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By Bill Francis
Fans of the national pastime are familiar with the story of Jackie Robinson, the African-American ballplayer who in 1947 broke big league baseball’s modern color barrier. But unfamiliar to most is a story that took place without much fanfare 90 years ago this week that improved the lot of those who were prohibited from playing at the game’s highest level.
With organized baseball, though segregated, thriving, a meeting took place with a number of the owners of the top independent black baseball teams at a YMCA in Kansas City, Mo., on Feb. 13, 1920. It was here that the Negro National League, the first successful baseball league featuring black players, was founded. Leading the way was Andrew “Rube” Foster, considered black baseball’s best pitcher before serving as owner and manager of the Chicago American Giants.
A number of unsuccessful attempts had been made in the past to bring stability to Negro baseball, but this time, after a lengthy discussion, the other owners agreed to Foster’s proposal. While black professional baseball had been part of sport’s landscape for years, this new venture would do away with scheduling difficulties and bring a sense of financial security to both the owners and players.
It was not coincidence that the NNL’s founding came at the same time as the Great Migration, when a half million blacks left the rural south to live and work in northern cities. The new league would have an eager audience looking for a source of inexpensive entertainment long day of work.
In 1997, 50 years after Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the National Baseball Hall of Fame opened the permanent exhibit Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience. The exhibit was re-curated and re-designed for a grand opening in 2004.
The story of Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience is also told throughout the country through a national traveling panel exhibition that will visit more than three dozen public and academic libraries over the next four years. The exhibit, a partnership of the Hall of Fame and the American Library Association, features photographs of artifacts and the stories of the participants as African-American players and owners changed the landscape of professional baseball.
The exhibit is currently on display in San Jose, Calif., at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library. For a list of all sites and dates, visit http://www.ala.org/publicprograms
Foster, elected as the NNL’s first president, would be elected by the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Committee on Veterans in 1981. He would serve his team and the NNL until late in 1926 when illness forced his retirement. He died four years later at 51.
Years later, Joe Green, former owner of the Chicago Giants, said, “Actually, when Rube died, the league died with him.”
In the summer of 1931, after having been without Foster’s guidance for four years, the NNL, which added and subtracted numerous cities to its roster over the years, folded. But ultimately, Foster proved that Negro League baseball could be a viable business for African-American entrepreneurs – as well as great entertainment for fans.
Bill Francis is a library associate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.