Probing the business of black baseball.
By Gerald Early | Of all the cultural enterprises that segregation wrought, Negro League baseball may have been the most curious, an odd combination of the ambitious and the restricted, of the perversely quixotic and the stoically heroic. Negro League baseball was the most graphic instance of challenging the system of racial discrimination by trying to generate, independently, black excellence and accomplishment, while simultaneously acknowledging and submitting to the humiliation of Jim Crow and its explicit suggestion of black inferiority. Although black baseball has a place today in the American mind, many still do not know Negro professional baseball ever existed, somewhere between the persistent practice of a political and social tragedy and the grand incarnation of a racial myth.
There were two distinct historical periods when Negro League baseball existed and, briefly and fitfully, flourished in America: during the 1920s under the leadership of black pitcher and businessman Rube Foster, and in the 1930s and 1940s under the leadership of several black businessmen (especially, in the beginning, Pittsburgh’s Gus Greenlee, an illegal lottery operator). The most recent book to deal with 1920s black baseball is Robert Charles Cottrell’s The Best Pitcher in Baseball: The Life of Rube Foster, Negro League Giant (2001), while Neil Lanctot’s Negro League Baseball is the most recent to deal with the reconstituted Negro Leagues of the 1930s and ’40s. (There were two Negro Leagues in the 1930s, the Negro National League, launched in 1933, consisting of clubs on the East Coast, and the Negro American League, which began operation in 1936, consisting of Midwestern clubs.)
Other books written about the Negro Leagues of the 1930s tend to concentrate on the players and games, on black baseball as a sport, an athletic endeavor whose players have not been properly recognized by the American sports establishment, particularly Major League Baseball. (Initial research of the Negro Leagues back in the 1970s was largely to make a case for certain black players to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and for Negro League players to be given some sort of pension benefits comparable to their white professional counterparts, both worthy goals.) Lanctot is a history professor at the University of Delaware, and Negro League Baseball is fully devoted to the administration of the leagues and to the operation of the leagues as a business enterprise. His book is the most thoroughly researched examination of the Negro Leagues in this regard. It provides a nearly day-by-day description of the operation of the leagues, with detailed accounts of owners’ meetings and personalities, of the leagues’ presidents and commissioners, and of the difficulty in operating a severely undercapitalized set of leagues with an inability to enforce its own management rules or even to operate collectively in its own best interest.
The problem with capital led to three practices that weakened black baseball: a reliance on money from black underworld figures (in effect, as Lanctot points out, black baseball was operated by people who actually had no idea how to run a legitimate business), a reliance on white booking agents to provide playing facilities and a schedule, and a reliance on barnstorming as a way to underwrite the cost of operating a team, thus reducing league games to a secondary role. What a league is meant to sell—competition within the structure of a season where league teams play each other mostly or exclusively, culminating in a championship—the Negro Leagues were never able to come close to providing. They were not leagues, really, but a group of associated, independent clubs.
What is amazing about the Negro Leagues is that they were able to exist for as long as they did under the conditions they endured. They did develop players (not as efficiently as they could have) and they did develop a fan base (not as effectively as they could have). On the other hand, they rarely made money, seeing profits only during World War II when black income rose dramatically, and that prosperity ended abruptly and forever with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ signing of Kansas City Monarch shortstop Jackie Robinson in December 1945—whereupon blacks lost interest in black baseball. (Starting up the Negro National League in 1933, as Gus Greenlee and his fellow league owners did, during the depths of the Depression, trying to appeal to a small percentage of the population that was highly persecuted and deeply impoverished, seems, in retrospect, either visionary or completely irrational.)
The impact of integration on black enterprises is an issue that Lanctot deals with at length, steering clear of two ideological shoals: avoiding any Jim Crow nostalgia for a non-existent “nationalist” past of black communal independence as well as avoiding the idea that black enterprises that resulted from segregation were essentially worthless shadow institutions that perpetuated segregation. Lanctot’s book is a rich, complex examination of how black baseball “provides a window into several major themes in modern African American history, illustrating the initial response to segregation, the subsequent struggle to establish successful separate enterprises, and later movement toward integration.” For this reader, Negro League Baseball is the best book written about black professional baseball, and one of the best books written about a black business endeavor, period.
Dr. Gerald Early C’74 is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University and directs the Center for the Humanities there. The author and editor of numerous books, including The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting; Miles Davis and American Culture; and most recently This Is Where I Came In: Black America in the 1960s, he was a consultant on Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on baseball.