Negro Leagues To The Major Leagues: The East

This post first appeared on BaseballDigest.com
In honor of Black History Month, BaseballDigest.com is celebrating the history of the Negro Leagues and the intertwining pathway of Negro League ballplayers to the Major Leagues. This week the focus is on the teams that might have populated the American League East and the National League East were they playing today.

The first Negro League team to play in Baltimore, the Black Sox, were among the original members of the Eastern Colored League established in 1923. Before then, the Black Sox can be traced back to 1916 as an independent league team. The Black Sox may be best remembered for their “Million Dollar Infield”, which included Hall of Famer Jud “Boojum” Wilson. They were called the “Million Dollar Infield” due to the reality that had they been white players, that would have been their total worth. Satchel Paige, who played professionally for forty years, spent one of his first seasons with the Black Sox.

Rick Van Blair asked “Was Satchel Paige As Great As They Said He Was?” in a June 1996 issue of Baseball Digest. Click here to check out the article!

The Black Sox enjoyed their greatest success winning the 1929 American Negro League Championship with their talented infield. Within a few seasons and a few league changes later, the Black Sox ran into financial problems and were disbanded following the 1934 season. Baltimore’s representation in the negro leagues returned in 1938 when the well-traveled Washington Elite Giants were moved to Baltimore and joined the Negro National League. Two Hall of Famers, Roy Campanella and Leon Day, spent part of their professional career with the Elite Giants. Roy Campanella was one of the first stars of the team after their move to Baltimore. Back to back National League Rookies of The Year(’52 and ’53), Joe Black and Jim Gilliam began their professional career winning titles with the Elite Giants.

To the south of Baltimore, where the Washington Elite Giants played for two years before moving to Baltimore, the Homestead Grays played a great number of their names at the home of the Washington Senators during the 1930’s and 1940’s. While the Grays’ home field was technically in Homestead, Pennsylvania, they scheduled games at Griffin Stadium in the nation’s capitol when the Senators were on the road.

The Homestead Grays were started by Cumberland Posey, who spent nearly forty years in baseball as a player, manager and owner. The Grays were a hugely successful barnstorming team for much of their existence and joined the failed Negro American League and Posey’s own ill fated East West League. However, by 1935 they joined the Negro National League and dominated the competition. Along with eight Negro National League Championships, the team won three world championship titles during the thirteen seasons in the league. Along with Posey, there were 11 future Hall of Famers that played with the Grays during this time.

Jim Gilliam recalls the rough days of the Negro Leagues, in a Baseball Digest article in June 1969 by John Wiebusch of the LA Times. Click here to check it out!

A member of both the Black Sox and Homestead Grays, Jud Wilson also played a key role as a member of the Philadelphia Stars from 1933 through 1939. The Stars spent their debut season as an independent team before joining the Negro National League in 1939. The team made a huge impact in their first season by reaching the playoffs and defeating the Chicago American Giants in a controversial best of 7 series that ended up going eight games and including a plethora of claims from both teams of wrongdoing. The Stars competed with the Grays and the Elite Giants, but their best season was easily their debut season in the league.

Not long after Major League Baseball began to integrate in 1947, the Stars joined the Negro American League along with several other teams when the Negro National League disbanded in 1948 and competed with the likes of the Indianapolis Clowns and the Birmingham Black Barons. The Negro American League continued for more than another decade, disbanding in 1960.

One member of the Negro National League, the Atlanta Black Crackers, attempted to adapt to the changing landscape of the leagues and moved first to Indianapolis to join the Negro American League as the ABC’s before disbanding soon thereafter. Perhaps their most famous player, James “Red” Moore, is a great example of a player in the negro league era. He played primarily with the Atlanta Black Crackers, but also spent time with the Newark Eagles, Chattanooga Choo-Choos and the Baltimore Elite Giants among others. He also spent a winter playing integrated baseball before the MLB commissioner ended the competitions.

Another member of the teams from the Negro National League that disbanded following the 1948 season were the New York Black Yankees. On Opening Day in 1941, Satchel Paige forever linked himself to the team and to Yankee Stadium. While he spent a considerable amount of his career with the Kansas City Monarchs, Paige’s services were in high demand from other leagues when the Monarchs weren’t playing and he earned himself an extra income playing for other teams occasionally. One such team was the New York Black Yankees, and Paige did not disappoint when he threw a complete game victory and struck out eight along the way.

The New York Black Yankees benefited from the appearance by one of the greatest Negro League legends, but the team, the city and the region was bustling with talented teams. Clarence “Fats” Jenkins is one such player. A two time Negro League All-Star, a career .325 hitter, and author of a 26 game hit streak, Jenkins also played with five other New York City area ballclubs. One such team was the New York Lincoln Giants. By the time Jenkins played with the Giants, they were a far cry from their dominant independent days featuring Hall of Famers John Henry Lloyd and Cyclone Joe Williams. In a well traveled career, he also played with the New York Bacharach Giants(originally named after the mayor of Atlantic City!) and the New York Harlem Stars. Even after his playing days, Jenkins’ remained involved in New York baseball by serving as manager of the Brooklyn Royal Giants in 1940.

Across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey, the Newark Eagles were fielding a team that featured several future Hall of Famers, most notable Larry Doby, the second black player to debut in the major leagues after Jackie Robinson and the first to debut in the American League in 1947. During his final season with the Newark Eagles, Doby(along with Leon Day and Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Biz Mackey) led the team to an upset victory over the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1946 Negro League Championship. The Eagles became a prime target of major league teams when integration began and the team ceased operations in 1948.

The Eagles shared Ruppert Stadium with the Newark Eagles of the Independent League, a minor league team with several teams including the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees. Negro Leagues routinely shared stadiums with all-white teams, but what may not be known is the Negro Leagues also had a minor league system in place. Perhaps the most famous minor league was the Negro Southern League where Satchel Paige was discovered and spent his earliest years.

Lesser known of the minor leagues include areas that featured negro league teams that didn’t quite reach the popularity of other well stacked teams. One such area is home to the very first professional negro league, and also the home state of the Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays. In 1886, the first professional negro league, the Southern League of Base Ballist, came into existence with their headquarters located in Jacksonville Florida. Opening Day was delayed by a month and the league lasted just one season, but the formation of organized baseball for negro leagues was just beginning.

Larry Doby talks about the great Newark Eagles he played on in a 1993 Baseball Digest article by Clay Woody about the 1948 Cleveland Indians. Click here to check it out!

Another eventual hot zone for the ever expanding negro leagues was in Boston, Massachusetts. Infamously known as home to the Boston Red Sox, the team that was last to integrate their team when Pumpsie Green took the field as a pinch runner on July 21, 1959, there was a growing popularity for organized black ballclubs in the region dating back to 1870. The Boston Royal Giants, sometimes known as the Philadelphia Giants or the Boston Quakers, were an organized team beginning in 1923 and played in ballparks throughout the city area including Playstead Park in Cambridge, and Lincoln Park in Boston. The team eventually played at Braves Field in the late 1930’s and Fenway Park by the mid 1940’s. The franchise player of the Royal Giants was a pitcher by the name Will “Cannonball” Jackman. Hall of Fame manager John McGraw and many others said Jackman was an equal of Bob Feller, Walter Johnson and even Satchel Paige.

Unlike the Negro Leagues in the late 1940’s through the 1950’s, the baseball leagues north of the border became a hot bed for talented players left without options when the Negro Leagues began slipping away. Canada has always been a destination for minor league teams, including Jackie Robinson’s minor league career with Montreal Royals. After Robinson’s integration and the quick dissolution of Negro Leagues, players flocked to the Canadian teams. Integration and the prevalence of radio and television broadcasts effectively ended barnstorming, though the leagues in Canada continued to thrive into the 1960’s.

BaseballDigest.com’s focus on the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues will continue next week with a focus on the teams in cities and areas where the AL and NL Central reign supreme.

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