The Institution of Negro League Baseball
What difference could have been made if Major League Baseball had taken a different path toward integration?
Today, well over 50 years removed from the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it may be hard for us to imagine the choices that our black foreparents faced back then and for the decades and centuries before. One foundational issue that they faced was that of integration. Removing the legal and social barriers that kept blacks from advancing in this country was one of the main goals of the Civil Rights Movement.
Many of those legal barriers have indeed been removed, and many blacks have successfully “integrated” into mainstream America. However, there still exists a significant number of blacks who have not been able to successfully integrate into America and all that it has to offer, which begs the question in hindsight, was wholesale integration the right strategy? Did an integration strategy forsake the development of a strong independent and interdependent black community with its own viable institutions?
This is the third in a series of articles where I will explore these questions in detail. In this article I will address the process of integration of Major League Baseball and the overall negative impact it had on the Negro League. Was integrating individual players into the MLB the only viable route or was there another path that could have been taken?
When the integration of baseball began, for Negro League teams the process immediately put them in position of precarity. Players that were selected to participate in the Major Leagues were often simply taken from their Negro League teams with little respect for their already existing contracts. In the middle of negotiating a contract with Don Newcombe, the owner of the Newark Eagles Effa Manley complained that owners were not given the opportunity to negotiate a way for these players to leave their teams to join Major League clubs. All they were given as compensation were platitudes about how their players were “pioneers” and “crusaders” in the effort to integrate Major League Baseball.
Ever outspoken, Manley wrote to the Dodgers manager Branch Rickey that Negro League owners would be more enthusiastic if “you had only (given) the owners of the Newark Eagles the courtesy of negotiating with us for the services of this valuable player.” She hoped for "a more friendly, ethical, and equitable handling of similar situations". She would eventually take her complaints to the commissioner of Major League Baseball, but unfortunately she nor any other Negro League players would be afforded this ethical and equitable handling.
Integration of the Major Leagues on these terms eventually led to the demise of Negro League Baseball in 1948 when the historically best team in the league, the Homestead Grays left the league to return to “barnstorming” or touring baseball rather than an organized league. Most other teams folded as a result and the Grays folded a year later from the money lost in barnstorming. With the destruction of the Negro League and its teams, much of the wealth generated by these owners was lost. Owners simply had no say in the continuation of their businesses. The message was simple: Integration will be done on Major League terms or it will not happen at all.
Aside from the players that were able to integrate into Major League baseball, black baseball as a whole did not benefit from this kind of integration. With the press generated from players such as Jackie Robinson, the black audience of the Negro Leagues abandoned the league for Major League Baseball to cheer on these few “pioneering” players. This was not integration, it was robbery.
Integration of players into the MLB was not the only form that an integration of leagues could have taken place, but it was the form that benefitted Major League clubs as they could have their pick at the best players in the Negro Leagues, sign them on their terms, and not have to deal with the rest of the players, staff, and owners that made up the rest of the league.
A more equitable way to facilitate integration could have been carried out in a similar fashion to how the National Basketball Association would merge with the American Basketball Association, several decades later. Four of the six teams in the ABA made the jump to the NBA. These teams included the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs. As a result of the merger, the NBA adopted some of the rules and aspects of ABA basketball that proved popular in the league such as the three-point line.
But such a merger would presuppose a level of respect for the Negro Leagues by the Major Leagues that simply did not exist. Adopting any aspect of the Negro Leagues beyond its players would have been seen as diluting baseball. Judging from the hostile reception Jackie Robinson initially received, an entire team would have been untenable to baseball fans. White fans did not want to see black players and even white players didn’t want to play against black players. This was made evident in the lack of participation in exhibition matches between Negro League teams and Major League teams who would often field teams of minor leaguers to represent them.
Negro League players were often seen as inferior to their Major League counterparts. Upon integration many players outside of the greatest often struggled to adjust to Major League standards and their statistical drop was often used as evidence to compare them to AA minor league talent. The differences in how Negro League players fared in the Majors though can be boiled down to a difference in style of play and resources afforded to the Negro League.
In terms of statistical differences, several reasons can account for this. The statistics cannot be compared between the leagues due to differences in play and how statistics were kept. To add to this when statistics are compared the Negro League players often look inferior in talent to Major League players despite what anecdotal evidence and commentary from Major League players who played against them would suggest. Players who were considered great by their Major League contemporaries, did not always reflect this in the statistics.
On the website the Hall of Miller and Eric, a blog devoted to reevaluating the Baseball Hall of Fame they delve deep into the issues regarding this discrepancy between the Negro Leagues and Major Leagues . The writers overall scrutinize the process of the baseball hall of fame selection and make arguments for players who they feel were wrongfully excluded due to a biased and relatively arbitrary criteria. In this case they argue in favor of the many excluded Negro League players.
One reason many of the Negro League players struggled initially was due to their older age when they integrated into the Major League. Many of the greats of the league were past their prime when integration was facilitated. Still, even the best players regardless of age had an adjustment period.
The reason for this difficult adjustment period comes down to a difference in how the game was played. Major League baseball valued pitchers who had a strong command of their fastball and dictated the pace of every at bat with the fastball. Negro League pitches generally did not have a commanding fastball, but would compensate for this through more elusive types of pitches like spitballs, which were legal in the Negro Leagues. For this reason, Negro League hitters were more accustomed to hitting curveballs more than any other type of pitch. When integrating into a fastball dominated league, their expectations and perceptions of what a pitcher will throw them will have to be adjusted through experience.
Negro Leagues also took baseballs out of play less often. Essentially they were using the same balls for longer period of time, and these balls would degrade over the stretch of a game having a dampening effect on offense as the balls wouldn’t carry as much when being hit. The larger dimensions of Negro League parks also added to this dampening of offenses in the Negro Leagues. The Negro league also valued different positions as opposed to the Major Leagues. Pitchers were valued in the Majors while much more value was placed on Shortstops and Center Fielders where a lot of the talent was congregated. Catchers were also valued more in the Negro Leagues as a defensive position.
Team building as a result was very different in the Negro Leagues. The best athletes were placed “up-the middle” behind second base. Positions weren’t as fixed due to the smaller teams and a lack of a minor leagues meant that players weren’t specialized earlier in their careers. There was a lot more variability in how the teams were built. Once the major skilled positions were filled, a core would be built and shaped around them and their particular skillsets.
The small rosters and limited staff combined with the constant play of baseball would advantage hitters as pitching arms would not have time to fully recover in between starts. This could be a contributing factor as to why fastballs were not as refined in the Negro Leagues. The lack of parity in the league and lack of balanced schedules contributed to difference in talent between the leagues overall.
Overall the stars in the Negro Leagues were as much talented as their counterparts in the Major leagues, but the lower you get on the ladder, the standard becomes more skewed toward the majors. Despite this, the best Negro League teams such as the Homestead Grays, the Kansas City Monarchs, the Chicago American Giants, if given a fair chance to compete would have been able to do so in the Major Leagues.
Instead of giving players an adjustment window, imagine if this were afforded to entire teams being integrated into the Major Leagues. These franchises would have had an opportunity to build their teams around the Major League game and they would have benefited from an expanded pool of players and a minor league farm system. The factors such as the degrading quality of baseballs throughout a game and smaller teams adversely affecting pitchers would have been mitigated by a merger of this sort. After a few years of establishing themselves, it is no doubt that teams such as the Homestead Grays, Kansas City Monarchs, and Chicago American Giants, filled with hall of fame talent could have competed in the Major Leagues.
Imagine the impact Jackie Robinson could have had donning a Kansas City Monarchs jersey as opposed to a Los Angeles Dodgers jersey. Black viewership and support wouldn’t have simply followed Jackie Robinson. It would have followed the whole team to the league. With this boost in support from black people alone, the teams themselves would have benefited.
Importantly, the presence of black owners within the MLB would have had a trickle down effect upon the communities these owners resided. For example Dr. J.B. Martin was owner of the American Giants from 1937 until the team folded in 1956. He not only owned this team, he was heavily involved with his hometown team the Memphis Red Sox. He owned the stadium that the Red Sox occupied as well as the concessions within the stadium, and a nearby hotel. In addition, he ran a funeral parlor, invested in real estate, owned business on Beale Street, in downtown Memphis and was a political figure within the Republican party.
The wealth he generated from his involvement with baseball went much further than just solely enriching himself. He contributed to the economic well-being of his hometown of Memphis creating jobs doing so. His involvement in politics also gave him a wider platform to challenge the unjust status quo of his era. In Memphis, he received pushback from the white supremacist political machine operated by Edward Hull Crump when building his stadium for the Memphis Red Sox. Crump wielded power over Memphis through his political apparatus which oversaw the manipulation of the white and black vote within the city. Already an enemy of Crump, Martin used his political position to denounce Crump’s corrupt practices, which of course was met with retribution from the Memphis police who would frequently raid his businesses on Beale Street. Despite this, the capacity of Martin Stadium grew steadily in the ensuing years.
With the increase in revenue and resources, Dr. J.B. Martin could have increased his reach economically and politically, which in the environment of the segregated South, in which he mainly resided, would have gone a long way for black people within his city. Other owners such as Cumberland Posey of the Homestead Grays and J Leslie Wilkinson of the Kansas City Monarchs, and Effa Manley of the Newark Eagles would have also benefitted from having their teams integrated into the Major Leagues. Each one of these owners were considered savvy businesspeople and would no doubt have thrived in an integrated Major League.
With a longstanding presence of black owners and coaches in major league baseball, this might not have been a rarity of novelty much like it is viewed today. This would have predated Bill Russell becoming the head coach of the Boston Celtics by over a decade and a half. Currently there is not a single black majority owner in the NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS, or NFL. We’re still at a point where even a black quarterback in the NFL is novel enough to be a selling point. If the MLB had taken a path where black owned teams was an institutional part of the league, what could have been possible in these other sports? Imagine the possibilities of those following in the footsteps of Dr. J.B. Martin and Effa Manley in a league like the NFL. Black owners would not be hypothetical but a veritable institution.