League of Opportunity

Ninety years ago, the birth of the Negro National League provided a showcase for African-American talent

April 06, 2010
Rube Foster was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1981. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

At the time, it seemed little more than a footnote to history.

But today, the men who launched the Negro National League are recognized as pioneers in baseball and business. Their legacy is that of pioneers.

Ninety years ago, a meeting took place with a number of the owners of the top independent black baseball teams at a YMCA in Kansas City, Mo., on Feb. 13, 1920. It was here that the Negro National League, the first successful baseball league featuring black players, was founded. Leading the way was Andrew “Rube” Foster, considered black baseball’s best pitcher before serving as owner and manager of the Chicago American Giants.

Among those attending the meeting and becoming initial members of this new enterprise, for a $500 fee that would bind them to the league and constitution, were the baseball magnates of the top Midwestern teams: Foster, Tenny Blunt (Detroit Stars), Lorenzo Cobb (St. Louis Giants), John Matthews (Dayton Macros), Joe Green (Chicago Giants), C.I. Taylor (Indianapolis ABCs) and J.L. Wilkerson (Kansas City Monarchs). The Cuban Stars’ owner was unable to attend but sent along his approval of the league.

With organized baseball still segregated, the mid-February meeting was an attempt by Foster, who would be elected as the NNL’s first president, to bring stability to Negro baseball for the first time. A number of unsuccessful attempts had been made in the past, but this time, after a lengthy discussion, the other owners agreed to Foster’s proposal. While black professional baseball had been part of sport’s landscape for years, this new venture would do away with scheduling difficulties and bring a sense of financial security to both the owners and players.

It would be 27 more years before Jackie Robinson would integrate the big leagues, but African-American players would prove through the NLL and other leagues that they had the skills to compete at baseball’s highest level.

Even in 1920, the idea of an African-American baseball enterprise was nothing new. Foster, considered a shrewd and successful leader, had been advocating for a black baseball league for some time.

In the Oct 4, 1919 issue of The Chicago Defender, one of the leading African-American newspapers in the country, it was written of Foster: “It has been his dream for years to see men of his Race have a circuit of their own. There was a rumor that he would take his team to New York City and an offer was made to him to build a park at a cost of $100,000, and the offer is open to his acceptance. But Mr. Foster wanted to be where he could do the most good to develop a permanent baseball circuit, and that was in the West, his hometown, where he is loved an admired and where he put baseball on the map. Mr. Foster is planning day and night for the coming season. Every businessman in Chicago is back of him. He has the confidence and respect of the press and fans. No man in baseball has more influence than ‘Rube’ Foster.”

It was not coincidence that the NNL’s founding came at the same time as the Great Migration, when a half million blacks left the rural south to live and work in northern cities. The new league would have an eager audience looking for a source of inexpensive entertainment after a long day of work.

Judging by the number of NNL players who would eventually be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame – such as Rube Foster’s half-brother Willie Foster, Turkey Stearnes, Pete Hill, Oscar Charleston, Biz Mackey, Ben Taylor, Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown, Andy Cooper, Pop Lloyd, Jose Mendez, Joe Rogan, Mule Suttles, Cristobal Torriente and Willie Wells – there would be no doubt about the high caliber of play.

As for Rube Foster, who would be elected by the Hall of Fame’s Committee on Veterans in 1981, he would serve his team and the NNL until late in 1926 when illness forced his retirement. He died four years later at 51.

In the summer of 1931, after having been without Foster’s guidance for four years, the NNL, which added and subtracted numerous cities to its roster over the years, folded. Ultimately, Foster proved that segregated baseball could be a viable business for African-American entrepreneurs.

Looking back, Dave Malarcher, who played for Foster in the NNL, said in 1981 that “one of the great tragedies of the color line in baseball is that so many of those men were denied the recognition they deserved. Although we were denied our rights as Americans, we did not lower our standards of play. Rube Foster, and other black managers and performers, looked on baseball as a great artistic endeavor – a thinking man’s game.”

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum