Black Ball

Total Baseball, 1989

Total Baseball, 1989

Jules Tygiel, already famous for having written Baseball’s Great Experiment (Oxford University Press, 1983), wrote this sweeping history of the African American experience in baseball in 1988, for the late lamented Total Baseball, in which it was published with minor updates in each of seven succeeding editions. In that same year Jules and I collaborated on “Jackie Robinson’s Signing: The Real Story,” which has been reprinted at Our Game. Other scholars have made notable contributions in this field, both narrower and deeper, but for one who would grasp the great story of black ball in broad strokes, this is, in my humble estimation, the best essay ever written. I have chosen to share the essay as it was published in the second edition of Total Baseball, in 1991. Certain historical facts herein have been amended or expanded by later research, but not the author’s basic treatment; his text is left intact except for his own corrections. I will offer, however, Jules’s last updated conclusion, referencing the 1997 celebration of integration’s 50th anniversary and Commissioner Selig’s retirement of Jackie Robinson’s uniform number 42 across all of Major League Baseball: “At times the commemorations threat­ened to be overwhelmed by nostalgia and commercialism. However the 1997 festivities reminded the nation once again of its past heritage—both the shameful and the heroic—and its ongoing obligations to seek greater equal­ity in the future.”

In 1987, Major League Baseball, amidst much fanfare and publicity, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the finest moment in the history of the national pastime–Jackie Robinson’s heroic shattering of the color barrier. But baseball might also have commemorated the centennial of a related, but far less auspicious event–the banishment of blacks from the International League in 1887 which ushered in six disgraceful decades of Jim Crow baseball. During this 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.” When slowly and grudgingly given their chance in the years after 1947, blacks conclusively proved their competitive abilities on the diamond, but discrimination persisted as baseball executives continued to deny them the opportunity to display their talents in managerial and front office positions.

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 Pythian’s 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 precluded them nonetheless through a “gentleman’s agreement” among the owners. In the smaller cities and towns of America, however, where underfunded teams and fragile minor league coalitions quickly appeared and faded, individual blacks found scattered opportunities to pursue baseball careers. During the next decade, at least two dozen black ballplayers sought to earn a living in this erratic professional baseball world.

Bud Fowler with Findlay, Ohio club, 1894

Bud Fowler with Findlay, OH, 1894.

Bud Fowler ranked among the best and most persistent of these trailblazers. Born John Jackson in upstate New York in 1858 and raised, ironically, in Cooperstown, Fowler first achieved recognition as a 20-year-old pitcher for a local team in Chelsea, Massachusetts. In April 1878, Fowler defeated the National League’s Boston club, which included future Hall of Famers George Wright and Jim O’ Rourke, 2-1, in an exhibition game, besting 40-game winner Tommy Bond. Later that season, Fowler hurled three games for the Lynn Live Oaks of the International Association, the nation’s first minor league, and another for Worcester in the New England League. For the next six years, he toiled for a variety of independent and semiprofessional teams in the United States and Canada. Despite a reputation as “one of the best pitchers on the continent,” he failed to catch on with any major or minor league squads. In 1884, now appearing regularly as a second baseman, as well as a pitcher, Fowler joined Stillwater, Minnesota, in the Northwestern League. Over the next seven seasons, Fowler played for fourteen teams in nine leagues, seldom batting less than .300 for a season. In 1886, he led the Western League in triples. “He is one of the best general players in the country,” reported Sporting Life in 1885, “and if he had a white face he would be playing with the best of them…. Those who know, say there is no better second baseman in the country.”

In 1886, however, a better second baseman did appear in the form of Frank Grant, perhaps the greatest black player of the nineteenth century. The light-skinned Grant, described as a “Spaniard” in the Buffalo Express, batted .325 for Meridien in the Eastern League. When that squad folded he joined Buffalo in the prestigious International Association and improved his average to .340, third best in the league.

Walker with Toledo 1883

Walker with Toledo, 1883

Although not as talented as Fowler and Grant, barehand-catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker achieved the highest level of play of blacks of this era. The son of an Ohio physician, Fleet Walker had studied at Oberlin College, where in 1881 he and his younger brother Welday helped launch a varsity baseball team. For the next two years, the elder Walker played for the University of Michigan and in 1883 he appeared in 60 games for the pennant-winning Toledo squad in the Northwestern League. In 1884, Toledo entered the American Association, the National League’s primary rival, and Walker became the first black major leaguer. In an age when many catchers caught barehanded and lacked chest protectors, Walker suffered frequent injuries and played little after a foul tip broke his rib in mid-July. Nonetheless, he batted .263 and pitcher Tony Mullane later called him “the best catcher I ever worked with.” In July, Toledo briefly signed Walker’s brother, Welday, who appeared in six games batting .182. The following year, Toledo dropped from the league, ending the Walkers’ major league careers.

These early black players found limited acceptance among teammates, fans, and opponents. In Ontario, in 1881, Fowler’s teammates forced him off the club. Walker found that Mullane and other pitchers preferred not to pitch to him. Although he acknowledged Walker’s skills, Mullane confessed, “I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him I used anything I wanted without looking at his signals.” At Louisville in 1884, insults from Kentucky fans so rattled Walker that he made five errors in a game. In Richmond, after Walker had actually left the team due to injuries, the Toledo manager received a letter from “75 determined men” threatening “to mob Walker” and cause “much bloodshed” if the black catcher appeared. On August 10, 1883, Chicago White Stockings star and manager Cap Anson had threatened to cancel an exhibition game with Toledo if Walker played. The injured catcher had not been slated to start, but Toledo manager Charlie Morton defied Anson and inserted Walker into the lineup. The game proceeded without incident.

1887 Buffalo with Frank Grant

1887 Buffalo with Frank Grant

In 1887, Walker, Fowler, Grant, Higgins, Stovey, and three other blacks converged on the International League, a newly reorganized circuit in Canada and upstate New York, one notch below the major league level. At the same time, a new six-team entity, the League of Colored Baseball Clubs, won recognition under baseball’s National Agreement, a mutual pact to honor player contracts among team owners. Thus, an air of optimism pervaded the start of the season. But 1887 would prove a fateful year for the future of blacks in baseball.

On May 6, the Colored League made its debut in Pittsburgh with “a grand street parade and a brass band concert.” Twelve hundred spectators watched the hometown Keystones lose to the Gorhams of New York, 11-8. Within days, however, the new league began to flounder. The Boston franchise disbanded in Louisville on May 8, stranding its players in the Southern city. Three weeks later, league-founder Walter Brown formally announced the demise of the infant circuit.

Meanwhile, in the International League, black players found their numbers growing, but their status increasingly uncertain. Six of the 10 teams fielded blacks, prompting Sporting Life to wonder, “How far will this mania for engaging colored players go?” In Newark, fans marveled at the “colored battery” of Fleet Walker, dubbed the “coon catcher” by one Canadian newspaper, and “headstrong” pitcher George Stovey. Stovey, one of the greatest black pitchers of the nineteenth century, won 35 games, still an International League record. Frank Grant, in his second season as the Buffalo second baseman, led the league in both batting average and home runs. Bud Fowler, one of two blacks on the Binghamton squad, compiled a .350 average through early July and stole 23 bases.

These athletes compiled their impressive statistics under the most adverse conditions. “I could not help pitying some of the poor black fellows that played in the International League,” reported a white player. “Fowler used to play second base with the lower part of his legs encased in wooden guards. He knew that about every player that came down to second base on a steal had it in for him.” Both Fowler and Grant, “would muff balls intentionally, so that [they] would not have to touch runners, fearing that they might injure [them].” In addition, “About half the pitchers try their best to hit these colored players when [they are] at bat.” Grant, whose Buffalo teammates had refused to sit with him for a team portrait in 1886, reportedly saved himself from a “drubbing” at their hands in 1887, only by “the effective use of a club.” In Toronto, fans chanted, “Kill the Nigger,” at Grant, and a local newspaper headline declared, “THE COLORED PLAYERS DISTASTEFUL.” In late June, Bud Fowler’s Binghamton teammates refused to take the field unless the club removed him from the lineup. Soon after, on July 7, the Binghamton club submitted to these demands, releasing Fowler and a black teammate, a pitcher named Renfroe.

Doug Crothers, Syracuse, 1887

Doug Crothers, Syracuse, 1887

The most dramatic confrontations between black and white players occurred on the Syracuse squad, where a clique of refugees from the Southern League exacerbated racial tensions. In spring training, the club included a catcher named Dick Male, who, rumors had it, was a light-skinned black named Richard Johnson. Male charged “that the man calling him a Negro is himself a black liar,” but when released after a poor preseason performance, he returned to his old club, Zanesville in the Ohio State League, and resumed his true identity as Richard Johnson. In May, Syracuse signed 19-year-old black pitcher Robert Higgins, angering the Southern clique. On May 25, Higgins appeared in his first International League game in Toronto. “THE SYRACUSE PLOTTERS”, as a Sporting News headline called his teammates, undermined his debut. According to one account, they “seemed to want the Toronto team to knock Higgins out of the box, and time and again they fielded so badly that the home team were enabled to secure many hits after the side had been retired.” “A disgusting exhibition”, admonished The Toronto World. “They succeeded in running Male out of the club”, reported a Newark paper, “and they will do the same with Higgins.” One week later, two Syracuse players refused to pose for a team picture with Higgins. When manager “Ice Water” Joe Simmons suspended pitcher Doug Crothers for this incident, Crothers slugged the manager. Higgins miraculously recovered from his early travails and lack of support to post a 20-7 record.

On July 14, as the directors of the International League discussed the racial situation in Buffalo, the Newark Little Giants planned to send Stovey, their ace, to the mound in an exhibition game against the National League Chicago White Stockings. Once again manager Anson refused to field his squad if either Stovey or Walker appeared. Unlike 1883, Anson’s will prevailed. On the same day, team owners, stating that “Many of the best players in the league are anxious to leave on account of the colored element,” allowed current black players to remain, but voted by a six-to-four margin to reject all future contracts with blacks. The teams with black players all voted against the measure, but Binghamton, which had just released Fowler and Renfroe, swung the vote in favor of exclusion.

Events in 1887 continued to conspire against black players. On September 11, the St. Louis Browns of the American Association refused to play a scheduled contest against the all-black Cuban Giants. “We are only doing what is right,” they proclaimed. In November, the Buffalo and Syracuse teams unsuccessfully attempted to lift the International League ban on blacks. The Ohio State League, which had fielded three black players, also adopted a rule barring additional contracts with blacks, prompting Welday Walker, who had appeared in the league, to protest, “The law is a disgrace to the present age. . . There should be some broader cause–such as lack of ability, behavior and intelligence–for barring a player, rather than his color.”

Page Fence Giants

Page Fence Giants, 1895

After 1887, only a handful of blacks appeared on integrated squads. Grant and Higgins returned to their original teams in 1888. Walker jumped from Newark to Syracuse. The following year, only Walker remained for one final season, the last black in the International League until 1946. Richard Johnson, the erstwhile Dick Male, reappeared in the Ohio State League in 1888 and in 1889 joined Springfield in the Central Interstate League, where he hit 14 triples, stole 45 bases, and scored 100 runs in 100 games. In 1890, Harrisburg in the Eastern Interstate League fielded two blacks, while Jamestown in the New York Penn League featured another. Bud Fowler and several other black players appeared in the Nebraska State League in 1892. Three years later, Adrian in the Michigan State League signed five blacks, including Fowler and pitcher George Wilson who posted a 29-4 record. Meanwhile Sol White, who later chronicled these events in his 1906 book, The History of Colored Baseball, played for Fort Wayne in the Western State League. In 1896, pitcher-outfielder Bert Jones joined Atchison in the Kansas State League where he played for three seasons before being forced out in 1898. Almost 50 years would pass before another black would appear on an interracial club in organized baseball.

While integrated teams grew rare, several leagues allowed entry to all-black squads. In 1889, the Middle States League included the New York Gorhams and the Cuban Giants, the most famous black team of the age. The Giants posted a 55-17 record. In 1890, the alliance reorganized as the Eastern Interstate League and again included the Cuban Giants. Giants’ star George Williams paced the circuit with a .391 batting average, while teammate Arthur Thomas slugged 26 doubles and 10 triples, both league-leading totals. The Eastern Interstate League folded in midseason, and in 1891 the Giants made one final minor league appearance in the Connecticut State League. When this circuit also disbanded, the brief entry of the Cuban Giants in organized baseball came to an end. In 1898, a team calling itself the Acme Colored Giants affiliated with Pennsylvania’s Iron and Oil League, but won only eight of 49 games before dropping out, marking an ignoble conclusion to these early experiments in interracial play.

Cuban Giants of 1887-1888

Overall, at least 70 blacks appeared in organized baseball in the late 19th century. About half played for all-black teams, the remainder for integrated clubs. Few lasted more than one season with the same team. By the 1890s, the pattern for black baseball that would prevail for the next half century had emerged. Blacks were relegated to “colored” teams playing most of their games on the barnstorming circuit, outside of any organized league structure. While exhibition contests allowed them to pit their skills against whites, they remained on the outskirts of baseball’s mainstream, unheralded and unknown to most Americans.

As early as the 1880s and 1890s several all-black traveling squads had gained national reputations. The Cuban Giants, formed among the waiters of the Argyle Hotel to entertain guests in 1885, set the pattern and provided the recurrent nickname for these teams. Passing as Cubans, so as not to offend their white clientele, the Giants toured the East in a private railroad car playing amateur and professional opponents. In the 1890s, rivals like the Lincoln Giants from Nebraska, the Page Fence Giants from Michigan, and the Cuban X Giants in New York emerged. From the beginning these teams combined entertainment with their baseball to attract crowds. The Page Fence Giants, founded by Bud Fowler in 1895, would ride through the streets on bicycles to attract attention. In 1899, Fowler organized the All-American Black Tourists, who would arrive in full dress suits with opera hats and silk umbrellas. Their showmanship notwithstanding, the black teams of the 1890s included some of the best players in the nation. The Page Fence Giants won 118 of 154 games in 1895, with two of their losses coming against the major league Cincinnati Reds.

During the early years of the 20th century many blacks still harbored hopes of regaining access to organized baseball. Sol White wrote in 1906 that baseball, “should be taken seriously by the colored player. An honest effort of his great ability will open the avenue in the near future wherein he may walk hand-in-hand with the opposite race in the greatest of all American games–baseball.” Rube Foster, the outstanding figure in black baseball from 1910-1926, stressed excellence because “we have to be ready when the time comes for integration.”

But even clandestine efforts to bring in blacks met a harsh fate. In 1901, Baltimore Orioles Manager John McGraw attempted to pass second baseman Charlie Grant of the Columbia Giants off as an Indian named Chief Tokohama, until Chicago White Sox President Charles Comiskey exposed the ruse. In 1911, the Cincinnati Reds raised black hopes by signing two light-skinned Cubans, Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida, prompting the New York Age to speculate, “Now that the first shock is over it would not be surprising to see a Cuban a few shades darker. . . breaking into the professional ranks . . . it would then be easier for colored players who are citizens of this country to get into fast company.” But the Reds rushed to certify that Marsans and Almeida were “genuine Caucasians”, and while light-skinned Cubans became a fixture in the majors, their darker brethren remained unwelcome. Over the years, tales circulated of United States blacks passing as Indians or Cubans, but no documented cases exist.

Part 2 tomorrow.

 

5 Comments

What kind of a name is City Items? Any idea what that means?

Named for the newspaper, the Fitzgerald’s City Item, formerly the Philadelphia City Item. All men on that team worked for the paper. See: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86077104/.

Thank you! I am loving this black ball series!

Much appreciated. Wish I could share your kind words with Jules.

Pingback: Black Baseball before Jackie Robinson - Historum - History Forums

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