Baseball color barrier

The color line in American baseball, until the 1950s, excluded players of Black African descent from Major League Baseball and its affiliated Minor Leagues. Racial segregation in professional baseball was sometimes called a gentlemen's agreement, meaning a tacit understanding, as there was no written policy at the highest level of baseball organization. Some older leagues did have rules against teams signing black players, with color lines drawn during the 1880s and 1890s.

On the other side of the color line, many black baseball clubs were established, especially during the 1920s to 1940s when there were several Negro Leagues. During this period some light-skinned Hispanic players, Native Americans, and native Hawaiians were able to play in the Major Leagues.

The color line was broken when Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization for the 1946 season. In 1947, both Robinson in the National League and Larry Doby with the American League's Cleveland Indians appeared in games for their teams. By the late 1950s, the percentage of blacks on Major League teams matched or exceeded that of the general population.


Formal beginning of segregation followed the baseball season of 1867. On October 16, the Pennsylvania State Convention of Baseball in Harrisburg denied admission to the "colored" Pythian Baseball Club.[1]

When prominent players such as Cap Anson refused to take the field with or against teams with African Americans on the roster, it became informally accepted that African Americans were not to participate in Major League Baseball.

Still after 1871, formal bans existed only in minor league baseball. In 1884, in response to the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association having Moses Fleetwood Walker, the first black man to play major league baseball, on their roster, Cap Anson of the Chicago White Stockings (one of the most beloved and respected players at the time) threatened to sit out an exhibition game with them if Walker played. Anson backed down when he learned that he would forfeit a day's salary if he did so. In 1887 Anson, in response to the possibility of the Newark Little Giants hiring the African American pitcher George Stovey, threatened not to play any club who had a black man on its roster.[2]

In part due to Anson's influence and of those of other white players, on July 14, 1887, the directors of the International League voted to prohibit the signing of additional black players – although blacks under contract, like Frank Grant of the Buffalo Bisons and Fleet Walker of the Syracuse franchise, could remain with their teams.[3] Grant and Walker stayed through the 1888 season.

In September 1887, eight members of the St. Louis Browns (predecessors of the current St. Louis Cardinals) staged a mutiny during a road trip, refusing to play a game against the New York Cuban Giants, a prominent 'Colored' team of the era. Newspapers at the time reported that, "[f]or the first time in the history of base ball the color line has been drawn, and that by the St. Louis Browns, who have established the precedent that white players must not play with colored men."[4]

Shortly thereafter, the American Association and the National League both unofficially banned African-American players, making the adoption of racism in baseball complete.[3]

By 1890, the International League was all white, as it would remain until 1946 when Jackie Robinson played for the Montreal Royals.[5]

Sub rosa efforts at integration

While professional baseball was regarded as a strictly whites-only affair, in fact the racial color bar was directed against blacks exclusively. Other races were allowed to play in professional white baseball. One example was Charles Albert Bender, a star pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1910. Bender was the son of a Chippewa Indian mother and a German father and had the inevitable nickname "Chief" from the white players.[6]

As a result of this exclusive treatment of blacks, deceptive tactics were used by managers to sign African Americans, including several attempts, with the player's acquiescence, to sign players who they knew full well were African American as Native Americans despite the ban. In 1901, John McGraw, manager of the Baltimore Orioles, tried to add Charlie Grant to the roster as his second baseman. He tried to get around the Gentleman's Agreement by trying to pass him as a Cherokee Indian named Charlie Tokohama. Grant went along with the charade. However in Chicago Grant's African American friends who came to see him try out gave him away and Grant never got an opportunity to play ball in the big leagues.[7]

On May 28, 1916, British Columbian Jimmy Claxton temporarily broke the professional baseball color barrier when he played two games for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. Claxton was introduced to the team owner by a part-Native-American friend as a fellow member of an Oklahoma tribe. The Zee-Nut candy company rushed out a baseball card for Claxton.[6] However, within a week, a friend of Claxton revealed that he had both Negro and Native American ancestors, and Claxton was promptly fired.[3] It would be nearly thirty more years before another black man, at least one known to be black, played organized white baseball.

There possibly were attempts to have people of African descent be signed as Hispanics. One possible attempt may have occurred in 1911 when the Cincinnati Reds signed two light-skinned players from Cuba, Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida. Both of them had played "Negro Baseball," barnstorming as members of the integrated All Cubans. When questions arose about them playing the white man's game, the Cincinnati managers assured the public that "...they were as pure white as Castile soap."[6]

The African American newspaper New York Age had this to say about the signings:

"Now that the first shock is over, it will 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."[6]

Nonetheless, regardless of the skin tone of the Cuban players, at the very least blacks of the United States were still banned from white baseball albeit if Marsans and Almeida were in fact black but light skinned then their successful breaking of the color barrier has gone unheralded.

The Negro leagues

The Negro National League was founded in 1920 by Rube Foster, independent of Organized Baseball's National Commission (1903–1920). The NNL survived through 1931, primarily in the midwest, accompanied by the major Eastern Colored League for several seasons to 1928. "National" and "American" Negro leagues were established in 1933 and 1937 which persisted until integration. The Negro Southern League operated consecutively from 1920, usually at a lower level. None of them, nor any integrated teams, were members of Organized Baseball, the system led by Commissioner Landis from 1921. Rather, until 1946 professional baseball in the United States was played in two racially segregated league systems, one on each side of the so-called color line. Much of that time there were two high-level "Negro major leagues" with a championship playoff or all-star game, as between the white major leagues.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis

During his 1921–1944 tenure as the first baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis has been alleged to have been particularly determined to maintain the segregation. It is possible that he was guided by his background as a federal judge, and specifically by the then-existing constitutional doctrine of "separate but equal" institutions (see Plessy v. Ferguson). He himself maintained for many years that black players could not be integrated into the major leagues without heavily compensating the owners of Negro league teams for what would likely result in the loss of their investments. In addition, integration at the major league level would likely have necessitated integrating the minor leagues, which were much more heavily distributed through the rural U.S. South and Midwest.

Although Landis had served an important role in helping to restore the integrity of the game after the 1919 World Series scandal, his unyielding stance on the subject of baseball's color line was an impediment. His death in late 1944 was opportune, as it resulted in the appointment of a new Commissioner, Happy Chandler, who was much more open to integration than Landis was.

From the purely operational viewpoint, Landis' predictions on the matter would prove to be correct. The eventual integration of baseball spelled the demise of the Negro leagues, and integration of the southern minor leagues was a difficult challenge.

Bill Veeck and Branch Rickey

The only serious attempt to break the color line during Landis' tenure came in 1942, when Bill Veeck tried to buy the then-moribund Philadelphia Phillies and stock them with Negro league stars. However, when Landis got wind of his plans,[8] he and National League president Ford Frick scuttled it in favor of another bid by William B. Cox.

In his autobiography, Veeck, as in Wreck, in which he discussed his abortive attempt to buy the Phillies, Veeck also stated that he wanted to hire black players for the simple reason that in his opinion the best black athletes "can run faster and jump higher" than the best white athletes.[9] Veeck realized that there was no actual rule against integration; it was just an unwritten policy, a "Gentlemen's Agreement." Veeck stated that Landis and Frick prevented him from buying and thus integrating the Phillies, on various grounds.

The authors of a controversial article in the 1998 issue of SABR's The National Pastime argued that Veeck invented the story of buying the Phillies, claiming Philadelphia's black press made no mention of a prospective sale to Veeck. Subsequently, the article was strongly challenged by the late historian Jules Tygiel, who refuted it point-by-point in an article in the 2006 issue of SABR's The Baseball Research Journal,[10] and in an appendix, entitled “Did Bill Veeck Lie About His Plan to Purchase the ’43 Phillies?,” published in Paul Dickson’s biography, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick.[11] Joseph Thomas Moore wrote in his biography of Doby, "Bill Veeck planned to buy the Philadelphia Phillies with the as yet unannounced intention of breaking that color line."[12]However, Veeck's story is arguably false based on press accounts of the time; notably, Philadelphia's black press never mentioned anything about a Veeck bid.[13] Ironically, the Phillies ended up being the last National League team, and third-last team in the majors, to integrate, with John Kennedy debuting for the Phillies in 1957, 15 years after Veeck's attempted purchase.

Around 1945, Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, held tryouts of black players, under the cover story of forming a new team called the "Brooklyn Brown Dodgers." The Dodgers were, in fact, looking for the right man to break the color line. Rickey had an advantage in that he was already an employee of the Dodgers. Also, Landis had died by this time and new commissioner Happy Chandler was more supportive of integrating the major leagues.

Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby

The color line was breached when Rickey, with Chandler's support, signed the African American player Jackie Robinson in November 1945, intending him to play for the Dodgers. Chandler later wrote in his biography that although he risked losing his job as commissioner, he could not in good conscience tell blacks they could not play with whites when they had fought alongside them in World War II.

After a year in the minor leagues with the Dodgers' top minor-league affiliate, the Montreal Royals of the International League, Robinson was called up to the Dodgers in 1947. He endured epithets and death threats and got off to a slow start. However, his athleticism and skill earned him the first ever Rookie of the Year award, which is now named in his honor.

Less well-known was Larry Doby, who signed with Bill Veeck's Cleveland Indians that same year to become the American League's first African American player. Doby, a more low-key figure than Robinson, suffered many of the same indignities that Robinson did, albeit with less press coverage. As baseball historian Daniel Okrent wrote, "Robinson had a two year drum roll, Doby just showed up."[14] Both men were ultimately elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the merits of their play. Due to their success, teams gradually integrated African Americans on their rosters.

Prior to the integration of the major leagues, the Brooklyn Dodgers led the integration of the minor leagues. Jackie Robinson and Johnny Wright were assigned to Montreal, but also that season Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella became members of the Nashua Dodgers in the class-B New England League. Nashua was the first minor-league team based in the United States to integrate its roster after 1898. Subsequently that season, the Pawtucket Slaters, the Boston Braves' New England League franchise, also integrated its roster, as did Brooklyn's class-C franchise in Trois-Rivières, Quebec. With one exception, the rest of the minor leagues would slowly integrate as well, including those based in the southern United States. The Carolina League, for example, integrated in 1951 when the Danville Leafs signed Percy Miller Jr. to their team.

The exception was the Class AA Southern Association. Founded in 1901 and based in the Deep South, it allowed only one black player, Nat Peeples of the 1954 Atlanta Crackers, a brief appearance in the league. Peeples went hitless in two games played and four at bats on April 9–10, 1954, was demoted one classification to the Jacksonville Braves of the Sally League, and the SA reverted to whites-only status. As a result, its major-league parent clubs were forced to field all-white teams during the 1950s, a period when African Americans and Latin American players of African descent were beginning to dominate Major League Baseball. By the end of the 1950s, the SA also was boycotted by civil rights leaders. The Association finally ceased operation after the 1961 season, still a bastion of segregation. Its member teams joined the International, Sally and Texas leagues, which were all racially integrated.

Reluctance of Boston Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate, holding out until 1959.[15] This was allegedly due to the steadfast resistance provided by team owner Tom Yawkey. In April 1945, the Red Sox refused to consider signing Jackie Robinson after giving him a brief tryout at Fenway Park.[15] Robinson would later call Yawkey "one of the most bigoted guys in baseball".[16]

Boston city councilor Isadore Muchnick further spurred the Robinson tryout by threatening to revoke the team's exemption from Sunday blue laws. The segregation policy was enforced by Yawkey's general managers: Eddie Collins (through 1947), and Joe Cronin (1948–58). A pennant winning team in 1946, the year before integration, the Red Sox would perpetually fail to make the playoffs for the next twenty seasons, with implications being that Boston shut itself out by ignoring the expanded talent pool of black players.

In 1959, the Red Sox became the last pre-expansion major-league team to integrate when new General Manager Bucky Harris promoted Pumpsie Green from Boston's AAA farm club. On July 21, Green debuted for the team as a pinch runner, and would be joined later that season by Earl Wilson, the second black player to play for the Red Sox.[17] In the early to mid 1960s, the team added other players of color to their roster including Joe Foy, Jose Santiago, George Scott, George Smith, and Reggie Smith. The 1967 Red Sox went on to win the "Impossible Dream" pennant but lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in the 1967 World Series.

Tom Yawkey died in 1976, and his widow Jean Yawkey eventually sold the team to Haywood Sullivan and Edward "Buddy" LeRoux. As chief executive, Haywood Sullivan found himself in another racial wrangle that ended in a courtroom. The Elks Club of Winter Haven, Florida, the Red Sox spring training home, did not permit black members or guests. Yet the Red Sox allowed the Elks into their clubhouse to distribute dinner invitations to the team's white players, coaches, and business management. When the African-American Tommy Harper, a popular former player and coach for Boston, then working as a minor league instructor, protested the policy and a story appeared in the Boston Globe, he was promptly fired. Harper sued the Red Sox for racial discrimination and his complaint was upheld on July 1, 1986.[18]


Blacks in American baseball[19][20]
Year Major leagues Population Ratio
1959 17% 11% 3:2
1975 27% 11% 5:2
1995 19% 12% 3:2

The under-representation of blacks in U.S. baseball ended during the early years of the Civil rights movement.

Professional baseball firsts

* A case has been made for Ernie Banks as the de facto first black manager in the major leagues. On May 8, 1973, Chicago Cubs manager Whitey Lockman was ejected from the game. Coach Ernie Banks filled in as manager for two innings of the 12-inning 3-2 win over the San Diego Padres. The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide prior to the 1974 season stated flatly that on May 8, "Ernie Banks became the major leagues' first black manager, but only for a day" (page 129). The other two regular coaches on the team were absent that day, opening this door for Banks for the one occasion, but Banks never became a manager on a permanent basis.

See also

Baseball portal
African American portal

Further reading

  • Gordon, Patrick. Octavius Catto & the Pythian Baseball Club: The beginnings of black baseball. Philadelphia Baseball Review. March 2008.
  • Gordon, Patrick. On the field, the Pythian Club was rivaled by few: Catto led a stellar organization. Philadelphia Baseball Review. April 2008.
  • Heaphy, Leslie A. The Negro Leagues 1869-1960. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. 2003.
  • Lamb, Chris. Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
  • Lanctot, Neil. Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution. Philadelphia: U. of Penn. Press. 2004.
  • McNeil, William F. Black Baseball Out of Season: pay for play outside of the Negro Leagues. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. 2007.
  • Olsen, Jack. The Black Athlete: A Shameful Story; The Myth of Integration in American Sport. Time-Life Books. 1968.
  • Rhodes, William C. $40 Million Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. Crown Publishers. 2006.



External links

  • Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Playing for Keeps: Philadelphia's Pythian Base Ball Club.
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