From its beginnings, Negro League baseball was always dependent on at least toleration from the majority white society around it. The teams needed white permission to use the best parks, they needed an OK from the local political leadership to obtain the requisite paperwork to hold a game. Additionally in New York they needed Nat Strong.
Born in 1874, Nathaniel “Nat” Strong, in the first decade of the 20th Century, became the primary booking agent for black teams wanting to play games in New York City. He attended City College in New York, moved into the Sporting Goods business (he worked for Spaulding), and gained control of the Brooklyn Royal Giants, the premier black professional team in Brooklyn. He moved in 1906, along with other entrepreneurs, to form the National Association of Colored Baseball Clubs. As secretary of the Association, he was in charge of scheduling games for the Association and for determining which teams would be allowed to play games against Association members. That gave him a lot of clout in black baseball and he used it to set himself up as the man in charge of scheduling games for black teams wanting to play in the New York market. He was apparently pretty good at it because he quickly became the “go to” guy for scheduling in the Greater New York area. To some, Strong became known as “The Schedule Man.” He made a lot of money off the scheduling (he charged 10% of the team gate cut on top of a normal scheduling fee) and was able to purchase interest in the New York Black Yankees. That, with ownership of the Brooklyn club plus ownership of some of the best white semi-pro teams like the Bushwicks, gave him almost total control over scheduling Negro League games in New York. Not only could he control the scheduling of games between two black teams, he could now control scheduling of games that pitted a black team against a white team in the New York area. His power was such that when the Lincoln Giants tried to schedule games without going through him, he was able to have them thrown out of the Association.
Needless to say, he didn’t have a lot of friends in the Negro Leagues leadership. Rube Foster hated having to go through Strong to schedule games in New York. Part of Foster’s reasoning for forming the Negro National League was to get around Strong’s stranglehold on New York games (but I should emphasize it wasn’t the major factor in Foster’s decision to form the NNL). Foster’s determination to have his NNL schedule its own games, gave rise to a sort of compromise between the two men. Foster’s NNL was based mostly in the Upper Midwest, while Strong’s base of power was in the East. Although no formal agreement was made (at least not one I can find), the two men each controlled their scheduling in their part of the country without significant interference from the other. It cut into Strong’s power, but certainly didn’t curtail it.
Strong maintained a major position in the Negro League world until his death in 1935. His position was so strong that the balls used by teams he scheduled were stamped “Made Especially for Nat C. Strong.” That’s clout, people.
It’s tough to evaluate Strong. He’s one of the most important people in early black baseball, but he wasn’t well liked by the black baseball community. He made money, lots of it. That seems to have been his major motivation, not the improvement of the lot of black baseball players or owners. In short, he was a mercenary in many ways. He did make black baseball available to people who might not have otherwise seen the teams play, but he got awfully rich doing it. The old political columnist Drew Pearson used to say “In this country all the right things get done for all the wrong reasons.” Nat Strong is a good example of that.