Extra Bases: Reflections on Jackie Robinson, Race, and Baseball History

By Jules Tygiel | Go to book overview

FIVE

Black Ball
The Jim Crow Years

More than fifty years have passed since what many have called the finest moment in the history of the national pastime—Jackie Robinson's shattering of the color barrier. Robinson's heroic triumph brought to an end six disgraceful decades of Jim Crow baseball. During that era some of America's greatest ballplayers plied their trade on all-black teams, in Negro Leagues, on the playing fields of Latin America, and along the barnstorming frontier of the cities and towns of the United States, but never within the major and minor league realm of “organized baseball.”

Scattered evidence exists of blacks playing baseball in the antebellum period, but the first recorded black teams surfaced in Northern cities in the aftermath of the Civil War. In October 1867 the Uniques of Brooklyn hosted the Excelsiors of Philadelphia in a contest billed as the “championship of colored clubs.” Before a large crowd of black and white spectators, the Excelsiors marched around the field behind a fife and drum corps before defeating the Uniques, 37—24. Two months later a second Philadelphia squad, the Pythians, dispatched a representative to the inaugural meetings of the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first organized league. The nominating committee unanimously rejected the Pythians' application, barring “any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.” Using the impeccable logic of a racist society, the committee proclaimed, “If colored clubs were admitted there would be in all probability some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anyone.” The Philadelphia Pythians, however, continued their quest for interracial competition. In 1869 they became the first black team to face an all-white squad, defeating the crosstown City Items, 27—17.

In 1876 athletic entrepreneurs in the nation's metropolitan centers established the National League, which quickly came to represent the pinnacle of the sport. The new entity had no written policy regarding blacks but

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