#Shortstops: Printed history

Part of the SHORT STOPS series
Written by: John Sullivan

Professional baseball was segregated for nearly 60 years following a “Gentleman’s agreement” by team owners in 1887. The owners unofficially agreed that they would no longer honor or sign contracts to players of color. This tradition would remain in place until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

In the intervening years, a number of leagues were established to allow African Americans and other players of color to compete at some level. There was a myriad of leagues established, but many failed due to financial instability and low attendance. Some owners responded to this challenge by establishing gimmick teams, who would play their games in some kind of costume.

The Hall of Fame collection contains a poster of one such game played by the Zulu Cannibal Giants. Based in Louisville, Ky., and owned by local business man and former Negro Leagues pitcher Charlie Henry, the games the teams played were a mix of a baseball game and a minstrel show.

“Players clad in grass skirts, headdresses, and war paint,” wrote author Neil Lanctot. “Pandering to white America’s worst attitudes and most stereotypical views of blacks, the players entertained fans between games with various ‘comedy’ acts including staged fights with spears and shield along with a crap game featuring loaded dice and players brandishing razors.”

The players would compete barefoot, use war clubs in lieu of traditional bats, as well as sport “African” names instead of there real ones.

These teams were able to attract some considerable talent to their rosters due to there popularity as well as the limited opportunity afforded to black players at the time. Buck O’Neil, who was the first African-American coach in the major leagues, played for the Cannibal Giants for a time.

In his autobiography “I Was Right on Time”, O’Neil described his experience playing for the Cannibal Giants as “very demeaning.” However, he felt he could not pass up the opportunity due to the significant pay increase.

Hank Aaron, who would eventually break Babe Ruth’s all time home run record in the major leagues, began his career on a different novelty team, the Indianapolis Clowns. The Clowns were one of the last Negro Leagues teams to officially disband, as they played exhibition games into the 1980s.

John Sullivan was a 2019 membership relations intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development

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Part of the SHORT STOPS series