19: This Month in Black History – It’s Baseball Season: History, Black Excellence, and Race

“Play Ball!”

By Lisa Brock and Mark Truss (conceptual and editorial support from Regina Stevens-Truss)

Play Ball” – at this time of year in the USA, for many, there is the feeling of being outdoors, eating hot dogs, playing catch, and simply that there is something in the air – it’s Baseball season! This year however, the USA, and indeed the world, lost one of the greatest baseball players of all time, Henry Louis Aaron (1934 – 2021) referred to as Hank the Hammer. Why? Because he was recognized for hammering the ball so hard, so high and so far, that he is the only player in history to hit 24 or more home runs every year for 18 years (1955-1973), and is one of only two players to hit 30 or more home runs in a single season for at least fifteen seasons. Aaron’s epilogue, however, is marred by what happened to him during his time in the majors. He is most known for breaking Babe Ruth’s (aka, the great “Bambino”) home run record when he hit 715 home runs on April 8, 1974. While many people followed his chasing of Ruth’s record with hopeful anticipation, the fact that he was Black became an issue for white racists who refused to accept a Black man breaking the Bambino’s record set 39 years earlier.

You may also be aware of Major League Baseball retiring the number 42, which, by the way, was also the title of a movie whose main character was played by the late Chadwick Boseman (you may know him as The Black Panther). The number 42 is synonymous with Jackie Roosevelt Robinson (1919-1972) who was the first known Black player to break into the Major League – he started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.

But this 19 Black History Story is neither about Aaron nor Robinson specifically, but about Negro League Baseball, which got its start after the Civil War. Segregation policies at that time played into the then National Association of Amateur Baseball players “gentlemens’ agreement” to keep Black players out. In the early 1920s, Hall of Famer Andrew (Rube) Bishop Foster launched the Negro National League – the first successful league for African-American players. “When Rube Foster died [Dec. 9, 1930], Negro baseball died with him,” said Joe Green, a fellow Negro Leagues player, manager and owner. However, Negro League Baseball enjoyed periods of success in the early 1920s and again after the Great Depression. The history of Negro Leagues winds through multiple eras and stories, amounting to what is believed today to have been seven leagues: Negro Leagues of 1920-1948 were the Negro National League (I) (1920–1931); the Eastern Colored League (1923–1928); the American Negro League (1929); the East-West League (1932); the Negro Southern League (1932); the Negro National League (II) (1933–1948); and the Negro American League (1937–1948).

Interestingly, Hank Aaron was the last of the Black baseball players to integrate into the Major Leagues from the Negro Leagues, which had some of the best all-time baseball players in history, such as Satchel Paige, Minnie Miñoso, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and of course Jackie Robinson. Ty Cobb (1866-1961) known for playing and then managing the Detroit Tigers was, according to his early biographers, a major force in keeping the Major Leagues segregated. In the early decades of the 20th Century Cobb is noted as saying that he would never play a n-word in his life. What most people don’t know is that he uttered this after losing to Negro League players in exhibition games, which were frequent before the 1920s. Thus, his alleged racism was not based on him feeling he was superior to Black players, but because he actually knew that he was not!

As Jerry Brewer said in his January 23, 2021 Washington Post article, entitled Racism carved away a piece of Hank Aaron’s heart. What remained was still a gift: “It’s not hyperbolic to consider Hank Aaron the perfect baseball player. It’s not some grief-swelled attempt to lionize an irreplaceable giant. The man could do everything: hit for average, hit for power, run, play flawless defense in right field, lead. He could persist, through racist hate and death threats, and break the sport’s hallowed home run record.” Brewer goes on to quote Aaron: “It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about…My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ballparks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.” “Imagine that,” pens Brewer. “Think of your proudest moment, the culmination of your life’s work. And then picture receiving thousands of letters expressing a desire to end your life,” just because of your greatness.

What many people may not know is that the Detroit Tigers, as did other major league teams, often played exhibition series in Cuba during the winter months. In fact, because the US baseball leagues were racially segregated and the Cuban professional leagues were not, most teams and players from Cuba who played in the US did so on Negro League teams and on the Negro League circuit. Another fun fact about the Negro Leagues is that there is only one woman in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Effa Manley, and while very fair, she considered herself Black. She and her husband owned the Newark Eagles, a Negro League team. She was also a leader in the fight for the integration of baseball, with the goal to integrate the Major League and democratize baseball’s economic structures, which would have allowed the Negro League teams to come into the majors with Black owners and teams intact. Instead, once Robinson broke the “the color barrier,” Major League teams began raiding Negro League teams and recruiting Black players, and because they could offer more money, by the 1960s Negro League teams owners were forced to shut down.

On December 16, 2020, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred declared that the seven Negro Leagues would be recognized as official Major Leagues, with their players’ records and statistics counted in baseball’s record books.

Today, there is concern about the lack of US-Black American baseball players coming up into the ranks of the majors, while Black Latin Players continue to thrive. This is largely because of a diminishing of public funds for baseball in lower income communities in the US, while the major league runs a minor league feeder system in the Caribbean. Nonetheless, the importance of the Negro Leagues in baseball history continues to be applauded, and the speed needed as well as the idea of bunting that they introduced to the game is now standard play.

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry
Lisa Brock, retired, ACSJL Academic Director & Professor of History