Seven years ago (is it really that long?) I started taking part of February to look at Negro League history. A year or so later I made it a month-long project. I had a couple of goals in doing this. One was to learn what I could about the black players, teams, owners, and all those other things that make a baseball team work. The second was to chronicle that information so that others could learn something also. Of course I’ve had to correct some of the things I initially put down because new information became available, or I found a source I’d overlooked, or I was just plain wrong (which happened occasionally). Seven years down the road it seems like a good time to take stock of the project.
The first thing I learned was just exactly how much mythology surrounds the Negro Leagues. Of course that sort of thing occurs with Major League Baseball, the origins of the sport, and various other aspects of the game. It seems baseball nurses mythology more than any other sport and revels in those myths. Negro League Baseball is no different. The early players take on heroic proportions. Babe Ruth is a giant among men who can slay all sorts of ogres with one swing of his mighty sword (or bat). It seems Josh Gibson is the same way. Lou Gehrig is the doomed youth who heroically faces his end. So does Dobie Moore. There’s trickster Dizzy Dean and there is trickster Satchel Paige. If you listen to the myths, Homer himself would be proud of some of them.
The reality is even more fascinating, because you end up with a particularly interesting set of men, men much like the white players that were gracing the Majors. Some were scoundrels, some were men of great compassion and of high character. Some you wouldn’t want your family or your friends to be around while others were “the salt of the earth.” All that’s equally true of white players. As a whole they are complicated men who are generally defined by their ability to play ball (something I usually stick to here) but most are much deeper, although there aren’t many profound thinkers in the lot (which is true of people in mass).
It was tough being a Major Leaguer in the era of the Negro Leagues. It was tougher being a Negro Leaguer. The pay was wretched. In the 1924 World Series, the winning Senators received a $5959.64. The Monarchs, winners of the Negro World Series of the same year, received a winner share of $307.96. The transportation was sometimes very basic, including old buses and occasionally individual automobiles. The hotels were of poor quality, assuming they could find a hotel that would take them. By compensation there were individual families in the frequented towns who would take them in. Most of them enjoyed the same off-season drudgeries and joys as their white counterparts. The fields were sometimes in terrible shape, sometimes they were Major League fields rented for an individual game or for a season.
As with the white players the Negro Leaguers could be the toast of the town, although it was the segregated “colored towns” of the era. They provided one of the few community wide black venues for entertainment in many towns and in some cities. It seems, and this is strictly an anecdotal observation, that they were even more important to the black communities than the Major League teams were to the white communities.
The owners were much like the white owners. Players were chattel or they were employees. Some were treated well by their teams, some not so much. The owners frequently came from what the “better element” of the white community would call “the shady side of life.” There were gamblers, pool hall owners, barmen, numbers touts, even a woman (Effa Manley). They also stole players under contract to other teams at an alarming rate. They are as a group, in some ways, more interesting than their white counterparts, most of which were moguls who found baseball much more of a side interest. Some of my favorite articles to research are the ones on team owners and executives because they are such interesting individuals.
One thing that is certainly evident is that they could play ball really, really well. They were certainly the equal of the white players of the era. They were not, despite the growing mythology of the Negro Leagues, better. Short rosters made some of them more versatile than their white counterparts, but not better. The best were on a par with the Gehrigs and Deans and Applings of the day and the worst were no worse than the hangers on who had, at best, a cup of coffee in the big leagues. In an evident attempt to establish their greatness a certain bit of nostalgic mythology has made them better than the white players. In the stark reality of short seasons and second-hand fields and poor equipment they did well. It is a testament to their playing ability that they can be considered on par with the Major Leagues. There is no necessity to compensate for the bad hand they were dealt merely because of the color of their skin by trying to assert they were better than they were.
They weren’t all Americans. I knew that, of course, but I did not know the extent of the Latin players involved or of American black player involvement in the Latin countries. And it’s here that race is at its worst. A Latin player who didn’t look “black” (and God alone knows how many ways different scouts, managers, and owner defined that word) could make the Major Leagues. A Latin player who did look “black” couldn’t. So Dolf Luque could play in a World Series and Martin DeHigo couldn’t. For Americans of mixed race it didn’t matter how “white” a player looked, he was “black” and that was that and that mentality sent players like Roy Campanella to the Baltimore Elite Giants rather than the New York Giants (and ultimately the Dodgers).
It’s interesting that most of the Negro League teams were housed in the North rather than the South, which had more Black Americans. As a former college instructor (Geez, that was a long time ago) I knew that intuitively, but it still jarred a bit. Jim Crow wasn’t restricted to the South, but the rules were looser enough to make it at least a little easier for a black team to function in the North. And of course the cities were larger, which made the crowds larger and the possibility of profit greater.
All that’s some of what I’ve learned over seven years of wandering through the world of Negro League baseball. It’s a strange and fascinating place to wander. I intend to keep it up as long as I can find something new to say.