Any history on Black baseball inevitably leads back to Cap Anson, a prominent white player / manager in the late 1800’s, and his subsequent involvement in the beginning of segregation in baseball. That Anson was the face of that segregationist movement in baseball is fairly well known. But what really opened the eyes of the students, was the sanctioning of segregation by the nation’s highest court, when in 1896 the United States Supreme Court held for the state of Louisiana in the case of Plessy V. Ferguson. Speaking for the seven-man majority, Justice Henry Brown wrote in part: “A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races – has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races.” This ruling was subsequently used by professional baseball, and ultimately Major League Baseball, as justification for keeping black players out of the white professional leagues.
This fact ignited a new-found passion within the kids working on the project, a fact they had never heard of in their years of taking classes in history and social studies.
The first all-black baseball teams were formed in the northern states after the American Civil War ended in 1865. As baseball gained in popularity in the years after the War, free blacks in the Northern States organized teams and competed against white teams. One of the first recorded instances of racism in professional baseball occurred in 1867. The all-black Philadelphia Pythians baseball club petitioned the National Association of Baseball Players for inclusion into its membership, but was rejected. The committee’s decision barred “any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.” Thus in one historic “decision” the die was cast to exclude Blacks from playing in the major leagues for the next sixty years.
However, the committee’s decision also provided the impetus to create a league for Black players – the future Negro Leagues. Andrew “Rube” Foster, founder and first president of the Negro National League, is known as the Father of Black Baseball. An outstanding pitcher who began his own career as a player at age 17, Foster supported black teams throughout his life and worked for the legitimization, respect, and financial success of African-American baseball. A creative and intelligent businessman, Foster also helped to form the Chicago American Giants, a powerhouse team that some say would have rivaled the New York Yankees had they been allowed to play in the same league.
Players, however, soon realized there was a financial opportunity in forming touring teams outside the control of owners. By playing as many as three games a day, barnstorming allowed players to supplement their income, and in many cases exceed what they made playing in organized leagues. Meanwhile, for an ever-increasing number of Americans living in the West, (without television, and in many areas no newspapers) there was little access to baseball’s emerging stars, both white and black. Consequently, barnstorming offered fans a chance to see their beloved game of baseball and the players they had only heard about. Coupled with the showmanship of the black players, the arrival of a barnstorming team created an event rivaling the atmosphere surrounding a circus coming to town.
As a means of attracting these barnstorming teams, small towns and cities throughout the West put on money tournaments, offering hefty prize money to the winning team. In Canada especially, these tournaments were extremely lucrative, and were a big draw for the touring black teams. In fact, a number of Canadian towns recruited black players, and in some instances entire black teams, to play for the host team.