During the early 20th century, black baseball players were kept out of the National League — then they formed their own club

After the Civil War in 1865, baseball’s popularity steadily increased. But when African-Americans expressed interest in playing, The National Association of Amateur Baseball players rejected them outright in 1867 and again in 1876. Just a few years later, the National League adopted its own unofficial policy of segregation.

Until 1920, the men were forced to play for second-rate traveling teams because they had no other option — but everything changed when Rube Foster launched the Negro National League. Active between 1920 and 1940, the League enjoyed several periods of success before completely folding in the 1960s.

This is the story of America’s all-black baseball teams:

Early attempts to establish black baseball teams

As far back as 1855, black baseball teams not only existed but played games against each other. And those games drew quite a crowd. Despite their popularity, when several of the players tried moving to the popular (white) International League, racial tensions forced them to disengage.

According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, “By the turn of the 20th century, unwritten rules and ‘gentleman’s agreements’ between owners had effectively shut black ballplayers out of big league competition.” During that time, there were two attempts to establish black teams: The International League of Independent Baseball Clubs folded after just one season. A later effort to start a black major league with teams in several large cities fizzled out before they ever played a game.

The negro leagues had a difficult time gaining momentum. In addition to limited financial resources, few of them had exclusive use of ballparks. Many of the teams leased fields from the major or minor leagues, and could only use them when the teams were out of town. This made playing games difficult. Other issues included teams not showing up for scheduled matches, unreliable umpires, and a wide disparity in the quality of teams.

“By the turn of the 20th century, unwritten rules and ‘gentleman’s agreements’ between owners had effectively shut black ballplayers out of big league competition.”

Although the teams had a few good years (they held a  popular Negro World Series from 1924 through 1927), most of them disbanded by the peak of the Great Depression hit. As you may suspect, fans that didn’t have any money couldn’t afford to go to baseball games. There was a brief resurgence in popularity during World War II, which brought prosperity to blacks and whites alike, and star player Satchel Paige was earning $40,000 a year at the time.

The end of the Negro League

In 1942, Jackie Robinson (a former four-sport star at UCLA) and another black athlete, Nate Moreland, were granted a cursory workout with the Chicago White Sox. Three years later, a group of sportswriters arranged tryouts for Negro League players with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Red Sox —  again involving Robinson, who was signed to the Dodgers in August 1945.

With the integration of major league baseball, any remaining Negro League fan base was gone. The Negro National League officially disbanded in 1948, and the Negro American League barely made it through the 1950s (sometimes attempting to sign women in a bid for success). The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum opened in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1990.

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