In 1933 Major League Baseball instituted its All-Star game. The game is now an institution, despite its exhibition nature. They’ve added all sorts of bells and whistles, like a home run hitting contest and making home field in the World Series dependent upon who wins, but at heart it hasn’t really changed since 1933. Of course black ball players weren’t invited to the 1933 shindig. Not to be outdone, they staged their own version. It became the centerpiece of American black baseball.
Following up on Major League Baseball’s own All-Star game, the black teams decided to hold their own. Writers Roy Sparrow and Bill Nunn proposed to Gus Greenlee, owner of the Crawfords, that black teams hold their own game. Comiskey Park in Chicago agreed to allow the game to be played there. There was one big problem for the organizers. There weren’t two quality leagues in black baseball.
With the coming of the Great Depression, Negro League baseball was hit hard. Marginal at best, the leagues were devastated by the downturn in the economy. The two primary leagues, the Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League, both folded. By 1933, things were getting a bit better and a new Negro National League was formed. There were other leagues around, but they were small, regional, and lacked the best teams and players. Many teams, like the Kansas City Monarchs, survived primarily by barnstorming. So the idea of having the Negro National League play one of the other leagues was simply unacceptable. Greenlee hit on another idea. Rather than create two league based teams, the opposing sides would be determined geographically. There would be an “East” team, composed of teams that played east of the Pennsylvania-Ohio state line, and a “West” team that consisted of teams playing from Ohio westward. The major black newspapers would count the votes and fans would be allowed to pick the teams. The idea was wildly popular and the first game occurred 10 September 1933.
As there was no Negro League World Series in the 1930s (the Negro World Series occurred in two stages: one in the 1920s, the other in the 1940s) the All Star game rapidly became the high point of Negro League baseball, remaining so even after the reestablishment of the Negro World Series. The game drew well with Comiskey Park generally being mostly full and good games predominating. Over the course of the series, the game was almost always played in Chicago (there were a couple of games in other towns) and in 1939 and 1946 there were two games. In 1937 they tried a North-South game played in Memphis. The idea didn’t catch on and East-West remained the format for the duration of the game.
And the game lasted for a long time. The final game was in 1962. With the advent of integration in the Majors, the Negro Leagues floundered. Many died, but the All-Star game hung on. By the early 1950s it was in deep trouble. The players were no longer first-rate (most of those were in the Majors or the white Minor Leagues), and one (1955) actually ended in a tie (and you thought Bud Selig invented tied All-Star games). After 1962 it was determined that the games was no longer viable and it was discontinued. Over the course of the games, the East won 11 and the West won 19 (with the one tie). In the single North-South game, the North won 10-7.
Over the course of its run, the East-West game provided black baseball with a showcase that matched Major League Baseball. It died with the Negro Leagues. It did provide a unique atmosphere for the finest black ball players of the 1930s and 1940s to prove their quality.