There’s an old phrase I remember from years ago in my science classes (my son is fairly sure there was only alchemy that far back), “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Seems that’s true in baseball too. For years the black community wanted the integration of Major League Baseball. The columns of Wendell Smith of Pittsburgh are a wonderful read when looking at this attitude. In 1947 they got what they wanted. They also got something they didn’t, the death of the Negro Leagues.
When Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers he opened up a new pool of talent for Major League teams. Slowly, it’s true, but steadily the big league teams began signing black players and by 1959 every team had at least one on its Major League roster. For most Americans, then and now, this was progress. For the Negro Leagues it was slow and steady death. For every black player that went to the Major Leagues, there was one less white player with a job; but for every black player that went to the Major Leagues, there were also less fans in the stands at Negro League parks and that was deadly. Some estimates indicate a tripling of black faces in Ebbets Field in the first three years Robinson played in Brooklyn. If that’s true, then those fans, whose wages hadn’t changed, were not going to Negro League games and spending money at Negro League parks. In the post on Effa Manley I noted the Newark Eagles attendance dropped 52%. That’s fairly common. And if Negro League teams collapsed that put more and more black people out of work; not just players, but owners, executives, peanut sellers, etc.
Part of the loss of fan base is because of the falling off in quality of play. As more and more stars of the Negro Leagues ended up in the Majors or in the vast reaches of the Minor Leagues, the level of play in the Negro Leagues suffered. Taking a look at the 3 Negro League World Series’ beginning in 1946, the year Robinson played in Montreal preparatory to heading to Brooklyn, you can see this beginning.
In 1946 the Newark Eagles and Kansas City Monarchs squared off in the Series. By 1948 Monte Irvin and Larry Doby of the Eagles were gone to the Majors (Doby) or to the minors (Irvin). The Monarchs lost Hank Thompson, Willard Brown, and Satchel Paige (and manager Buck O’Neill became the first black coach in the Majors) to previously all-white teams.
The aftermath of the 1947 Series saw the New York Cubans lose Minnie Minoso, Lino Donoso, Pat Scantleberry, and Jose Santiago to the white leagues and the Cleveland Buckeyes lose the services of Sam Jethroe, Quincy Trouppe, and Toothpick Sam Jones.
By the last World Series in 1948 the damage was already heavy and the two teams, the Homestead Grays and the Birmingham Black Barons, lost only three players: Luke Easter, Bob Trice, and Willie Mays (Yes, that Willie Mays). There was no Series in 1949. (A disclaimer here: I may have missed a player or two, but I think I have the majority of players off to the Majors or Minors from the six teams involved.)
Those players were being replaced by lower quality players and the leagues suffered. By 1949 the Negro National League collapsed. The Negro American League lasted into the 1950s, but was in many ways a repository of minor league talent with just a few significant players left. Independent teams were also failing. Major players like Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks were deserting the black teams for integrated Major League teams with greater prestige and more money.
A number of owners like Newark’s Effa Manley tried to stem the tide by requiring that the Major Leagues either honor Negro League contracts or pay the Negro League teams for the services of players already under contract. Most big league teams ignored her and her peers and simply signed who they wanted. In fairness to the Major League teams, the Negro League teams had not been real good at honoring each others contracts.
So within 3 years of Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Negro Leagues were on life support. Within 10 years they were moribund. A handful of black teams, many trying to make their way as baseball versions of the Harlem Globetrotters, managed to hang on into the 1960s, but the era of black baseball was over. For every team integrated, the US moved toward a more incusive society, but for every team integrated a black team died and bunches of men were out of a job. It was a tradeoff and unintended.
In honor of Black History Month, I’ve devoted a week to black baseball. This post marks the end of my foray into the subject, at least for a while. Hope you’ve enjoyed them and learned something. I did.