The Negro Leagues: Toni Stone in Historical Context

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

Have you ever heard of the New York Black Yankees? What about the Homestead Grays, Baltimore Black Barons, or Cincinnati Tigers? From the 1880s until the 1950s, there were two professional baseball systems in the United States: one for white players, and another for Black Americans. Both contributed to the development of the modern game and baseball industry. This year, 2020, marks the centennial of the Negro Leagues, which was founded by Andrew “Rube” Foster,  retired pitcher and owner of the Chicago American Giants, in February 1920 to “create a profession that would equal the earning capacity of any other profession . . . keep Colored baseball from the control of whites . . . [and] do something concrete for the loyalty of the Race.”

The 1943 Homestead Grays lineup included several future Hall of Fame players: Cool Papa Bell (back second from left), Josh Gibson (back fifth from left), and Buck Leonard (back second from right). Photo courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Segregating Baseball
Black Americans played baseball throughout American history, likely even back in 1792, the year of the first written mention of the game, and some teams were integrated. After the Civil War, in 1867, the National Association of Amateur Baseball Players issued a recommendation “against the admission [to the association] of any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.” By 1900, baseball, like the country, was segregated.

Soon, professional all-Black teams were formed. The first of these was the Cuban Giants, established in 1885, who played to packed crowds on Long Island during the summer and in Cuba during the winter months. These teams would play local baseball clubs, regardless of skin color, on diamonds ranging from major or minor league stadiums to small-town fields—a practice known as barnstorming. Most drew large crowds. But without their own stadiums, teams were dependent on white booking agents for access to venues, and they couldn’t set their own schedules. Booking agents also determined how much of the revenue from games was paid to team owners.

Baseball player Toni Stone, the first woman to play professional baseball in the Negro League. Photo courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

The Negro National League

Foster’s vision of creating a Black professional league that would rival white Major League teams materialized when other team owners got on board, and the Negro National League kicked off the 1920–21 season with seven teams from the Midwest. Soon, the Southern Negro League and the white-owned Eastern Colored League were formed in their respective regions. Despite the financial challenges during the Great Depression, the leagues held together through the 1920s. From 1924 through 1927, each season culminated in the Negro World Series, sometimes known as the World’s Colored Championship. This nine-game series was played in different neutral cities, which allowed the leagues to grow their fan base and take advantage of wherever a large stadium was available.

Negro League baseball teams had their own style of play: fast, aggressive, and with showmanship. Some teams, like the Indianapolis Clowns, were forced to incorporate racist entertainment for their white audiences—ball tricks, juggling, dancing, and sleight-of-hand moves—into their games.

The 1922 Negro National League annual meeting. Photo by Woodard Chicago.

After World War II, during which soldiers of all races had been critical to victory, pressure grew to integrate American institutions, including baseball. Jackie Robinson, an infielder who began his career with the Kansas City Monarchs, was signed in 1945 to play for a minor league team affiliated with the Brooklyn Dodgers. After a season with their farm team, Robinson “broke baseball’s color line” when he walked onto the field at Ebbets Stadium in Flatbush, Brooklyn, on April 15, 1947.

As Black players joined Major League teams, Black fans—and their money—followed. The Negro National League folded in 1948. Its rival, the Negro American League, hung on through the 1950s, attempting to draw crowds by including women on their teams.

The contributions and achievements of Negro League baseball teams are often overlooked, but not forgotten. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, works to preserve the story of Black American baseball in the United States. Thirty-five Negro League players, executives, and managers are now recognized in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, including Effa Manley, co-owner of the Newark Eagles and the first woman inducted in 2006.

This article originated in Roundabout Theatre Company’s UPSTAGE guide, produced for the world-premiere production of Toni Stone in 2019. We are grateful to Roundabout’s marketing and education teams for their great work and generosity. It is also excerpted from the Toni Stone edition of Words on Plays. Want to read more? Order your copy here

Toni Stone is onstage at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater now. Click here for tickets!

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