Stories from PA History
Baseball In Pennsylvania
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Baseball In Pennsylvania
Chapter Three: The Negro Leagues

In 1872, a young infielder from upstate New York named Bud Fowler came down to Pennsylvania to play for a professional team from New Castle. More than seventy years before Jackie Robinson, he thus became the first African American to play for a professional nine. Like all ballplayers, he had big dreams of moving on to the game's highest level -perhaps to the Athletics in Philadelphia or the Atlantics in Brooklyn. But Fowler's dream faded fast, and it had nothing to do with his ability. "If I had not been quite so black," he later acknowledged, "I might have caught on as a Spaniard or something of that kin… My skin is against me."

An early team photo of the Philadelphia Giants.
Philadelphia Giants team photo, circa 1908.
The sad truth about the burgeoning National Pastime was that it wasn't really national at all. The game itself spread to every corner of the nation, but the men who controlled the professional game decided it must stay white. No matter how great a black ballplayer's skill and grit, no matter how high his hopes, his skin would be against him for the rest of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.

That didn't mean blacks couldn't play ball. markerAfrican Americans played the game superbly. Indeed, in the 1870s and 1880s several African Americans played and starred in the Major Leagues. But the rising tide of racial segregation resulted in a so-called "Gentleman's Agreement," among the owners, who in 1887 barred black ballplayers from Big league. Some five decades later, when Negro League teams filled stadiums like markerShibe Park in Philadelphia and markerForbes Field in Pittsburgh when their major league inhabitants were on the road, the injustice - and the talent - was obvious. When Judy Johnson, a Hall of Fame third baseman with the Philadelphia Hilldales, Homestead Grays, and Pittsburgh Crawfords, asked Athletics manager markerConnie Mack - as fine a judge of baseball talent as ever lived - why a black star like himself still couldn't play in the "Bigs," Mack replied, "There are just too many of you."

"Earliest Hillsdale"  Team Picture
"Earliest Hilldale" Team Picture, Darby, PA, circa 1923.
By then, of course, segregation had long been a fact of American life. In time, however, baseball would prove itself one of the most visible harbingers of coming racial integration. When Jackie Robinson finally stepped across the chasm of the Major League color line in 1947, he carried with him a vision of racial equality that seemed suddenly that much more attainable.

Though African Americans played various ball games long before the Civil War, the first two important black teams in America formed in Philadelphia shortly after the war's end. Located just north of the Mason-Dixon line, Philadelphia boasted the largest black population of any northern city. But it was also rife with discrimination, so African Americans had to develop their own institutions. Those attracted to baseball joined the all-black clubs called the Excelsiors or the Pythians. With their membership dues, game-day picnics, and other entertainments to lure in the fans, male and female alike, they were as much social clubs as they were baseball teams.

Score card: Pythians v. Excelsior June 28, 1867 American Negro Historical Society Collection, 1790-1905. Correspondence and Schedules of the Phila. Pyhthians (1867-1870)
Score card: Pythians v. Mutuals, Philadelphia, PA, June 28, 1867.
Founded in 1867 by best friends markerJacob C. White Jr. and markerOctavius V. Catto, the Pythians were good enough to apply for admission to the new National Association of Base Ball Players. Despite the support of Philadelphia's leading white team, the Athletics, the Pythians were rejected in a ruling that marker banned all black clubs and players from membership. That didn't stop the team from taking on all comers. In 1869, the Pythians became the first black team to play a white team, Philadelphia's City Items. The Pythians trounced them handily.

Black clubs continued to organize throughout the 1870s and 1880s, even though they lacked the corporate and industrial support that equivalent white teams enjoyed. Like the Pythians, the best barnstormed, playing as much as they could, and supporting themselves, in part, by contributions from appreciative fans.

In 1885, black hotel worker Frank Thompson organized the first black professional team, Philadelphia's Keystone Athletics, which soon moved its base to a hotel on Long Island and changed its name to the Cuban Giants. The name change was as clever as it was significant. Since white Americans found Cubans, even dark-skinned Cubans, more acceptable than blacks, Thompson figured it would be easier for his "Cubans" to play against whites, and thus increase their revenues. To perpetuate the ruse, Giant players even communicated in their own on-field Spanish gibberish. The team traveled widely and was so successful that other black clubs added "Cuban" to their name. Three of the best early black independent professional teams were the Pittsburgh Keystones, and the Harrisburg Giants, and the Philadelphia Giants, led by future Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Foster.

Cool Papa Bell
James "Cool Papa" Bell after his induction into the Major League Hall...
Wherever African Americans lived, teams proliferated, often supported by black churches and businesses. "Organize your team," counseled NAACP founder W. E. B. DuBois, who saw opportunity and hope for African Americans through baseball. So did Bud Fowler, whose own earlier hopes to play professional baseball had been thwarted. By the early twentieth century, Fowler was predicting that "a few people with nerve enough to take the chance will form a colored league of about eight cities and pull off a barrel of money." In 1920, Rube Foster blazed that trail by organizing the first major African-American league, the Negro National League, which he based in Chicago, another important destination for African Americans fleeing the South.

By then, black teams existed in Pennsylvania that would soon dominate the Negro leagues. In Homestead, just outside Pittsburgh, black steelworkers formed a team that, in 1912, ventured out on its own as the markerHomestead Grays. At about the same time, a young entrepreneur named Ed Bolden formed the Hilldales in Darby, just southwest of Philadelphia. In just a few years, the Hilldales would be the most powerful team in black baseball, complete with their own stadium. Both the Grays - who later dominated the Negro Leagues - and Hilldales were black baseball anomalies, teams with national reputations owned by African Americans rather than whites.

Philadelphia Stars Team photo
Philadelphia Stars Team photo
African-American baseball in Philadelphia thrived in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1923, Bolden founded a second Negro League, the Eastern Colored League. Although Foster's and Bolden's leagues eventually folded, they were replaced in the 1930s by a new, stronger Negro National League and Negro American League. Each of these thrived until the color line was broken, carried by stars like markerJosh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck O'Neil, James "Cool Papa" Bell, markerRoy Campanella, Judy Johnson, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Turkey Stearnes, and Martin Dihigo.

Negro League games, especially the Sunday games, were important social events for the black community, times to wear one's finest clothing, catch up on the news, and meet old friends passing through town. And what the spectators saw on the field was baseball every bit as good as the Major League variety, but it was also different. Black baseball was faster, more stylized, and filled with crowd-pleasing showmanship. Paige, for instance, occasionally asked his fielders sit for an inning while he brazenly proceeded to strike out the side.

Jackie Robinson with Ben Chapman
Jackie Robinson with Phillies manager Ben Chapman, Philadelphia, PA, May 10,...
Still, it wasn't Major League baseball, and that was about to change. After World War II, a war in which African Americans had fought and served valiantly for their country, the long struggle towards racial equality gained new momentum. New anti-discrimination legislation was being presented at both the national and state levels. During the war, more than two million African Americans had left the South for northern and West Coast cities where they formed a large pool of potential ticket-buyers to Major League games. The color line continued to fray when Happy Chandler, Major League Baseball's new commissioner - a former governor and senator from Kentucky - announced clearly, "I don't believe in barring Negroes from baseball just because they are Negroes."

The Brooklyn Dodgers became the first organization to act. In late 1945, shortly after the end of the war, the team signed both Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella to minor league contracts. In 1947, Robinson made his Major League debut. Robinson's integration of baseball wasn't easy. Teams threatened to boycott the Dodgers, and Robinson stoically endured terrible verbal abuse, some of the worst from Phillies' manager Ben Chapman. But the color line had been broken. Later that season, Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians integrated the American League, and over the next several years, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, and other black ballplayers - even the ancient warrior Satchel Paige - moved from the Negro Leagues onto Major League rosters.

By the early 1950s, the best ballplayers from the Negro Leagues were now wearing Major League flannels, and the Negro Leagues disappeared. While much was gained with the integration of baseball, something important was also lost. Though African Americans could at last play the game at its top level, they were playing for white-owned teams before a majority of white fans, which meant that African-American communities no longer controlled black sporting life.

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