CHARLOTTE, NC: The year was 1920, a century ago, when Negro League Baseball made its professional debut. Combined with Jackie Robinson breaking the racial barrier of Major League Baseball when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, the influence of black athletes has changed the face of sports forever.
On the first weekend in April, Cape May, NJ will host a weekend of activities in honor of the Negro League centennial.
Baseball was the king of American sports in 1920. Thanks in large part to segregation, both subtle and overt following the Civil War, opportunities for black ballplayers at any level, be they amateur or professional, were virtually impossible.
In 1867, the National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players rejected African American membership and, nine years later, in 1876, owners of the professional National League adopted a “gentleman’s agreement” to disallow black players.
File that date, 1876, because we will return to it later.
For the next 44 years, from 1876 until 1920, African American’s had their best opportunities with traveling teams. Known as “barnstorming”, black ball clubs would roll into town and challenge the local white team to a game.
All of that changed in 1920 when Rube Foster launched the Negro National League. Reinventing itself several times with new leagues and owners, Negro League baseball enjoyed periods of success in the early 1920s and again after the Great Depression.
Developing their own style of play and chock-full of colorful characters the Negro League quickly developed a large following of its own. Among its stars was “Cool Papa” Bell who was rumored to be one of the fastest men who ever played the game.
According to legend Bell was so quick that he was once hit by his own line drive to the right field as he rounded first base.
One other bit of absurd folklore surrounding Bell was that he moved so rapidly that he could flip a light switch and be in bed before the room got dark.
Black baseball was clearly a different style of play than white baseball, which Bell detailed when the Negro league players faced white teams in exhibitions:
“We played tricky baseball. We did things they didn’t expect. We’d bunt and run in the first inning. Then when they would come in for a bunt we’d hit away. We always crossed them up. We’d run the bases hard and make the fielders throw too quick and make wild throws. We’d fake a steal home and rattle the pitcher into a balk.”
Perhaps the best-known personality to come out of the Negro League and into the baseball folklore of mainstream America was a pitcher named Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige. Nobody really knew for sure, even Paige himself, but the best estimates say was born in 1907.
He began his professional baseball career in the Negro Leagues in 1926 and became its most famous showman. Paige finally broke through to the Majors as a 42-year-old rookie in 1949, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1971.
Paige built quite a following through barnstorming tours which once included a team called the “Satchel Paige All-Stars.” That particular tour ended with Paige facing New York Yankees great Joe DiMaggio, who called him “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”
Later in some other barnstorming match-ups, Paige also opposed St. Louis Cardinals ace Dizzy Dean in a series of exhibition games, winning four of them. Afterward, Dean noted,
“If Satch and I were pitching on the same team, we’d clinch the pennant by the fourth of July and go fishing until World Series time.”
According to some accounts which cannot be officially verified, at one time Paige accumulated streaks of 64 consecutive scoreless innings and 21 straight victories.
Paige insisted that he kept his own records and reported pitching in more than 2,500 games and winning 2,000 or so, as well as playing for 250 teams and throwing 250 shutouts.
When Jackie Robinson officially integrated Major League Baseball in 1946, it signaled the demise of the Negro Leagues which ceased to exist in 1960 as MLB drained off the best black players for itself in the newly integrated sport.
As for Satchel Paige, on September 25, 1965, at age 59, he became the oldest player in Major League baseball history. Paige marking the occasion by throwing three scoreless innings and allowing just one hit for the Kansas City Athletics. He finished his big league career with a 28-31 record.
But here’s where the story gets really interesting because it defines the impact black athletes have had on big-time professional sports ever since Walter O’Malley signed Jackie Robinson to a Brooklyn Dodgers contract in 1946.
Using 1876 as the year baseball turned professional (remember that date we told you not to forget), 2020 marks the 144th baseball season. During that span, only nine players in ALL of baseball history have hit more than 600 home runs in their career, with just three who have hit over 700.
Of those nine players, ONLY two were white. Babe Ruth who is third at 714 and at number 8, Jim Thome with 612. The other seven were either black or Latino.
Frank Robinson, also black, rounds out the top ten at 586.
When you consider, however, that blacks have only been in the big leagues since 1946, just 74 years versus 144, the fact that the top two most prodigious home run hitters were black is remarkable: Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755).
Given that the black influence in all of sport in such a brief period of time is a testament to the prowess and skills of black athletes which will be recognized and honored at Cape May, NJ on the weekend of April 3–5.
For more information on the events of the weekend, visit www.capemaymac.org or call MAC at 609-884-5404.
In the immortal words of Satchel Paige never forget, “You win a few, you lose a few. Some get rained out. But you got to dress for them all.”
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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