A Brief History of Minor League’s reluctance to integrate (Part 1)
As we all know from learning American history, segregation ruled American society in the late 19th Century and first half of the 20th Century. Every facet of American society was governed by the color of one’s skin. The post Civil War Jim Crow Laws that ruled the Southern States and the United States Supreme Court decision of Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 made it easy to exclude African Americans in white society under a banner of “Separate But Equal.”
Baseball was no exception.
Shortly after the Civil War ended, the first public baseball game between all-black teams was played. The Brooklyn Uniques played the Philadelphia Excelsiors, but lost on their home turf, 37-24. Over the next 20 years, more than 200 black teams would be formed around the country. Regional Negro Leagues popped up in almost every state from the 1870s until a formal league was formed in 1920 and lasted till 1950. These leagues formed on sandlots, local parks, school baseball fields, corn fields, and wherever a baseball diamond could be put up.
While some blacks were able to play on traditionally white teams, especially in the more tolerant North and Midwest, Jim Crow laws and racism prevented them from making significant inroads. All opportunities were lost in 1890 when the National Association of Base Ball Players rejected blacks from play. The so-called “gentleman’s agreement” to bar black teams from the organized leagues for the next 50 years was done to prevent “some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anyone.”
Even in the face of this adversity and undeterred in spirit, the South, Midwest and North all saw new black teams in play. They traveled the country, playing other all-black teams and often challenging all-white teams to exhibition games. One of the earliest examples of this was back in 1888, when the Cuban Giants defeated the all-white New Yorks four games out of five.
The dawn of the twentieth century brought new growth to black teams across the country. With the Great Migration, many blacks moved from the South to the more industrialized areas in the North. Urban centers saw the rise of teams such as the Philadelphia Giants, the Indianapolis ABCs, the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City and the Chicago American Giants. Within their ranks were many notable athletes, including “Pop” Lloyd.
“Rube” Foster, the owner of the Chicago American Giants, knew the time was right for a league of their own, and brought together the heads of other Midwestern black teams. Together in 1920 they created the first black league: The Negro National League. Later that year, the South saw the birth of the Negro Southern League. The Eastern Colored League was started in 1923 and by the next year, the National and Eastern leagues faced off in their own World Series. (The Kansas City Monarchs won, beating the Philadelphia Hilldales.)
The Negro Leagues even had their own Minor League Teams. With the Negro “Leagues” concentrated predominately in the north and northeast, regional leagues gave hundreds of cities across the country the chance to see professional black baseball on a regular basis. These “Minor” league teams were generally very competitive in their level of talent and on the field performance. Most Negro “Minor” league organizations were just as organized and professionally run as their Negro “League” counterparts in the big northern cities. Many of the teams even had their own ballparks.
Examples of some of the more predominant Negro “Minor” regional leagues were: Baseball Association of America; Florida State Negro League; Florida West Coast Negro League; Negro American Association; Negro Carolina League; Negro Eastern League; Negro Southern League; South Texas Negro League; Texas Negro League; Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana Negro League; and West Texas Colored League.
The leagues brought more than great entertainment to the communities in which they played; they also were economically successful over the years. Although the Negro National League was forced to dissolve during the Great Depression, a new National League quickly replaced it. Overall, during the lucrative years of the early twenties and early forties, the leagues were economic all-stars, with the knock-on effect of helping nearby black businesses such as hotels and restaurants.
During the same time that Negro Leagues were being formed at a rapid pace by the start of the twentieth century, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, now known as Minor League Baseball, was organized when presidents of seven minor leagues met in Chicago on Sept. 5, 1901. They established rules of operation that generally remained throughout history. The NAPBL, national in scope, began play with 14 leagues and 96 teams in 1902.
With the growth of the Minor Leagues and the Negro Leagues simultaneously, there came a point where both Minor League teams and Negro League teams were sharing the same ballparks, but had different audiences in the same ballpark. A good example is America’s oldest ballpark: Birmingham’s Rickwood Field. Rickwood Field was the one-time home of the Minor Leagues’ Birmingham Barons and Negro Leagues’ Black Barons, but Alabama state law prohibited black and white players from competing against each other for decades.
“The black fans mostly came out for the black teams, but the white fans came for both,” said Dr. Larry Powell, author of the 2009 book, Black Barons of Birmingham. “The white fans wanted to see the stars, and you had to go to the black games to see Satchel Paige. No one on the [white] Barons drew that kind of attention.”
Birmingham’s antique ballpark may be one of the best examples of the sport’s history through the early 20th century and serves as a reminder of the nation’s struggles with segregation and civil rights. “In the ’50s, the black community tended to coalesce around two groups; the church, with Dr. Martin Luther King, and the other was baseball,” Powell said. “That was something they could take pride in.”
The Barons, currently the Double-A affiliate of the White Sox, and the Black Barons, led by Hall of Famers Paige and Willie Mays, shared Rickwood for many years, and the park was a place both teams —and their fans — called home.
“It was sort of a relationship of mutual respect,” said Powell, “It was part of the times.”
The Barons, established in 1885, opened Rickwood in 1910. The park later became one of the first with lights and also hosted college football games for Samford — a Birmingham university that remained segregated through 1967.
The literal divide between baseball fans could be seen in the outfield on a weekly basis. Barons owner Rick Woodward built the park and allowed both teams to alternate homestands, with the Black Barons often outdrawing the Barons. The right field seats, reportedly taken from the original Polo Grounds before its demolition, were designated as the “Negro Bleachers.” Black fans were allowed to watch the Barons but only in the roped-off section.
“The Black Barons had a very good relationship with the Birmingham Barons but had no scheduling rights as far as the Southern Association was concerned,” explained John Klima, author of Willie’s Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, the Last Negro League World Series and the Making of a Baseball Legend (Wiley 2009). They could only rent the park when the white team was not playing, period.
White fans kept to themselves in the segregated area when they came to see the star-studded Black Barons, whose fans occasionally watched from the warning track.
“White fans could go wherever they wanted during black games,” Klima said. “But most preferred to segregate themselves in right field.”
World War II marked the high point of the Negro Leagues. In 1942 three million fans saw Negro League teams play, while the East-West game in 1943 attracted over 51,000 fans. “Even the white folks was coming out big,” recalled Satchel Paige. But World War II also generated forces which would challenge the foundations of Jim Crow baseball and destroy the Negro Leagues. The hypocrisy of blacks fighting for their country but unable to participate in the national pastime grew steadily more apparent. “I can play in Mexico,” pitcher Nate Moreland protested, “but I have to fight for America where I can’t play.”
JACKIE ROBINSON AND THE SLOW MOVEMENT OF INTEGRATING THE MINORS
Jackie Robinson joined professional baseball in the spring of 1945 with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. He spent his rookie season touring the country with the Monarchs for $400 a month. In August he met with Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had been scouring the country to find a black ball player he felt could best withstand the pressure of being the first black man in the Major Leagues. Jackie Robinson crossed the threshold into white professional baseball at that meeting signing a minor league contract with the Dodgers’ farm club, the Montreal Royals. With this signing to the Montreal Royals, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to go into the Minor Leagues thus breaking the color barrier and pioneered integration.
Of course Jackie would spend one season in the minors and was quickly brought up by Branch Rickey to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers beginning in April of 1947.
By the 1950s, Robinson had entrenched himself as one of the stars of the National League. His role as pioneer and his ability to perform at the highest level clearly served as a tremendous example not only for other African-American baseball players, but for the country at large.
The impact of Jackie Robinson didn’t necessarily filter down to the South, where segregation and separate-but-unequal still ruled the land. As leagues below the Mason-Dixon line began to slowly integrate, players had obvious respect for what Robinson was doing, though it sometimes felt that he and his accomplishments were a world away.
Ed Charles spent nearly a decade in the Minor Leagues, much of it in the South, before joining the Kansas City Athletics in 1962 and eventually winning a World Series with the 1969 Mets. He told Adelson that he and many other Minor Leaguers in the South were “Robinson’s disciples.” But while Charles and others were trying to follow in Robinson’s path, they didn’t see Robinson’s experiences as helping them in North Carolina, Georgia or Alabama.
Al Israel, who helped integrate the South Atlantic League with Hank Aaron in 1953, often saw the Major Leaguers breeze through the South on barnstorming trips. While they were in town for just one day, he told Adelson that black Minor League players in the South had to live that existence every day.
THE BARRIERS COME DOWN
Minor League segregation in the South ended slowly, beginning in 1951. Barriers came down in Texas, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. Northern teams weren’t exactly far ahead of their Southern counterparts, though some did help pave the way by bringing the first black players to the South.
Jim Pendleton (St. Paul Saints) and Ray Dandridge (Minneapolis Millers) were the first black players to play against the Louisville Colonels in the American Association in 1949. A year later, Willie Mays broke the barrier in the Class B Interstate League when his Trenton Giants traveled to Maryland to play the Hagerstown Braves.
By 1951, some teams in the South were ready to integrate. The Lamesa Lobos signed J.W. Wingate in the Class C West Texas–New Mexico League early in the 1951 season. In August, Percy Miller Jr. joined the Danville Leafs, officially integrating the Carolina League. Both players’ tenures — and careers in organized baseball — were short-lived. The 23-year-old Wingate was released by the Lobos before the end of May.
“Although he batted a respectable .250 for the Lobos,” Adelson wrote, “Wingate did not instantly manifest the star qualities expected of African-American ballplayers who crossed southern minor-league color lines. Many believed, with some justification, that white fans, already discomfited by the prospect of watching blacks and whites playing interracial baseball, would have their angst salved only by the opportunity to watch the best African-American athletes available … Countless black ballplayers in the 1950s faced this same reality.”
Miller Jr. certainly did. A kid not long out of high school signed with his hometown team, the Danville Leafs, breaking the color line in Virginia and in the Carolina League. He played 19 games at the end of the 1951 season and that winter the Leafs released him. That ended the Carolina League’s experiment and Miller’s career. There wasn’t another black player in the league until 1953.
Too often in these early integration stories, the time was too brief, the pressure too great and the racism too overt for young players like Miller to get a fair chance at proving he belonged. When Miller joined the Leafs, he was given a size 48 shirt and size 46 pants, told by the equipment manager that it was the only uniform available. Miller saw it differently, thinking it was a racially based snub.
“Here I was a 31 inches in the waist,” Miller Jr. told The Roanoke Times in 1997. “It fit me like a bathrobe.”
Also in 1951, the Granite Falls Graniteers in the Class D Western Carolina League signed three black players to become the first team in North Carolina to integrate, though a lack of official statistics from that time make it more difficult to confirm.
None of these players went on to stardom at any level of professional baseball, and while many of them were “firsts,” it’s unlikely many of them felt they were making history.
“I didn’t think I was a trailblazer,” Miller Jr. said in that 1997 interview at age 65. “I figured Jackie had done the job. And everybody who followed along after had him to thank.”
THIS ENDS PART 1. LOOK FOR PART 2: HOW DID INTEGRATION TAKE HOLD IN THE MINOR LEAGUES.