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Home Pete Toms LWIB: Civil Rights Game Highlights The Demise of the Negro Leagues

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Pete Toms Article Archive
Written by Pete Toms   
Tuesday, 23 June 2009 01:07
Last Week in Bizball by Pete Toms

This week in LWIB, MLB celebrates and advocates for Civil Rights. LWIB reviews an alternative perspective on the integration of the American pastime.

THE INTEGRATION OF MLB, DID THEY “DO THE RIGHT THING”?

This past week MLB presented “Civil Rights Game” weekend in Cincinnati.  This year’s edition of the Civil Rights Game was the third (the first in '07 commemorating the 60th anniversary of the integration of MLB) in the brief history of the event and the first to occur during the regular season. The weekend serves a number of purposes, honouring individuals (this year, Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali and Bill Cosby) who have strived for societal racial equality, promoting increased participation in baseball amongst African American youth and bringing attention to the importance of Civil Rights.    

The annual Civil Rights game and surrounding events also focus attention on the integration of MLB in 1947, widely regarded as a vitally important event in the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement. Baseball historian Norman L. Macht wrote in a recently published article, “Landis and Baseball Before Jackie Robinson” (see in PDF).

Baseball led the nation, integrating ten months before Harry Truman became the first president to send a civil-rights message to Congress, a year before integration of the armed forces, three years before the first black player was taken in the NBA draft, and way ahead of the nation’s political mood. Washington was still sharply segregated. Throughout Jackie Robinson’s first year with the Dodgers, there was not a single mention in any Washington newspaper of any statement by any congressman – from anywhere- that was critical of segregation policies still in effect in the capital. Baseball....deserves recognition for leading-dragging-the rest of America a little closer to the ultimate goal of equality and opportunity.

Mike Bauman at MLB.com, reported from the Civil Rights Game weekend.

The legacy of Jackie Robinson is what sets this game apart from not only other sports, but from plenty of other social institutions that were white-only in 1947 and well beyond.

AND

As Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig often says, Jackie Robinson breaking the race barrier was "baseball's proudest moment and its most important moment."

Mark Newman at MLB.com reported on the aforementioned Friday “Beacon Awards” gala honouring Mr.’s Aaron, Ali and Cosby. Mr. Newman quoted from commissioner Selig ‘s address to the attendees.

Baseball is a social institution with very important social responsibilities, and on behalf of baseball I am proud to honor those who fight for civil rights and improve our society. I'm proud of the role baseball has played in giving people of all creeds, races and colors the chance to enjoy the life that freedom brings.

Former President Bill Clinton delivered a speech to the same gathering and made this remark.

The great essayist Jacques Barzun once wrote that whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball. And if you have followed America's modern struggle for civil rights from Jackie to Hank and beyond, Barzun was a pretty smart fellow.

While LWIB does not question the importance of the Civil Rights Movement and the value of the sacrifices made by Jackie Robinson in contributing to the accomplishments of that movement, there is a less popular and more controversial interpretation of MLB’s motives for integrating. This same interpretation posits that integration destroyed the Negro Leagues to the detriment of African Americans and that the negative impacts resonate to this day.

Select Read More to see the rest of this original article

One chapter of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves” is devoted to chronicling the successes and ultimate demise of the Negro Leagues via the story of Negro National League founder Rube Foster. Author and New York Times columnist William Rhoden argues that the Negro Leagues, organized by, managed by, largely owned by, supported by and reported on by African Americans was a source of pride and unity for African Americans. Mr. Rhoden argues that the integration of MLB was a defeat for African Americans whereupon they resumed their traditional role in American society as suppliers of the “muscle” to MLB while being denied entry to ownership and management.

By the late 1940’s, Major League Baseball was hungry for new blood, fresh blood. Black blood. Negro League owners had failed to grasp the implications of Major League Baseball’s manpower shortage, its slumping attendance, and its desperate need for new talent, which the black leagues held in abundance.

In the lore and legend of baseball integration, Rickey, like Robinson, has become a legend of mythic proportions. There are all manner of stories about Rickey, schools of thought about who he was, and debate whether his motives were social or economic.

The reality is that Rickey was a baseball man; he was also a shark. The Brooklyn Dodgers’ board of directors quietly authorized Rickey to go after the most lucrative pool of untapped talent; the Negro Leagues...

AND

Black baseball owners could not agree on a strategy. The owners were torn between wanting integration and wanting to remain a viable business. These latter-day owners of Negro League baseball mistakenly felt that they would be involved – in a profitable way- with the “integration” process. Some felt that their teams might be purchased and incorporated into the Major League Baseball minor-league system.

That was not part of the plan, however. The treatment of the Negro Leagues was brutal and disrespectful.

The Negro Leagues were invaded for talent much as Africa was invaded for human labor.

In 1948, Effa Manley, then sole owner (she had previously been co-owner and business manager) of the second Negro National League’s Newark Eagles and the first woman inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, wrote.

Gullible Negro fans who think white owners take on colored players through any altruistic pangs of democracy had better quit kidding themselves. There’s a potential two million Negro fans to draw from. Any baseball businessman would be looney (sic) not to see that.

From the Rodney Fort and Joel Maxcy article “The Demise of African American Baseball Leagues. A Rival League Explanation.” (see in PDF)

Organized African American baseball (AAB), the longest lived rival to Major League Baseball (MLB) in history, thrived from the 1920s through the early 1940s. Although integration in 1947 focused attention on MLB and the American experience, the impact on AAB receives only passing, somewhat wistful notice. From the economic perspective, the unabashed talent raiding by MLB killed AAB a couple of years after integration began...... Competitive baseball was lost to countless thousands of fans throughout the South and Midwest, profitable businesses were lost to African American and White AAB team owners, and hundreds of African American players were denied a "big league" livelihood as the result of integration. The general perception is that integration was a positive thing but costly to many.

The research of Mr. Fort and Mr. Maxcy leads them to conclude that the popularity of the Negro Leagues subtracted from MLB’s bottom line.

Despite the paucity of data, we demonstrate two simple relationships that are indicative of the AAB economic threat to MLB. First, it appears that the presence of AAB competition did harm MLB attendance. Second, MLB expanded into previously held AAB territories immediately following the end of those leagues. Thus, although no proof of intent exists, it would have been economically advantageous for MLB to eliminate an attendance threat and wrestle viable team locations away from AAB.

Professors Fort and Maxcy argue that the integration of MLB ended the professional careers of hundreds of African American players while often decreasing the compensation paid former Negro League players who signed with MLB clubs.

In its heyday, AAB typically included 12 to 15 teams. Fielding 20 to 25 players, there were at least 240 players in AAB and probably more like 300......By 1949, there were 36 former AAB players in organized White baseball at the ML and MLB levels (Peterson, 1970, p. 202). Simple subtraction reveals that the demise of AAB ended the big league careers of well over 200 players.

AND

And MLB’s monopsony power limited the economic reward even for those AAB players who were signed. Monte Irvin was paid $6,500 his last year in Newark but made $5,000 with the Giants. Except for Jackie Robinson, all of the former AAB stars joining the Dodgers (Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, and John Wright) took a pay cut moving from AAB to MLB (Ribowsky, 1995, p. 283).

This same research paper supports Mr. Rhoden’s comment that, “The treatment of the Negro Leagues was brutal and disrespectful.” Mr. Fort and Mr. Maxcy provide quotes from “Shadow Ball”.

Most of the big league clubs didn’t pay the Negro league teams by buying up the players’ contracts, as they did when they hired away from a major or minor league team. Even Branch Rickey, who signed up to sixteen players for the Brooklyn organization, had an excuse for this theft of talent. Many of the Negro league owners were numbers runners, Rickey told reporters. That made the league a “racket” that wasn’t entitled to compensation. (p. 68-71)

Effa Manley, manager of the Newark Eagles, put a different spin on Rickey’s “racket” angle: “He took players from the Negro leagues and didn’t even pay for the. I’d call that a racket” (Ward et al., 1994, p, 71).

Mr. Rhoden acknowledges the gambling connections of some Negro Leagues owners and how Mr. Rickey exploited the situation.

Some owners eagerly sold players; others watched helplessly as players were signed and snatched away, their biggest stars snapped up and absorbed into white baseball with no compensation for the team. Worse, there was not respect for the leagues that had produced Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and other great players.Rickey brazenly snatched Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs, saying, “There is no Negro League as such as far as I’m concerned.” Rickey said that black baseball was under the control of “rackets,” referring to the several Eastern owners with gambling associations. Rickey insisted that Negro Leagues “are not leagues and have no right to expect organized baseball to respect them.”

Mr. Fort and Mr. Maxcy explain that Mr. Rickey and MLB had a more tangible and important justification in denying the existence of Negro League baseball than its connections to gambling.

AAB had no working relationship with MLB. The Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) had governed the relationship between all levels of White professional baseball since the time of the American and National League “agreement” of 1903. The PBA specified territorial restrictions between leagues, franchise location transfer in minor league baseball, player transfer rules between teams at the various levels of play, compensation requirements, and arbitration in the event of dispute. But AAB never was included in the PBA.

AND

Because AAB was not covered by the PBA, the dispute over compensation was between the AAB owners and players, not between AAB and MLB owners.

AND

Initially, AAB owners hoped they might begin a lucrative business selling players to MLB (Fort & Maxcy, 2000). And the history of MLB treatment of rival leagues seemed consistent with such hopes, MLB’s economic treatment of earlier rival leagues was replete with buyouts, expansion to make room for owners of previous rival league teams, and artificially low-priced franchises to facilitate their assimilation into MLB (Quirk & Fort, 1992). But such was not to be for AAB owners and their players.....Furthermore, no AAB owners were offered any chance to either buy an existing MLB team or enter the league with their previous AAB franchise intact. The lack of any chance at cheap entry into MLB clearly distinguishes the relationship between MLB and AAB from MLB’s treatment of all other rival leagues.

Mr. Fort and Mr. Maxcy also explain that the Negro Leagues exclusion from the PBA was not the sole reason that they had no response to the “raiding” of their players by MLB.

...unlike all previous rival league episodes, AAB had no ability to respond to MLB talent raiding with its own counterattack...full-scale talent wars simply could not occur.So AAB could not gain the leverage through the competitive talent process that other rival leagues had used to bring MLB to the bargaining table.

The second factor was MLB’s lock-hold over ML baseball at the time....the existing ML structure was pretty well locked up by affiliation with MLB during the period of integration and the subsequent demise of AAB. Thus, AAB owners and players had nowhere else to go. They were trapped between the MLB domination of ML baseball and an inability to force any sort of bargaining situation in the talent-raiding arena. In the end, the best that AAB could do was to cultivate cheap talent for MLB. The results were painful. Little was paid for Hall of Fame talent, and AAB met its end.

The concluding remarks from Mr. Fort and Mr. Maxcy.

Perhaps the clearest insight into the racism of that period is that so few African American stars entered MLB, and so many fans, owners, and other players were harmed. A cynical view would be that integration happened, when it did, because AAB was a threat to the monopoly league status of MLB. It is too bad that we do not have any MLB meeting records to help us sort the issue out. Instead, Ward et al. (1994) quote Buck Leonard: “It (integration) was the death knell for our baseball. But who cared? Who cared?” (p. 71) We wonder if the 54 other star-caliber players left behind would have said the same, let alone the rest of the AAB players and their fans who lost big league baseball altogether.

Some of Mr. Rhoden’s comments on the impacts of the end of the Negro Leagues.

The final blow for the Negro Leagues came in 1951 when the Southern-based network of minor-league baseball teams was desegregated. Now the major leagues had no use for the Negro Leagues, and they slowly died. Major League Baseball had no use for any competing leagues, and was not interested in allowing African Americans to sit collectively at the ownership table. By the 1960’s, black baseball was effectively dead; Major League Baseball had prevailed.

Historians and journalists would spend the next thirty years sifting through the ruins of Negro League baseball, finding survivors, reconstructing records, and establishing a segregated wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Foster was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1981. But the deed – and the damage-was done, and a pattern was set. A black institution was dead, while a white institution grew richer and stronger. This was the end result of integration.

AND

The life and death of black baseball is symbolized by the lives of Rube Foster and Jackie Robinson. Foster built black baseball and Robinson, inadvertently, helped tear it down. Like Foster, Robinson was a pioneer. Although a generation and different approaches separated them, the two men represented the same general ideals: integration and empowerment. But Robinson did not realize the complex effects of segregation on black and white communities, and failed to balance the goals of integration and empowerment. In the end, he achieved one without the other.

AND

Fifty-nine years from Jackie Robinson’s debut and seventy-six years after Rube Foster’s death, black athletes today represent a majority in professional football and basketball and a smaller but significant number in Major League Baseball. Yet, decades after the demise of Negro Leagues, African Americans are largely excluded from the managerial hierarchy of baseball in particular and professional sports in general.

By the beginning of the 2006 Major League Baseball season, four of thirty big league managers were African American. There were no African American owners. The most alarming statistic is that the percentage of black baseball players in the majors had dropped to 9 percent. They are largely excluded from ownership, which creates a domino effect. As sports became a multibillion-dollar global enterprise, African Americans were largely shut out-shut out of front-office positions, presidencies, vice presidencies, and a wide variety of positions that flow into sports. “America’s destructiveness,” in Robinson’s phrase, had worked its magic on what was once a thriving, black-owned industry, stealing its talent base and laying waste to its power. Foster would be appalled at how completely his dream had crumbled.

The subject of the diminishing percentage of African Americans playing baseball (children, college level and professionally) has been much debated in the media the past handful of years. Typically the causes cited are expense (equipment, travel teams), lack of infrastructure in “urban” communities, the relatively small number of baseball scholarships (in comparison to football and basketball) combined with the increasing number of professionals being recruited from colleges, the longer apprenticeship usually required in baseball (again, relative to football and basketball) before an athlete is able to command substantial compensation, MLB’s competitors (NBA and NFL) were slower to integrate and less popular in earlier eras and MLB has found it is more efficient to develop baseball players in Latin America than domestically.

MLB has responded with their “RBI” (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) and “Wanna Play?” initiatives. Professor David Ogden believes that the end of the Negro Leagues was the beginning of the en masse disassociation of African Americans from baseball. Mr. Ogden is the author of the paper, “The Demise of African American Participation in Baseball: A Cultural Backlash from the Negro Leagues”.

In 1942, 51,000 spectators, most of them African Americans, filled Comiskey Park in Chicago to see the East-West Game, the Negro Leagues’ version of the major league All Star Game (Rader, 1994). Today the percentage of spectators and the percentage of major league players who are African-American have dropped to single digits (Anderson, Trail, & Robinson, 2005; Flanagan, 1999; Lapchick, 2005; Ogden & Warneke, 2005). Such low numbers, some writers claim (i.e. Early, 2000; Flanagan, 1999), signify a fragile connection between African-Americans and baseball, a connectin that was rooted in the Negro Leagues.

The Negro Leagues and other all-black baseball organizations became part of the core of African American culture during the first half of the 20th century and embodied African Americans’ cultural ownership of a game whose major national organization banned black participation (Peterson, 1970; Rader, 1994; Ribowsky, 1995). With the demise of the Negro Leagues and the absorption of some of its star players by the major leagues, baseball’s drift from African American culture began.This paper will provide evidence tying this decades-long drift to the abandonment of the all-black game and will explore how the long-desired and awaited desegregation of major league baseball has led to a cultural selfsegregation by African Americans.

AND

Despite the death of the Negro Leagues and black professional baseball just after 1960, African Americans continued to make an impact at the highest level of competition, despite being denied entrance to that competition for the first 75 years. By 1970 23% of those on major league rosters were African Americans, players who as children witnessed the first of the Negro Leaguers to enter the major leagues. In 1975 those ranks had swelled to more than 30% (Gmelch, 2005). But as that generation of African American players who followed Hank Aaron, Monte Irvin, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays and other Negro League stars, began retiring, there were considerably fewer to fill their ranks. By 1985 the number had dropped to approximately 23% and by 2000 to 12% (Gmelch, 2005). In 2004 African Americans comprised 9% of major league players (Lapchick, 2005) and the percentage of African Americans playing NCAA Division I baseball in 2002 was lower -7% (Lapchick, 2003). Even lower was the percentage of African Americans on traveling youth teams-4% (Ogden & Warneke, 2005).

While the initial drop in major league participation coincided with the disappearance of the last vestiges of the Negro Leagues, today’s African American major league players are confounded by the lack of impact they’ve had on black interest in the game (Verducci, 2003). Today’s African American stars, most notably Barry Bonds, do not have the same cultural legitimacy that the Negro Leagues gave the first generation of African Americans entering the major leagues. The Negro Leagues afforded such legitimacy because African Americans played with and against each other in a social environment that forced them to form their own brand of baseball and institutions that supported that brand of baseball. History and social research have shown the cultural resonance of baseball when it is played among a common social group (see, for example, Riess, 1999). Artisans in the mid-19th century used the game as a fraternal community builder, as did fire companies and other professions (Riess, 1989, 1999). Different ethnicities and races have rallied around the game, and African Americans were no exception. African Americans played the game because their peers did, and because the game sustained a culture. Now African Americans don’t see their peers playing baseball in nearly the same numbers as they do in basketball or football.

If it is true that “whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball” then equally as important is whose version of the history of baseball we believe.

Editor's Note: Next week there will be no LWIB, but will return on July 6th.


Pete Toms is an author for The Biz of Baseball and a staff member of the Business of Sports Network. He can be contacted at \n This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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