Ask most baseball fans about the Negro Leagues and you’ll get an acknowledgment that they’ve heard of such (which is, I guess, an improvement). Ask them to identify a particular league and if you’re really lucky they’ll reply with Negro National League (without knowing it came in two phases). Or if you’re really, really lucky you’ll find they’ve heard of the Negro American League. Generally if you tell them one of the two existed, they’ll guess the other one. But, of course, those weren’t the only Negro Leagues. For most of the first half of the Twentieth Century they were the most important, but they weren’t alone. For a short period in the 1920s, before the Negro American League was formed, there was another league that could, and did, compete with the Negro National League at the highest level. The first Negro World Series occurred not between the Negro National League and the Negro American League, but between the Negro National League and the other league, the Eastern Colored League.
The Negro National League was formed in 1920 and combined most of the better black independent barnstorming teams into a single entity. The league was not without problems. Rube Foster, founder and President, ran the NNL with an iron hand and a number of eastern teams felt he favored western teams, especially Chicago, in disputes. In 1923 Ed Bolden, owner of the Hilldale Daisies, proposed the formation of a new league based primarily on the East Coast. He approached New York booking agent Nat Strong (who was white) about forming the new league. Strong handled booking for most East Coast black teams and agreed to support Bolden and handle the booking. They convinced the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City to join them in jumping from the NNL and the two teams created the Eastern Colored League.
Two teams don’t make much of a league, so both Bolden and Strong actively recruited new members. They went after both NNL affiliated teams and independents. By opening day 1923 “that other league”, as Rube Foster described them, fielded six teams: the Daisies, Bacharachs, Alex Pompez’s Cuban Stars East, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, New York’s Lincoln Giants, and the Baltimore Black Sox. The ECL played between 36 (Royal Giants) and 49 (Hilldale and Baltimore) games with Hilldale taking the first pennant by four and a half games over the Cuban Stars.
Through the winter of 1923 into early 1924 the two leagues feuded over contracts, stealing teams, hijacking players, and Rube Foster’s complaint that the ECL had too many white owners (the NNL also had white owners). Toward the end of the season, the leagues made peace, agreeing to honor contracts, stop raiding (and all the other things leagues agree to and frequently ignore). With Kansas City winning the NNL and Hilldale repeating in the ECL, they leagues determined to play an end of season Negro World Series, which Kansas City won. The series lasted through 1927.
Hilldale repeated in 1925, winning the Negro World Series, then slipped back in 1926. Founding member the Bacharach Giants replaced them as the ECL’s leading team, winning titles in both 1926 and 1927. They lost the World Series each time. By the end of the 1927 season, the ECL had gone from playing 49 games to a high of 117 games (Hilldale). With the longer season there were increased ticket sales and an appearance of stability.
But the stability was illusionary. Bolden was having health problems and other owners were beginning to chafe under his leadership. As he both owned Hilldale and was President of the league, several owners and a few newspapers began questioning if Bolden could serve impartially. In 1927 he was replaced as ECL President, becoming secretary in 1928. But Hilldale was hemorrhaging money and pulled out of the league. He took the Royal Giants with him along with the Harrisburg Giants (who’d joined the ECL in 1924). It left the league with five teams, shaky finances, and few prospects. In May, the ECL folded, with the teams going their independent ways.
The ECL was generally considered the second league behind the NNL, weaker, less stable. All those things were true and the ECL was unable to stay afloat for long. During its existence, it did provide legitimate competition for the NNL, winning one of four Negro World Series. Its collapse followed by the failure of the NNL in 1931 began a long period of independence in black baseball.