By Martin Weiss | MLB.com Editor
On the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s Major League debut, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred christened the intersection of 42nd and Broadway after the famed second baseman. “Baseball did not truly become the national pastime until Jackie – and those who followed him – integrated our sport.”
America, like baseball, is steeped in tradition and history. Baseball, like America, often tries to forget the tradition and history. Historically, baseball was America’s game long before Jackie swung a professional bat.
While Mel Ott’s career .304 batting average earned him 11-straight National League All-Star Game appearances, James “Cool Papa” Bell was a .331 switch hitter with 330 stolen bases in 1,468 career games.
Hal Newhouser won back-to-back American League MVP awards, but no pitcher in professional baseball from 1927 to 1947 had a higher K/9 ratio than Satchel Paige. Babe Ruth may have called his shot, but Josh Gibson was the only man to hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium.
But in 1889, the operators of baseball colluded to sign only white players, denying Black players entry to what would become the foundation of modern-day Major League Baseball, and more importantly robbing them of any generated revenue.
Start Of Negro Leagues
Major League Baseball officially “elevated the Negro Leagues to ‘Major League’ status” in 2020, including Negro League statistics in its official record books and Negro Leagues players in its Hall of Fame. But the time has come to stop half-stepping–MLB should provide reparations to the families of players, managers, and organizers who made up the Negro Leagues.
Segregation meant restrictions on where and who Negro Leaguers played. Teams barnstormed across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and other Latin American countries, playing against the town’s local team while passing a collection plate in the crowd, exposing many across North America to the game. Black leagues existed, but traveling was a more lucrative way to make a living, despite virulent racism each step along the way.
In 1920, Rube Foster and six other Midwestern club owners proposed the first Negro National League. From 1920 to 1947, the Negro Leagues were the place for Bell, Paige, Gibson and countless other Black players to snag bases, flash leather and throw gas.
Dennis Biddle: Youngest Living Negro Leagues Player
A broken ankle ruined Dennis Biddle’s Chicago American Giants debut in 1953, but the then-17-year-old pitcher played long enough to be entered into the Congressional Record as the youngest player to play in the Negro baseball leagues. At 87 years old today, he’s the youngest living player from the Negro Leagues.
“The Negro Leagues, in the early years, made baseball what they are calling it today: America’s Greatest Pastime. We made it that way.” said Biddle. “The style of play presented on the field was unlike the Major Leagues, which is what gave it the credibility (as its own league). The Negro Leagues produced some of the greatest ballplayers to ever play the game.”
Negro League baseball changed forever when Los Angeles Dodgers manager Branch Rickey signed the second baseman from the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945.
While with the St. Louis Cardinals, Rickey developed a robust farm system by optioning players from the Cardinals to his other minor league teams. Other MLB teams would soon follow suit.
Rickey became the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943. In 1945, he founded the United States League for Black players, which the Encyclopedia Britannica described as “a front that allowed Rickey to quietly scout Black ballplayers for one who could lead the desegregation of the major leagues.”
“The style, the technique of play (in the Negro Leagues) was different than that of the major leagues. Thousands of people would come out to watch them play because of that,” recounted Biddle in a speech “It was more exciting, more daring…
“Owners and managers from the major leagues would sneak in our games, study the techniques we were using, and implement them.”
Biddle went on to say the Negro leagues started the hit and run (called the bunt and run at the time) and invented the predecessors to the modern helmet and shin guard.
Rickey saw an opportunity – there was an untapped pool of talent that could help boost his Dodgers. But Rickey was not compensating teams after signing players away, stealing Negro League talent from team owners. After Rickey signed Robinson, there was a run on exceptional Negro League talent to the National League – so much so that from 1948 to 1962, 11 of the 15 National League MVP awards went to Black ballplayers.
Branch Rickey And Jackie Robinson Make History
The Negro Leagues became a defacto minor league system after Robinson, Doby and others were poached. Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles and now-Major League Baseball Hall of Famer, was an outspoken critic and eventual victim of Rickey’s practice.
“When he took those three Negro ballplayers from Negro baseball and didn’t give us five cents or say “thank you”… Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. ” said Manley in a 1977 interview. “We couldn’t protest. The fans would have never forgiven us, plus it would have been wrong to have prevented them from going to the majors.”
Her team, as well as the Negro National League, would fold in 1948. Black baseball as a whole was over by 1960.
Six years later, the NFL-AFL merger,established a precedent that other leagues, like the NBA and NHL, would use as a revenue-sharing framework when acquiring other leagues.
Major League Baseball, however, did not officially recognize the Negro Leagues as a “Major League” until 2020, highlighting approximately 3,400 players of the Negro Leagues as Major League-caliber ballplayers.
This year, there’s a Negro League storyline in MLB The Show, the officially-licensed game of Major League Baseball.
It is a half measure in simply acknowledging the Negro Leagues and correcting the damage done by Branch Rickey’s actions. Rickey, and other general managers after him, essentially engineered American professional sports’ first merger.
Except, Major League Baseball provided little to no compensation to the league being absorbed or an opportunity for teams to join the remaining league – both staples of future mergers.
If Major League Baseball wants to genuinely celebrate Jackie Robinson Day, it needs to acknowledge the full impact of that moment.
“Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough with the Brooklyn Dodgers was a triumph for the integration of baseball and a death sentence for the Negro Leagues,” states an article from the Society for American Baseball Research “Once the barrier to entry for the top Black ballplayers finally and justly fell, the leagues that used to be the only place to see them play struggled to survive.”
MLB Owes Negro League Players
With that knowledge, and Major League Baseball’s rightful inclusion of Negro League history as its own, there is only one logical next step. Major League Baseball must provide the financial compensation it stole from generations of people who benefited and profited from the Negro Leagues.
It must pay reparations, especially as it continues to profit off of the legacy of Negro League legends.
Manley, a woman before her time in many regards, saw the writing on the proverbial wall – or “color barrier”. In the September 21, 1948 edition of the New York Age, she said:
“Baseball is a rich man’s game… Ruppert had his beer, Wrigley had his gum, Abe and I have only each other. I am not worried about myself, but I am concerned about the 400 men and their families who depend on the Negro Leagues.”
It’s time Major League Baseball (finally) addresses her concerns.