Walker and his brother Welday began playing for Toledo, which thereafter joined the American Association, a league just below the National League, but a major league nonetheless. …