Formation of Negro Leagues remind us of players breaking down barriers — a lesson for this season’s lockout

The 1919 Chicago American Giants pose for a photo, with Rube Foster in the center, back row. Photo via Wikipedia Commons.

By Joseph Acosta
Medill Reports

The lockout in Major League Baseball where owners and players can’t meet in the middle had players calling for Commissioner Rob Manfred to step down so a compromise can be reached. With the first games of the season canceled, baseball fans were losing faith in owners’ ability to make a deal that will help players as well.

The lesson of owners recognizing the value of players and their fans goes back 75 years. Until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Major League Baseball ignored the Black people who played and watched the sport. It took Robinson playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers for owners to realize that the fans they left behind due to racism loved baseball, but not at the expense of the players they loved.

In August 1919, owners of multiple Negro Leagues baseball teams were making their way east to get a look at some of the most popular Black teams on the East Coast and the Midwest. Among them were the Chicago Giants and Chicago American Giants, both owned by powerful manager Rube Foster. “I realized we were up against a stone wall,” Charlie Mills, owner of the St. Louis Giants, told the St. Louis Argus that year. “Foster, John (Tenny) Blount of Detroit and myself fully agreed to form some kind of agreement.”

Foster had been thinking about forming a giant, national league of Black baseball teams. “Black baseball teams were playing and barnstorming before the league was ever formed,” author and curator Phil Dixon said from his office in Kansas City. Black baseball clubs were traveling regionally to compete, with the Chicago teams playing against teams such as the Detroit Stars and St. Louis Giants.

Major League Baseball continued to bar Black players, segregation that stemmed from the 1867 vote held by the National Association of Amateur Baseball Players. According to the Foster Legacy Foundation, the NAABP called the barring of Black players a “gentlemen’s agreement.”

Foster had never been known for making small moves. As a pitcher, he was regarded as one of the best in the world, with the Chicago Defender calling him “the best pitcher the race has ever known” in 1916. In an interview with the Defender, Foster mentioned how the Leland Giants (who became the Chicago American Giants) were originally based in Philadelphia under white ownership that reduced the players’ pay and daily meal intake. Foster said he brought the Giants players together and formed a new team based in Chicago, the premise being, “If we’re going to starve, we’ll starve together.” However, the man known by the Defender as the “Napoleon of baseball” would be faced with his Battle of Austerlitz, considered Napoleon’s greatest victory in a defeat of the Austrian and Holy Roman Empires: Foster wanted to create a league entirely comprised of and funded by Black teams.

The Indianapolis Freeman wrote later in August 1919 that Foster met with other owners of other Black baseball teams to finalize an agreement on paper to form a new league. Until then, the teams would continue to barnstorm as they usually did. Dixon noted in his blog that time was running out for the league to begin as set up, because spring training was about to begin. Ray Doswell, vice president of curatorial studies at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum noted in an email for this story that issues such as finding transportation, securing places to play at reasonable fees in and finding transportation during segregation caused constant challenges for the teams.

Then 1920 rolled around, and in February, the Defender reported that baseball magnates from across the region were meeting in Kansas City to discuss the forming of a national league, and Foster was the lynchpin behind it. Owners from teams based in St. Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis and others met at a YMCA to discuss the official founding of the league. What came from the meeting was the creation of the Negro National League, with Foster as president, and Chicago Defender Sports Editor Cary B. Lewis was elected as secretary.

On May 2, 1920, the first Negro National League baseball game was played between the Indianapolis ABCs and the Chicago Giants, to much fanfare in the crowd. Foster’s goal of starving together had come to fruition.

Joseph Acosta is a graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter @acosta32_jp.