'Negro League Baseball': Let Us Into the Ballgame
By WARREN GOLDSTEIN
Published: May 16, 2004
New York Times
DESPITE the evident messiness of the past, few of us -- including historians -- can resist the temptation to read history as a morality tale. Whether we write or read about war or workers, presidents or politics, we find it difficult to let go of the hope that good (even the better side of a complex figure) will triumph over bad. Small wonder, then, that the story of major-league baseball's integration in the 1940's and 1950's has become a modern morality play, featuring the wily white businessman Branch Rickey and the fiery black player Jackie Robinson, along with Robinson's heroic performances on and off the bench, black fans' mass embrace of Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and most white fans' gradual, if often grudging, acceptance of Robinson and the impressive group of pioneering black players in the major leagues. This story allows Americans to feel strong and good emotions, and to take pride in one of our few successes in race matters.
Prodigiously researched and thoroughly unsentimental, Neil Lanctot's history of organized black baseball from 1933 through the early 1960's provides an enormously important historical corrective to this feel-good version of baseball integration. In order to get beyond the traditional accounts of the Negro leagues -- ''marred,'' he says, accurately, by ''reductive analyses, an appalling number of inaccuracies'' and a focus ''on the exploits of individual players and teams without attention to historical context or the actual administration of the leagues themselves'' -- Lanctot, who teaches history at the University of Delaware, claims to have read ''virtually every sports page of every black newspaper located in a league city,'' supplementing this with interviews, court records and archival digging. The result is a most comprehensive study of the business side of the Negro leagues. Even though they often lie buried beneath a mass of blow-by-blow, season-by-season details, Lanctot's judgments can be pointed, persuasive and at times profound.
Even in the relatively prosperous 1920's, the Negro leagues had been marked by unreliable scheduling, nasty business rivalries between owners and leagues, and players jumping from team to team for better salaries. Late in the decade, these leagues all folded. Enter the dominant figure of the 1930's black baseball business -- William Augustus Greenlee, the Pittsburgh-based numbers racketeer who owned the legendary Pittsburgh Crawfords and revived the defunct Negro National League in 1933. A ''larger-than-life figure possessing a considerable bankroll and an abundance of street smarts, toughness and bluntness,'' Greenlee initiated a shaky league of seven franchises, many of them financed by numbers money, that barely wobbled to a finish that year -- a pattern repeated, with a shifting cast of teams, mostly in the East, for the rest of the decade. (In late 1936 a Negro American League started up, with teams from the Midwest and South.) Greenlee's most important innovation, ''the sole positive development in an otherwise dreadful 1933 season,'' Lanctot writes, was the East-West All-Star Game (modeled on the just-begun major-league All-Star Game), which evolved into the most prominent annual showcase for black baseball.
Black professional baseball leagues faced so many obstacles that their very existence compels a kind of wonder. The Depression hit blacks far harder than whites, so even fewer blacks had discretionary income to spend on ballgames. Professional sports franchises required substantial funds for payroll and transportation, means generally far beyond the reach of legitimate black businesses. Most club officials either made their money illicitly or relied on white investors or owners. Since so few black owners could afford their own stadiums (Greenlee was the exception, though even his lacked a grandstand roof), they had to pay white stadium owners rental fees, often steep. Black ball clubs operated on thinner margins than their white counterparts, so a run of bad weather could have disastrous consequences.
The Negro leagues faced equally daunting internal problems, what Lanctot calls ''remarkably shoddy administration.'' Owners wrangled constantly, never installing a truly independent commissioner to resolve disputes. They made no rules governing player movement and did not even routinely provide their players with contracts. Teams did not regularly keep score or report statistics to league offices. The leagues consistently frustrated sportswriters, who complained bitterly about how little basic information -- like statistics and standings -- came their way. Nor did the leagues have the resources to oversee or insist on the authority of umpires, who could be, and often were, intimidated by players.
Fortunately for the players and for fans across the country, black clubs did not rely on league baseball for most of their games or their income. They barnstormed far from their home parks, playing teams of white ballplayers in the off-season, and black semipro teams all the time.
As the overall economy improved dramatically during World War II, so did the financial health of the Negro leagues. The Kansas City Monarchs netted nearly $260,000 from 1942 to 1946, as black fans, for the first time in a decade, had enough income to spend it regularly on ballgames. Core difficulties remained, however, problems that had dogged the black game for decades. ''Ironically,'' Lanctot notes, ''as black baseball reached its financial peak, it remained firmly bound to the whims of whites,'' particularly white owners' willingness to rent their ballparks.
The larger truth was that black baseball, like segregated public schools, hospitals and recreational facilities (but less like churches, newspapers or colleges), had always inhabited a nether world that owed its existence entirely to white racism and white-enforced segregation. Black players were willing to play black baseball because that was all they could do; fans and sportswriters, on the other hand, could use different standards. Black businessmen, journalists and consumers had long debated whether they should patronize black businesses simply because they were black, especially if they offered second-rate products or services.
Black fans sometimes patronized major-league baseball in the place of black ball because it was better run, more predictable and easier to follow. The flamboyant pitcher Satchel Paige was the biggest draw in black baseball, but he frequently pitched only two or three innings at a time, to save himself for multiple appearances -- and multiple paychecks. The black sportswriter Dan Burley followed a long line of criticism when he wrote in 1943, ''There is no need of kidding ourselves; colored baseball is but a poor shadow of the major league -- the real thing.''
As pressure for integration grew throughout American society during and after World War II, the principal black foes of baseball integration remained, understandably enough, the Negro league owners, who rightly saw the danger to businesses they had nurtured in the face of nearly overwhelming obstacles but now seemed powerless to protect. Lanctot provides a detailed picture of the baseball world during and after Branch Rickey's signing of Jackie Robinson; his account is the most extensive to date that focuses on the overall context of the first few years of baseball's integration rather than on Robinson himself.
It is not a pretty picture. Lanctot shows just how much major-league owners wanted to keep the income from renting their ballparks to black clubs, and he details clubs' resistance -- often in the face of political pressure -- to signing black players. Rickey refused to compensate the Kansas City Monarchs for Robinson or the Baltimore Elite Giants for Roy Campanella or the Newark Eagles for Don Newcombe. True, none had contracts; when, in 1946, Rickey signed the Philadelphia Stars' Roy Partlow (who did have a contract), he offered the club a paltry, if symbolic, payment of $1,000. Rickey paid the Memphis Red Sox $15,000 for the pitcher Dan Bankhead; Bill Veeck, the owner of the Cleveland Indians, paid the Newark Eagles $15,000 for Larry Doby's contract in 1947. Robinson himself published a stinging criticism of black baseball -- ''What's Wrong With Negro Baseball'' -- just before the 1948 season, joining Rickey in ''demonstrating,'' Lanctot observes, ''little sympathy for the previous decades of struggle to establish the industry'' and the extraordinary difficulties it had faced.
While the Negro league owners began to put their administrative houses in better order -- offering player contracts and trying to affiliate with organized baseball -- they were too late. Lanctot suggests that while they might have lasted a bit longer as a farm system -- recruiting, training and then selling their best players to the majors -- the overall trend toward integration in American life (in professional basketball and football as well) had drawn black attention, almost en masse, toward the exploits of black players in newly integrated leagues.
Without nostalgia, Lanctot offers a careful and balanced judgment on the Negro leagues, one that is likely to stand for some time. He points out that by the mid-1950's, organized baseball employed more black ballplayers, at all levels of the game, than the 200 on Negro league teams ''at their peak in the mid-1940's.''
On the other hand, ''black baseball and other separate enterprises helped build an irreplaceable sense of collective solidarity, identity and self-esteem'' for which ''no adequate replacement has emerged.'' Especially not in organized baseball, which proved much less interested in attracting black fans (fearing white flight) than in signing players. By the late 1980's black attendance had fallen to ''as low as 3 percent'' in Chicago and Philadelphia, cities ''that had once enthusiastically supported black baseball.'' At the level of players, baseball is changing too: while American blacks occupied 27 percent of major-league roster slots in 1975, last July they accounted for just 10 percent. Even the story of baseball integration, it turns out, is no simple morality play.
Warren Goldstein, who teaches history at the University of Hartford, is the author, most recently, of ''William Sloane Coffin Jr.: A Holy Impatience.''
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com
If you know anyone who claims to be up on baseball history -- smarties who know the names of Joe DiMaggio's outfielder brothers or how many years Hoyt Wilhelm pitched in the minors -- ask them for whom Satchel Paige played (the Pittsburgh Crawfords) or Josh Gibson (the Homestead Grays) or Jackie Robinson in his pre-Brooklyn Dodgers days (the Kansas City Monarchs) or Larry Doby before the Cleveland Indians (the Newark Eagles). If they hit it out of the park on those (it's 1,000 to 1 in Vegas they won't), brush them back with this: Name the six teams in the Negro National League and the six in the Negro American League in the mid-1940s.
Bet the farm, or at least the fences around it: No one will know, except those who have just read Neil Lanctot's story of black baseball during its five-decade run to its final innings in the late 1950s. In remarkable detail -- 576 endnotes alone that consume 77 pages -- Lanctot takes us beyond the ball field where the Paiges and Gibsons played in forced segregation, and into the commercial and social realities of baseball in black communities. As much as the Paiges and others may be romanticized for being the equal of any white players, they remained trapped in an industry that was separate but emphatically unequal.
Lanctot, a history professor at the University of Delaware, traces the rise of black baseball to "the Great Migration of 1916-1919, when 500,000 blacks, responding to northern industrial demands and deteriorating social and economic conditions, left the south for the urban north." For a time, black baseball entrepreneurs attracted enough of a fan base to create two profitable leagues. But the Great Migration was soon brought low by the Great Depression. Financial backers pulled back, teams disbanded. A few managed to hang on. A modest turnaround came in 1934, when promoters drew 20,000 spectators to each of two doubleheaders in New York's Yankee Stadium. Satchel Paige, on the mound for the Crawfords and mowing down batters, was advancing from star to legend status. In 1938, nearly 11,000 fans came to a game in Washington's Griffith Stadium, a record for black baseball attendance.
Focusing more on the economics of black baseball than the feats of its players, Lanctot pursues one main theme throughout his 11 chapters: that the cash flow was often a cash trickle. Long overnight bus rides were common, along with mechanical breakdowns on the way to the next town 1,200 miles away. With no binding contracts, as was true in organized white baseball, players could be freelancers open to the next best offer. Paige, lured by $2,500, jumped to a team in the Dominican Republic. He said he preferred to "go to South America and live in the jungles rather than go back to the [Negro] league and play like I did for 10 years." It wouldn't last. Life under Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, a baseball fan when he wasn't imprisoning or torturing people, was more oppressive than anything in the States.
Lanctot offers a rich array of facts that history lovers can feast on. We learn that in the late 1930s it was the Communist Party and its fine newspaper, the Daily Worker, that led the drive to integrate baseball. White owners, nearly all political conservatives, were one with Clark Griffith, boss man of the Washington Senators, who said that blacks were a "tool" of the communists. As for access to the white leagues, Griffith said that "the nigras themselves didn't want it."
Integration might have happened during the war years of the early 1940s, when big league rosters were running low on players. But instead of signing established blacks, owners recruited white teenagers, including a 15-year-old pitcher. The Sporting News, as conservative as the owners who read it, denounced "agitators . . . who have sought to force Negro players on the big leagues, not because it would help the game, but because it gives them a chance to thrust the mselves into the limelight as great crusaders in the guise of democracy."
The rest of the story is common knowledge, but with a footnote. In April 1947, Jackie Robinson came to the Brooklyn Dodgers, followed in July by Larry Doby to Cleveland, and Dodger Dan Bankhead, the big leagues' first black pitcher. While these three had to deal with white racism on the field and on road trips, a group that Lanctot calls "the black elite" and "black bourgeoisie" was worried that the emoting and enthusiasm of unruly working-class and poor black fans in the stands would reflect badly on the whole community.
Integration ended the Negro leagues. As sterling a historian as he is, Lanctot might have added one more chapter as an update: the current and continuing decline in numbers of black big leaguers, the low appeal of baseball among blacks in high school and college compared with football and basketball, the absence of black fathers to play catch with their children. Much of this was reported in the July 7, 2003, edition of Sports Illustrated by Tom Verducci, who asked the same question that was raised nearly a century ago, and is ably analyzed by Neil Lanctot: Does the black ballplayer have a future?
Reviewed by Colman McCarthy
Negro Leagues bobbled the ball off the field
By CHRIS FORAN
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Posted: July 10, 2004
The problem with American life is that the really good stories sometimes get in the way of the facts.
Take black professional baseball. In the decades before Jackie Robinson stepped on the field as a Brooklyn Dodger in 1947, baseball was for African-Americans an environment much like every other national institution: separate and unequal.
But what we know of the Negro Leagues today has been obscured by the great injustice of segregation and the greater legends who played the game as well as, if not better than, their white counterparts: Satchel Paige, who, the story goes, once called in his fielders and then struck out the side; Josh Gibson, the "black Babe Ruth" who, by one count, hit 962 home runs in his 18-year career; Cool Papa Bell, who, according to his teammates, was so fast he could turn out the lights and dive into bed before it was dark.
Such colorful stories are what keep the flame of fandom burning. But they also get in the way of a more complicated, and just as interesting, story of a peculiar American institution: Negro League baseball.
Neil Lanctot's new book "Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution" (University of Pennsylvania Press, $34.95) gives much-needed structure and context to that story.
By focusing on the off-field side of the scorebook, the book shows that the Negro Leagues were part of the larger picture of black life in America, and not just an inconvenient, colorful tangent in baseball lore.
Lanctot, who teaches in the history department at the University of Delaware and is the author of two other books on the Negro Leagues, doesn't spend a lot of energy recounting the on-field exploits of Paige, Gibson and their teammates; there are plenty of other places to turn for those tales (see related story on Page 2E).
Instead, he combed through mountains of original source material, including extensive interviews, league documents and African-American newspapers from the era, to compile his chronicle.
A parallel universe
And the chronicle he relates is a tangled one.
"Negro League Baseball" focuses on the period from the 1930s through the 1950s, when the Negro Leagues struggled, staggered, exploded and then collapsed as major-league teams grudgingly signed black ballplayers.
Like many "race" institutions of the era - created for a black audience largely ignored by mainstream America - the Negro Leagues faced constant financial pressure.
During the Depression, attendance sank as black unemployment soared; owners, themselves strapped for cash, found themselves in bidding wars for star players with teams in Latin America and the Caribbean where, unlike the United States, blacks were not treated like second-class citizens.
With the industrial buildup before and during World War II - and with it, a dramatic rise in black employment - the Negro Leagues shared in the boom, drawing record crowds and paying record wages to keep big-name talent.
But with the war came a growing realization that a blacks-only league was irrelevant in a world where soldiers of all races were fighting for freedom.
By the end of World War II, agitation by civil rights groups, fueled by the African-American press, put integration of the Major Leagues at the forefront.
The Dodgers' signing of Jackie Robinson in November 1945 seemed a revolution at the time, but it was a long time coming.
Digging their own grave
So, too, Lanctot concludes, was the inevitable demise of the Negro Leagues - and for the most part, he suggests, it was the leagues' own fault.
Despite persistent pressure to clean up their act, the leagues' owners - a few of whom had made their money in the numbers racket - resisted taking the steps needed to put the business on a more professional footing.
Few teams, for example, had written contracts with their players, under the logic that, without a legally binding contract, the teams could drop players whenever they needed to.
Unfortunately, that also meant players could "jump" to other teams or leagues more or less at will. In 1937, for example, Paige, the league's marquee player, led a squad of stars to play in the Dominican Republic. When the Dodgers decided to sign Jackie Robinson, they paid no money to the Kansas City Monarchs, arguing that since Robinson had no written contract with the team he was a free agent.
To stay solvent, Negro Leagues teams played an incredible number of exhibition games - in many seasons, more exhibition games than regular-season contests.
Combined with a dearth of reliable statistics and lack of a meaningful championship series, the leagues' casual approach to results made it hard to earn and keep fan loyalty.
When Robinson and other African-American players joined major-league clubs, the Negro Leagues' fan base flocked to big-league parks, sounding the death knell for segregated baseball.
Although Negro League officials chastised fans for not supporting their own industry, Lanctot makes it clear that they had never really given fans much reason to.
Familiar faces, new look
In addition to compiling an authoritative history of the Negro Leagues, Lanctot's chronicle gives nuanced portraits of some sports figures whom readers may have thought they knew.
Paige, for example, comes across as one of the most complicated figures of the mid-century: Celebrated by white audiences for seemingly conforming to the stereotype of the slow-moving, countrified black man, he also was a smart businessman, playing owners against each other and maximizing his star power whenever possible.
Lanctot also gives a whole different perspective on white sports leaders who had roles in the Negro Leagues. Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein is one of the book's more ambivalent characters.
Negro League owners relied on the white sports promoter's marketing skills - particularly with the leagues' hallmark event, the East-West all-star game - but they also distrusted him, a distrust that seems to have been well-placed.
The motives of Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, who has been lionized for breaking the color barrier by signing Robinson, are shown to be more convoluted, and more shrewd, than traditional lore indicates.
In the end, that's the value of "Negro League Baseball." With a wealth of data and scores of previously uncollected insights, Lanctot sets up a lineup of facts that, while not taking away from the stories and characters of black baseball, gives them substance and something the Negro Leagues themselves rarely got in their own time: a measure of respect.
READ MORE ON THE NEGRO LEAGUES
Other books on the Negro Leagues and the integration of baseball focus more on the players on the field. Here's a look at some of the better players in the lineup:
"Maybe I'll Pitch Forever" by LeRoy S. "Satchel" Paige with David Lipman (University of Nebraska Press, $14.95). This folksy 1962 autobiography by the biggest star in Negro Leagues history is not exactly history, but Paige's flair for storytelling has turned some of his tall tales into accepted truths. "A Complete History of the Negro Leagues, 1884 to 1955" by Mark Ribowsky (Citadel Press, 2002, $18.95). Ribowsky's book combines lore and insight in a brisk look at African-Americans in the national pastime. "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues" by James A. Riley (Carroll & Graf, 2002, $25). Capsule biographies of more than 4,000 figures in Negro Leagues history, from players to owners to promoters. "I Was Right on Time: My Journey From Negro Leagues to the Majors" by Buck O'Neil with Steve Wulf and David Conrads (Simon & Schuster, 1997, $14). O'Neil, who was one of the most charismatic voices in Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary series, is generally considered one of the best first basemen in Negro Leagues history - and an even better storyteller about life in the Negro Leagues.
"Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams" by Robert Peterson (Oxford University Press, 1992, $17.95). One of the first stabs at a comprehensive history of African-American baseball leagues, this 1970 book helped fuel scholarly interest in the topic. "Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy" by Jules Tygiel (Oxford University Press, 1997, $19.95). Tygiel's book puts the Jackie Robinson revolution into broader context, from the false starts toward integration to the Major Leagues' all-deliberate-speed approach to adding African-American players to their rosters.
- Chris Foran
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Negro Leagues' story unfolds from reams of research
Sunday, May 02, 2004
By Evan Pattak
For most of us, what we know of the Negro Leagues are the legends -- Josh Gibson clubbing a monstrous home run, Satchel Paige hurling a masterpiece, Cool Papa Bell streaking home from first on a single. Of the leagues as industry and institution, we know far less.
Neil Lanctot addresses this information gap with a meticulously researched history that explores the economics, strengths, shortcomings and legacy of the Negro Leagues.
History professor at the University of Delaware, Lanctot provides a valuable volume that belongs in your collection -- whether on your baseball shelf or in your business or social history section.
While the Negro Leagues trace their roots to the 19th century, their modern history began in 1933 with the founding of the Negro National League (NNL); the Negro American League (NAL) followed in 1936.
As if trying to launch a separate "race" industry in the throes of the Depression weren't challenge enough, the leagues faced a variety of additional problems. They were chronically underfunded, and the source of what little capital they could muster often was dubious.
As Lanctot notes, about half the franchises in the NNL at one point were supported by the profits of numbers rackets and other illegal enterprises. The league also was forced to invite investments from white-owned businesses as well as rent ballparks from white owners, thus limiting concession revenues.
Standings and statistics that the leagues irregularly released were notoriously unreliable, as they staged their games without official scorers.
The looming integration of Major League Baseball in the mid-1940s presented the leagues with their most portentous dilemma. In 1948, the failing NNL merged with the NAL, which operated in obscurity until 1963.
Lanctot, who offers such rarely seen material as revenue and expense charts for certain franchises, organizes his voluminous data chronologically, a mixed blessing. The Negro Leagues were rich with courageous, colorful, controversial leaders including Gus Greenlee, the numbers baron who owned the Pittsburgh Crawfords and built his own stadium in the Hill District, and Cum Posey, a driving force of the NNL as co-owner of the Homestead Grays.
Yet because of the chronological structure, we get fragments about these leaders rather than fuller biographies.
However, Lanctot argues persuasively that the Negro Leagues, always an artistic success, were an important commercial and community force as well, providing unique opportunities for black entrepreneurs and spin-off revenue for black hotels, restaurants and other businesses.
(Evan Pattak is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer focusing primarily on sports.)
Playing it by the book
May 22, 2004
By T.J. QUINN
N.Y. DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
University of Delaware professor Neil Lanctot's "The Negro Leagues" became essential as soon as it was released. This isn't the sort of book someone is likely to leave on the back porch of a beach house, next to John Grisham's latest offering or "The South Beach Diet." But for anyone ever captivated by the history of the Negro Leagues, it is a landmark work.
Lanctot succeeds because he doesn't fall into the two categories that have governed previous descriptions of Negro Leaguers: the long-suffering and colorful nobles, and the individual stories of how players would have fared in the white major leagues. This isn't a book about how many games Satchel Paige would have won in the majors, or whether Josh Gibson would have hit more home runs than Babe Ruth. Lanctot shows us how Negro League baseball was crucial in the development of a disenfranchised community, representing the best aspects of American ingenuity and the worst reflections of a racist legacy.
He shows us enterprising and high-minded black owners like numbers-runner Gus Greenlee, who created the Negro National League, and high-minded white owners like J.L. Wilkinson, who owned the Kansas City Monarchs. He also shows us unscrupulous white brokers like Nat Strong who made money exploiting black teams, charging huge fees to get them access to white-owned stadiums where they could play white semi-pro teams. And Lanctot shows us merciless black owners who were determined to make money in one of the few legal avenues open to them at the time. Lanctot is critical of the amateurism of many black owners, but also writes of the agony it caused advocates in the black community who recognized it.
And just as black Americans debated whether to patronize black-owned businesses or fight their way into the white-owned shops that barred them, there was also debate as to whether creating institutions like the Negro Leagues wasn't simply conceding to segregation. Even as black players and owners lamented the unjust power of white brokers like Strong, New York journalist Romeo Dougherty argued that, "Strong runs a business... and is entitled to every dime he has earned booking Negro teams. We should stop shouting about what Strong has done to us and see if we can't do something for ourselves."
Lanctot is determined to break out of the hero/villain duality that has dominated discussions of the Negro Leagues for more than 50 years. The gamblers, number runners and gangsters who owned early teams were sometimes idealists. Branch Rickey, on the other hand, was no Martin Luther King Jr.
It all led to a crescendo that was no less complex: once the Negro leagues began to thrive in the 1940s, they were hit with news that was both an epiphany and a death knell, that Jackie Robinson was headed to the majors. The dreams of black ballplayers to compete with the best on the world's biggest stage also meant the death of a unique black institution.