Magazine article Ebony

50 Years of Blacks in Baseball

Magazine article Ebony

50 Years of Blacks in Baseball

Article excerpt

It was October 23, 1945, the day Jackie Robinson took the first step toward making the biggest breakthrough in sports history.

On that day, Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, officially announced that Robinson was being assigned to the Dodgers' minor league affiliate Montreal Royals for a $3,500 bonus and a salary of $600 a month. With that announcement, the 56-year-old "gentleman's agreement" among the White owners was finally broken, and the stage was set for Robinson to become--after a year in the minors--the first Black player in the Major Leagues in the modem era. (Prior to Robinson, Fleetwood Walker, in 1889, was the last Black player in White organized baseball.)

When Robinson's Major League breakthrough finally came on April 15, 1947, most of the world's best players--who just happened to be Black--still were limited to showcasing their skills in the Negro Leagues. But even though Black players were systematically excluded from the Major Leagues, baseball in the Negro leagues was baseball at its best. Teams like the Homestead Grays, Kansas City Monarchs, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Memphis Red Sox, Newark Eagles and the Birmingham Black Barons were comprised of some of the most talented players in baseball history, including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Buck O'Neil and William (Judy) Johnson.

From the beginning, Negro Leagues baseball distinguished itself from that in the Major Leagues with a more daring, exciting and aggressive style of game that utilized speed. But more than providing entertaining baseball, teams became symbols of Black pride and eventually were woven into the Black community's social fabric. Perhaps the best example of how great an impact the Negro Leagues games had on the Black community came from the Black Church. If teams had games scheduled on Sunday, Sunday services in some communities were conducted early enough so fans could get to the games before the first pitch.

Since the early days of the Negro Leagues, Blacks and baseball have enjoyed a special and unique romance a romance that burst into full bloom when Robinson signed with the Dodgers. As expected, the euphoria that Jackie's signing created raced through the Black community like a wind-blown fire. But that jubilation was dampened by the realization that his signing with the Dodgers organization represented the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues, which, since 1920, had been the main outlet for Black players to showcase their skills.

Following Rickey's lead, other major league teams dipped into the Negro Leagues' pool of future Hall of Famers--not only taking the Leagues' top talent but, at the same time, redirecting the interests of many Black fans who were the foundation of the Negro Leagues. The Cleveland Indians followed the Dodgers and signed first baseman/outfielder Larry Doby on July 6, 1947, making him the first Black player in the American League. But even though there was an abundance of topnotch players who could have been signed, the infusion of Black players didn't proceed as quickly as many had hoped. in fact, it took 12 years for the Major Leagues to fully integrate, and it wasn't until the Boston Red Sox signed Elijah (Pumpsie) Green in July 1959 that each major league team had at least one Black player on its roster.

By the mid-'50s, the Negro Leagues had succumbed to huge financial problems and declining fan interest. But the Major Leagues were thriving as never before. Not only did big-league baseball have a new look, but Black players had brought new dimensions to the game and redefined the limits of what could be accomplished in the sport.

What Black players brought to the Major Leagues was a new approach to the game, primarily because of their speed. "What Black players did was take Black baseball [Negro Leagues baseball] to the majors. Before Black players arrived, major league baseball was base to base; you got on first base and waited for someone to hit the ball again," says Buck O'Neil, who was a star with the Kansas City Monarchs and is currently the chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. …

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