As Negro League teams get 'major' status, how baseball is reckoning with past inequities
On the second floor of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, an exhibit on the Black baseball experience spans two rooms.
A timeline begins with images of the game being played on Southern plantations in the early 1860s, then shows how Black ballplayers were excluded from playing with their white contemporaries from the earliest days of the game's professional era.
With photographs and artifacts, old uniform jerseys and game-used balls, the exhibit traces the rise and fall of the Negro Leagues. The exhibit, now at least 20 years old, highlights some of the great players from that period between the 1880s and 1940s who were barred from the "major" leagues simply because of the color of their skin.
But it highlights something else, too: Major League Baseball and its hallowed institutions are at a crossroads when it comes to reckoning with the many inequalities that kept Black players from the full recognition they’ve deserved for so long.
Even as progress came for modern Black players in recent years, the legacies of teams and players from the Negro Leagues have continued to be overshadowed.
That's beginning to change. In December, Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that MLB was bestowing “major league” status on seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920 and 1948.
The decision meant that roughly 2,400 Black and Hispanic players who had been excluded during the segregated era of baseball are now considered Major Leaguers, with their statistics and records becoming part of MLB’s official history for the first time.
“All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s best players, innovations and triumphs against a backdrop of injustice,” Manfred said in a statement. “We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”
The seven leagues being elevated are the Negro National League (1920-31), the Eastern Colored League (1923-28), the American Negro League (1929), the East-West League (1932), the Negro Southern League (1932), the Negro National League (1933-48) and the Negro American League (1937-48).
The decision will require not just a wrangling of statistics and records, but more importantly, it will force the institutions of baseball to more thoroughly reckon with their past shames and shine a new light on stars who were forced into the shadows.
“The perceived deficiencies of the Negro Leagues’ structure and scheduling were born of MLB's exclusionary practices, and denying them Major League status has been a double penalty,” said John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball. “Granting MLB status to the Negro Leagues a century after their founding is profoundly gratifying.”
Baseball historians like Thorn have long acknowledged the high level of play in baseball’s Negro Leagues, both by its stars, who were as talented as their white contemporaries and for the overall quality of the leagues — which had to overcome all sorts of challenges simply to function within a segregated society.
Opening day, April 1, will mark the beginning of the 75th season since Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It has been 40 years since the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted its first Negro Leagues player, and 15 years since it last honored participants of baseball’s segregated era.
The decision to recognize the achievements of seven Negro League teams positions baseball's gatekeepers to continue their reassessment of Black baseball's legacy.
Baseball’s segregated history
Professional baseball began to flourish in the years after the end of the Civil War, and like the rest of American society, the game was largely a “whites-only” affair. Black players and dark-skinned Hispanics were barred from appearing on the same fields as white players.
Only a handful of non-white players participated in major league baseball between the founding of the National League in 1876 and the arrival of Jackie Robinson in 1947.
There was no documented policy to keep the players separated by race, but a tacit agreement by the game’s power brokers shot down any earnest discussion of integration.
Nevertheless, Black ballplayers were drawn to the game and found a way to play before paying audiences while they were barred from the Major Leagues.
Independent teams composed of professional Black ballplayers began to form in the 1880s.
The most prominent of them was the Cuban Giants — a barnstorming team based in the New York City area that had no actual players from Cuba. The name was simply intended to make them more palatable to white baseball patrons.
For decades, teams like the Cuban Giants roamed the country, playing games against each other or against white amateur teams. They were not only barred from joining white organized baseball, but segregation made it difficult for these teams to find their own home ballparks, to travel, and to find accommodations at hotels and restaurants while on the road.
The owners of these Black baseball teams soon gained enough of a foothold to begin forming their own leagues.
Most prominent among them was the Negro National League, which launched in 1920 with teams in eight cities including Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis. The Negro American League launched in 1937 with teams in Kansas City, Cincinnati, and elsewhere.
Other leagues came and went. Despite the challenges of segregation, Black baseball thrived in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh with large populations of Black fans.
After Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Major League teams began to siphon off Black baseball’s biggest stars. Some Negro Leagues continued playing into the 1950s, but the most prominent ones disbanded after the 1948 season, having lost their best players.
The pace of integration was slow. By 1952, only six of Major League Baseball’s 16 teams had added a Black player. There were only 20 Black players in the major leagues that year.
When Robinson retired after the 1956 season, three teams — the Phillies, Tigers, and Red Sox — had still not added any Black players to their rosters.
An early call for equality, and the Hall's reaction
In many ways, baseball reflected American society when it came to segregation.
Progress never came without resistance from its institutions and power brokers, and it came more slowly than many of its participants would have liked. As the Civil Rights movement gained steam in the 1960s, an unlikely spokesperson emerged.
Ted Williams was considered one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, and he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966, in his first year of eligibility.
During his brief induction speech that summer, Williams thanked several people who helped him get his career started and explained how grateful he had been for the opportunity to prove himself on the field.
Williams was politically conservative, an avid outdoorsman, a Marine Corps fighter pilot who suspended his baseball career to serve his country during both World War II and the Korean War.
He spent his entire career playing for the Boston Red Sox, one of the league's least progressive teams, one whose roster did not include a Black ballplayer until July 1959, more than 12 years after Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier.
So it surprised some observers on that day when Williams used his moment in the limelight to speak out against baseball’s long history of segregation and to urge the Hall of Fame to recognize the great Black ballplayers who had been denied an opportunity to compete because of the color of their skin.
“I hope that someday, the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson can be added as a symbol of the great Negro League players that are not here only because they were not given a chance,” Williams told the crowd in Cooperstown that day.
Williams had played against some of those Black ballplayers during barnstorming tours, and had been one of the first white players to call for integration in the major leagues.
His call for action that day prompted a response, albeit a slow one, and one which Williams himself would later criticize as “half-assed.”
In 1969, baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn appointed a special committee to sift through the records and nominate four players for a “Negro wing” of the Hall of Fame.
By the time Paige was named as the first inductee in 1971, the separate-but-equal approach had been discarded and the Hall announced that each Negro Leagues inductee would get a plaque alongside the game’s great white players.
Nine former Negro Leagues stars were inducted into the Hall of Fame between 1971 and 1977, at which point the committee on the Negro Leagues disbanded.
A group tasked with identifying veteran players who had been overlooked added two more Negro Leagues standouts during the 1980s, and then renewed interest spurred by the Ken Burns documentary series “Baseball” prompted another wave of inductees. Eight more men were inducted between 1995 and 2001.
Another concerted effort in 2006 added 17 more names to the shrine of the immortals, including the first woman inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
No new names have been added in the 15 years since.
The call to Cooperstown
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown has long been a mecca for baseball fans.
The Hall itself is impressive, with marble columns and cathedral ceilings. On the walls are large brass plaques that bear the likeness of 333 players and other baseball figures who have been selected for induction since the first class was chosen in 1936.
New members are elected each January, voted on by a panel of baseball writers. Those choices are the source of endless debate among baseball fans, but it has always been an independent process, one over which the Hall of Fame itself has little control.
That distinction is often lost on fans, who lament that a legendary figure like Buck O'Neil was never inducted into the Hall of Fame. O'Neil excelled as both a player and manager in the Negro Leagues, then joined the Chicago Cubs in 1962, becoming the first Black coach in the major leagues.
O'Neil, who also featured prominently in the Ken Burns documentary series “Baseball,” was 94 when he appeared on a special Hall of Fame ballot for Negro league figures in 2006. He did not receive enough votes to gain admission.
Seventeen Negro League figures were selected, but O’Neil did not receive enough votes to join them. He died later that year.
Tom Shieber, the museum’s senior curator, is quick to note that while O'Neil does not appear on a plaque hanging in the Hall of Fame, his contributions long been recognized within the museum.
“As curator and as a storyteller, what I can control is honoring individuals and telling stories about the game through exhibits,” Shieber said. “Buck O’Neil is in the museum, and you really can’t tell the story of baseball without talking about Buck.”
In fact, a life-size statue of O’Neil is one of the first things visitors see when they enter the museum.
“Our society is very focused on awards and honors. It’s an easy straightforward checkmark, in a sense,” Shieber said.
“But if we honor a great player with a plaque and don’t tell their story in the museum, then we’re not doing justice to the full picture of that person’s historical significance.”
The museum itself spans three floors and contains thousands of artifacts documenting the history of the game. Among them is an exhibit on the Black baseball experience called “Ideals and Injustices,” which spans two rooms and covers events from 1860 to the present day.
“We pair the baseball part of the story with a timeline that focuses on the African-American experience in American culture in general rather than being solely baseball-focused,” Shieber said. “You can’t really understand the Black baseball experience without understanding the Black experience.”
Shieber said the museum is seeking outside curatorial assistance as they begin to reconsider how to update that exhibit, which debuted more than 20 years ago.
“It’s time to re-examine it and start afresh, and that’s a great challenge,” Shieber said. “With new research, new understanding, new attitudes and new technologies, there are new possibilities for what we can do.”
The museum has a large collection of artifacts from segregated baseball, including bats and balls, caps and jerseys, and other items, many of which have not been displayed for the public.
“We continue to see objects in a new light and in doing so, realize it can tell a great story that we hadn’t thought about,” Shieber said.
Telling the story
The failure of the Hall of Fame to recognize more players from the Negro Leagues is one that has long bothered Larry Lester, a historian and author whose work was singled out by MLB in its announcement.
“Statistically speaking, from 1920 to 1948, 2.5 percent of all white major leaguers are in the Hall of Fame,” Lester said. “For the same period, less than 1 percent of Black players are in the HOF. That tells me there are more names that need to be recognized."
Only four players who played in the newly elevated Negro Leagues are still alive, according to Lester: Bill Greason, Clyde Golden, Ron Teasley and Willie Mays.
Mays was just 17 when he spent his rookie year in 1948 with the Birmingham Black Barons. He joined the New York Giants organization in 1950 and played in the Major Leagues until 1973.
“It’s a disappointment that so many of these great ballplayers and their families didn’t get to celebrate this notoriety, to enjoy this moment in history,” Lester said.
But he insisted that it’s still important to honor some of the great Negro Leagues players whose names are still not more widely known.
“It’s time for their place on the pantheon, time for their place in history,” Lester said. “They must be included in your narrative, your history of baseball.”
Part of that story, Lester says, is an explanation of why they were relegated to second-class status for so long.
It’s important to understand not just what happened on the ballfield but the awful legacy of segregation, he says, something which may seem distant and strange to younger generations.
“Young people don’t understand the idea of having separate drinking fountains. Neither do I, and I’m 71,” Lester said. “The country has awoken to the suffering that African Americans have endured over the years.”
Lester grew up in Kansas City and became a fan of the Athletics when the team moved there in 1955.
“I lived near the ballpark, which was located in an all-Black neighborhood,” Lester said. “When I’d attend games, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of Black ballplayers.”
Lester was too young to have watched the Kansas City Monarchs play, arguably the most successful team in Negro League history. The Monarchs won 10 league championships between 1920 and 1948 and featured many of segregated baseball’s top stars.
“The old men in my neighborhood would share stories about Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell,” Lester recounted. “Buck O'Neil’s wife was my grade-school teacher. I went to school with Paige’s daughters and played basketball with his son. I fell in love with this history.”
For many years after baseball was integrated, the Negro Leagues were generally dismissed as having been inferior.
While there were certainly some individual stars, critics said that the leagues were too loosely organized to be considered “major leagues.” Their schedules were inconsistent, teams came and went, and playing statistics had not been documented well enough to support any serious conversations about the quality of play.
All of which is malarkey, according to Lester.
“It was a way to avoid the truth about the stability and greatness of the Negro Leagues,” he said.
More importantly, it blamed the players for the circumstances under which they were forced to compete.
“Some folks will always view the Negro Leagues as second-class, but they played during a period when America was segregated,” Lester said. “They couldn’t have played in the white major leagues if they wanted. There were two major leagues, black and white, of equal talent. We can compare statistics across the board to qualify their greatness.”
Building the historical record
Researchers had to start from scratch to compile a statistical record of the Negro Leagues.
When the first Baseball Encyclopedia was published in 1969, it included no mention of the Negro Leagues. The playing statistics for Major League players had been carefully constructed by a team of researchers who assembled boxscores and game stories from newspapers across the country.
No such effort was undertaken for the Negro Leagues, even though that information was readily available.
“The box scores were in the Black papers, and there were a lot of stories,” Lester said. “We found scouting reports that listed biographical info, and papers printed the minutes of leagues’ annual meetings.”
In the early 2000s, a group of researchers, led by Gary Ashwill and Kevin Johnson, undertook the task of building a database of the Negro Leagues. It was first published online at the Seamheads.com website in 2011.
It contains detailed data on thousands of players who competed between 1886 and 1948, and is the authoritative source for Negro Leagues statistics.
The Seamheads team continues to make updates, and their work was cited by Major League Baseball as being one of the contributing factors in their long-overdue recognition of the Negro Leagues.
Bringing the Negro Leagues to life
Lester was one of the founders of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which opened in Kansas City in 1990.
One of the innovations he pushed for was to create a licensing program to sell hats and jerseys that represented those great Negro League teams.
Lester knew that having those tangible symbols would help bring the Negro Leagues back to life and help younger fans to connect with those teams and players.
“The uniforms put the Negro Leagues in the forefront,” Lester said. “ People like to wear their identity and do it in a colorful way.”
There was only one problem: All of the historical photos from the era were black and white.
You couldn’t tell whether the lettering on a jersey was blue or red or green. Lester undertook the process of reaching out to old ballplayers and scouring articles for descriptions of the clothing. Thanks to his efforts, you can get a replica cap or jersey for most of those Negro Leagues teams today.
In recent years, many MLB teams have taken an occasion to wear Negro Leagues throwback jerseys as a way to recognize those teams.
Lester said he would call on teams to take their embrace of the Negro Leagues and their history a step further.
"My first recommendation is to fly the championship flags of Negro League teams in your stadium," Lester said. "The Kansas City Royals could fly the Monarchs flags from the Negro Leagues World Series. The Cubs or the White Sox could fly the flags from the Chicago American Giants."
Those sort of tangible recognitions prompt people to get curious, a young boy asking his father what those flags represent.
There's also an opportunity to honor the great ballplayers from those cities, even though they may have played for a different team.
The Washington Nationals, for example, include five Negro Leagues players in their Ring of Honor. The names of Negro League stars like Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard who played for teams based in the D.C. area, appear prominently inside Nationals Park, alongside other local baseball legends.
"It's about trying to get people engaged with the history," Lester said. "When you put their pictures up at the ballpark and sell bobbleheads, it creates interest from all segments of the population."