Details About the Negro Leagues Most Fans Don’t Know

There were so many great teams and great players, great stories and great achievement by those who played in the Negro Leagues. We know a handful of their names, and relatively little about their careers…primarily because that was and is overshadowed by the legacy of Major League Baseball, which excluded black players until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

Here’s a simple look at some details about the Negro Leagues, which few people living today had the opportunity to experience and follow.

When was the Negro League officially started?

Officially, 1920.
But it’s important to note that African-Americans were playing organized baseball for many decades before that. After the Civil War in America, organized baseball took off—but not for black athletes, who were unofficially barred from playing professionally. Instead, they formed traveling teams that played from city to city. There were early attempts to start leagues for black player in the early 1900s, but they didn’t succeed.

Then in 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster, an African-American and a former player, saw an opportunity to organize black players and make money as an owner. He launched the Negro National League (NNL), which included the team he managed, the Chicago American Giants.

Was it ever officially called the “Negro League”?
No. That generic term is how the professional leagues comprised of black players are historically referred to today. Leagues came and went. A few years after Foster started the NNL, the Easter Colored League (ECL) was created in 1923. The National American League (NAL) was established in 1937. And there were yet others.

When was the first Negro League game played?
The first NNL game was played May 2, 1920, in Indianapolis between the Indianapolis ABCs and the Chicago American Giants. It was played at Washington Park. The ABCs beat the Giants 4-2.

What were the some of the first professional Negro League teams?
The original 1920 Negro National League was made up of eight teams:
• Chicago American Giants
• Chicago Giants
• Cuban Stars
• Dayton Marcos
• Detroit Stars
• Indianapolis ABCs
• Kansas City Monarchs
• St. Louis Giants

In 1923, the Eastern Colored League (ECL) was formed, starting with six teams initially:

• Atlantic City Bacharach Giants
• Baltimore Black Sox
• Brooklyn Royal Giants
• Cuban Stars (East)
• Hilldale Athletic Club
• New York Lincoln Giants
In 1937, the Negro American League (NAL) was established and was home to at least 18 teams for more than two decades. Here are the teams from the inaugural seasons:
• Birmingham Black Barons
• Chicago American Giants
• Cincinnati Tigers
• Detroit Stars
• Indianapolis Athletics
• Kansas City Monarchs
• Memphis Red Sox
• St. Louis Stars

Other famous teams to become part of the Negro Leagues were the Homestead Grays (in Philadelphia), the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Newark Eagles.

Was there was a World Series between the leagues?
Yes. There were four World Series from 1924 through 1927 between the NNL and the ECL champions. Each league won two Series. The Chicago American Giants from the NNL won twice; the Kansas City Monarchs and the Hilldale Club of the ECL each won a title.

In 1942, the Negro World Series picked up again between champions of the revived Negro National and Negro American Leagues. The Grays won the first and last of the revived Series, which ended in 1948.

The Homestead Grays are considered one of the greatest teams ever, in any league. A dozen Homestead Gray players have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.

Who were the best players never to have had a chance to play in the Majors?
Here are the names that regularly pop up when this question is asked. In many cases, their careers were over long before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947.

Walter “Buck” Leonard. Called the “black Lou Gehrig” by some, Leonard gained fame and acclaim when he appeared in Ken Burn’s epic Baseball documentary.
John Henry “Pop” Lloyd. A great hitter who was compared to Honus Wagner and considered to be one of the best baseball players ever.

Norman “Turkey” Stearnes.

He had six home run titles and hit better than .300 several times.
“Smokey” Joe Williams. He was one of the greatest pitchers in the Negro Leagues, once striking out 27 batters in a 12-inning game, and throwing “dozens” of no-hitters.
James “Cool Papa” Bell. A “five-tool” player before that term was coined, he was particularly known for his speed.
Oscar Charleston. Batted over .350 over a long career. Dizzy Dean once said, “Charleston could hit that ball a mile. He didn’t have a weakness.”
Josh Gibson. Considered one of the greatest hitters of all time in any league. Monte Irvin, an MLB and Negro League star, said, “I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron. They were tremendous players, but they were no Josh Gibson.”

When did the Negro Leagues end?
In the five years following Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Major League teams had signed 20 players from the Negro Leagues, including Don Newcombe, Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella and Willie Mays. In 1948, the Negro National League disbanded; the Negro American League slowed to a crawl a few years later.

Who were some of the last players from the Negro Leagues?
Hank Aaron was the last regular position player who came for the Negro Leagues. He played a few months for the Indianapolis Clowns in the early 1950s; he played his last game in the Majors at the end of the 1976 season.

Minnie Minoso was a dark-skinned, Cuban-born player who played for the New York Cubans in the Negro Leagues in the 1940s. He was also the ninth black player to reach the Majors, in 1949.

In 1980, at age 54, he was the last player from the Negro Leagues to take an at-bat for an MLB team, the White Sox, pinch-hitting in two games.

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