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 West and the National League West were they playing today. Last week featured the teams of The Central.
Major League Baseball did not expand significantly west of the Mississippi River until 1953 when the Boston Braves moved out to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Dodgers move from Brooklyn New York to Los Angeles California prior to the 1958 season broke open the expansion of top professional baseball teams playing coast to coast. There were minor league teams throughout the country, but the MLB expansion altered the sport forever. The expansion may have also impacted the play of the Negro Leagues that had long been playing on both coasts of the United States.
Before Major League Baseball expanded, there was another league that provided a top level of play throughout the west coast. The West Coast Negro Baseball League last just two months, but fielded six teams from as far north as Seattle Washington and as far south as San Diego California. The league played at the ballparks that were home to the minor league teams that comprised the Pacific Coast League.
In a February 1976 issue of Baseball Digest, John Holway wrote about how the talents of Luis Tiant and his contemporaries compared to Tiant’s father and his contemporaries that made up the Negro Leagues. Click here to check it out!
One of the most profitable teams of the league that existed for just a year was the Seattle Steelheads. Comprised of players that made of the roster of the barnstorming Harlem Globetrotters(the original team that the famous basketball franchise shares a name with), the “Steelies” played many games throughout Washington state in addition to playing at their home field of Sick’s Stadium. The same stadium was home to the short lived Seattle Pilot MLB franchise in 1969.
A team that played just south of the Seattle Steelheads had a tougher time succeeding in the new league, but they also had an interesting beginning to their season. Though they called Portland Oregon their home, the Rosebuds began their season in El Paso, Texas. In fact they played several games in Texas as they barnstormed their way up to Portland.
Unlike the Rosebuds, another successful team from the West Coast Negro Baseball League was the Oakland Larks. Aside from becoming a barnstorming team in their own right following the dissolution of the league, the Oakland Larks played a role in generating support for the Negro Leagues in the west. The most famous player for the Larks never played in Major League Baseball, but did break the color barrier in another way. The player in question, Lionel Wilson, went on to become the first African American mayor of Oakland.
The city of Oakland was among the first in the western United States to feature barnstorming negro league teams. The Oakland Black Giants and other teams from Richmond, Sacramento, and San Jose laid the groundwork during the mid to late 1920’s for the swell of support that resulted in the WCNBL two decades later.
Further north, Milwaukee Wisconsin once again proved to be a groundbreaking city for professional baseball. Like the Milwaukee Braves, the Bears were one of the first Negro League baseball teams to play out west when the 1923 squad took the field at Athletic Park. The team was newly added to the first Negro National League as a result of two teams leaving the league the year before. The Bears lasted just one season, and the most famous member of the team was arguably Hall of Famer Pete Hill. Hill was a player and manager of Negro League teams for more than 30 years between 1899 and 1925. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
In a July 1957 issue of Baseball Digest, Jim Ellis wrote about Robert “The Rope” Boyd, the first Negro Leaguer to play for the Chicago White Sox, who was scouted by John Donaldson! Click here to check it out!
John Donaldson, one of the most famous Negro League era players, spent at least a year on the west coast and much of his career playing throughout the mid-west, including stops in Canada. Donaldson is not a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but there are documented reports of him earning a total of 360 career victories and striking out more than 4,000 batters over the course of his thirty plus years as a pitcher. His career took him through various cities and states where organized baseball wasn’t easy to find. Donaldson played ball in Minnesota, Montana, Iowa, and cities in Saskatchewan, Canada. Perhaps the most interesting time during his career, the author of eleven No Hitters spent 6 seasons playing with All Nations, a team comprised of players from many different backgrounds including white players, Asian American players and Latin American players. The team even occasionally featured a woman playing the field.
John Donaldson’s All Nations team gave a brief glimpse at what the future of baseball held. Some day there will be a woman playing infield for a Major League Baseball team, completing the roster of the early 1910’s All Nations that roamed the mid-west before it was the norm. Next week, the final installment of the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues feature will highlight the first African American ballplayers of each team in Major League Baseball.