Baseball has been a long-standing tradition in America, with its roots reaching back to the 1800s, when the Major League Baseball (MLB) organization officially formed in 1869. It is the oldest sports organization in North America, pre-dating the NFL, NHL and NBA. Baseball was also the first sport to form a league exclusively for black players, when the Negro National League was established on Jan. 13, 1920.
Throughout the history of baseball, black men played the game as it rose in popularity after the American Civil War. The Negro National League was established to give black baseball players more accessibility to the nationally-acclaimed sport in a world where Jim Crow laws segregated sports as well as everyday life.
The Negro National League was founded by Rube Foster, who was one of the best players during the early 20th century. Foster gained notoriety as a pitcher for the Philadelphia Cuban X-Giants in 1902 and rose to fame after winning 44 games in a row for his team.
Foster partnered with the son-in-law of the Chicago White Sox owner, Charles Comiskey, and formed the Chicago American Giants in 1911. The team played in the White Sox’s old stadium, South Side Park, with Foster as their manager. The team grew in popularity, but a trend was starting to show; teams of black baseball players often had their receipts tightly controlled by white booking agents. These agents often dictated where the teams could play and often would shortchange team owners because if they were to object, these bookkeepers could refuse to find the teams venues to play.
Foster then realized that to maintain engagement for any baseball teams with black men on them, it made sense to establish an organization which catered to and understood the needs of black players. Foster wrote a series of columns in the Chicago Defender during 1919, in which he exclaimed that it was necessary to create a black professional baseball league “that would create a profession that would equal the earning capacity of any other profession.” He later convinced his fellow team owners that a Negro National League would benefit players, team owners and cement a place for black baseball players.
When the Negro National League was founded, it was the first black baseball circuit to last more than one season. It mainly functioned for midwestern cities, although it did expand in 1924 to add franchises in Birmingham and Memphis. However, the Negro National League was unable to bear its own weight when scheduling conflicts, umpiring conflicts and Foster’s declining mental health eventually saw the league dissolve in 1931 under the pressure of the Great Depression.
The Negro American League, which was founded in 1937, succeeded the Negro National League. It eventually disbanded during its 1962 season but served many of the same teams that the Negro National League had during its time. When Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs broke through the color barrier and into the Major League in 1947, the decline of exclusively black baseball teams followed close behind. While the Negro National League fell out of vogue, it helped to bring black baseball stars into the public eye and level the playing field, allowing for many leaps and bounds in the sport of baseball.