The little-known 'Minors' of the Negro Leagues

History shows proof of a farm system in black baseball

(AP file photo)

February 1, 2007 5:28 AM

1920 was a very significant year for black baseball.

After three-and-a-half decades of false starts and premature endings, the first successful baseball league featuring black players was established. This circuit, the brainchild of former pitching star Rube Foster, was called the Negro National League and it was the first of several "Major" Negro Leagues that would exist at various points over the next four decades (including a second Negro National League, which came into existence two years after the original disbanded in 1931).

The collective history of these leagues is, as a whole, chaotic and tumultuous. Financial woes, cutthroat competition and shoddy record keeping were the norm rather than the exception. In fact, of the eight Negro Leagues classified by the Society for American Baseball Research as "Major," only three were able to maintain this designation for a span of 10 years or more -- and just one, the Negro American League, lasted more than 20. In short, instability reigned as the Negro Leagues contended with a seemingly endless flurry of problems, both external (such as the logistics of travel in Jim Crow America) and internal (player defections and a lack of cooperation among owners).

Within this reality, it is not surprising that the Negro Leagues never developed anything remotely resembling a coherent Minor League system. It was often difficult for these leagues to stay afloat from season to season, let alone assemble an organized hierarchical player development system.

Yet black professional baseball at the time of the Negro National League's founding in 1920 was hardly a new phenomenon. From semi-pro collectives and company teams to established city squads and elite barnstorming teams, black players had become commonplace on the United States' burgeoning baseball landscape. Therefore, the NNL and its various rivals and successors had an established talent pool from which to draw from, haphazardly organized as it was.

In fact, the NNL's official motto of "We Are the Ship ... All Else the Sea" brazenly acknowledged the reality of black baseball at the time of its inception. This proverbial "sea" was an exceedingly loose network of teams and players that served as a sort of de facto "Negro Minor Leagues."

At one end of this spectrum were organizations that functioned as fairly traditional Minor League entities. The best-known and longest-lasting of these was the Negro Southern League, a semi-pro circuit that began operation in 1921. The league was a member of the National Association of Colored Professional Base Ball Clubs (the NNL's governing body), but none of its clubs were under agreement to serve as a feeder team for a higher-level NNL Club.

Nonetheless, several prominent Negro League stars got their start in the NSL. Norman "Turkey" Stearnes, who was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000, excelled for the circuit's Montgomery Grey Sox in 1921 before embarking on a 20-year career in the Negro "Major" Leagues. Five years later, none other than Satchel Paige made his professional debut in the NSL as a member of the Chattanooga Black Lookouts. Statistics are spotty, but it is rumored that the eventually-unhittable Paige gave up 13 runs in one of his very first starts with the club.

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Ironically, the Negro Southern League outlasted the NNL, which disbanded in 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression. The NSL absorbed some of the NNL's clubs for the 1932 campaign, and for the first and only time, it was considered a "Major" League. While this designation was not to last, the NSL adapted and persevered. Many of its clubs remained independent, although several clubs struck up working relationships with Major Negro League teams. The Monroe Monarchs, for example, functioned as an unofficial farm team of the respected and powerful Kansas City Monarchs -- whose 1945 club boasted a young standout by the name of Jackie Robinson. More often than not, however, the NNL and its ilk found it more expedient to simply raid the lesser leagues of their players, rather than establish working agreements. Here, the prevailing logic was simply "Why pay for something when you can get it for free?"

The Negro Southern League was one of the most successful and longest-running of the Negro "Minor Leagues," but it was hardly alone. A veritable smorgasbord of regional circuits popped up within the black baseball landscape over the years, operating with various degrees of longevity and success. While these regional leagues -- such as the Texas Negro League and the Negro Midwest League -- often served as springboards for players as they attempted to gain entry into the more lucrative "Major" leagues, they just as often existed in isolation.

The same couldn't be said of barnstorming teams, traveling squads that had an enormous impact on the makeup and playing style of the Negro Major League teams. Prior to the founding of the NNL, playing for barnstorming teams had been one of the primary ways black baseball players could make a living -- and many black stars opted to play for barnstorming teams even after the NNL's inception. Therefore, many Negro Major League teams were composed primarily of former -- and in many cases current and future -- barnstormers.

The aforementioned Kansas City Monarchs, who joined the NNL in its inaugural 1920 campaign, had a roster comprised almost entirely of two former barnstorming teams: All-Nations (which, as its name implies, also featured players of Hispanic, Asian and Caucasian descent) and the 25th Infantry Wreckers (an elite Army team). After the demise of the NNL, the Monarchs themselves operated as a barnstorming squad for several years before becoming charter members of the Negro American League in 1937.

Unlike the Negro Southern League and its ilk, it would be disingenuous to classify barnstorming teams as being of "Minor League" caliber. More accurately, barnstorming teams uneasily co-existed with Negro Major League clubs. While many barnstorming teams were absorbed into official league structures -- such as the famous Indianapolis Clowns, who competed in the Negro American League from 1944-55, many continued to operate as they had before any sort of official league structure had been established. And the players often sensibly chose to play for whoever offered the most money. Baseball's ultimate mercenary, Satchel Paige, who pinballed between barnstorming, semi-pro and "official" Negro League clubs throughout his decades-long career, best embodied this phenomenon.

Paige, of course, lasted long enough to pitch in the Major Leagues, making his debut with the Cleveland Indians in 1948. While the integration of Major League Baseball was an undoubtedly positive and long overdue occurrence, it also sounded the death knell for the Negro Leagues and all the affiliated and non-affiliated black organizations that populated the baseball universe. In fact, a very telling event happened late in the 1946 Negro National League season, one that could be seen as a harbinger of the Negro Leagues upcoming slide into obsolescence.

With one week remaining in the NNL's 1946 regular season, the legendary James "Cool Papa" Bell of the Homestead Grays was locked in a tight race for the batting title with the up-and-coming Monte Irvin of the Newark Eagles. Bell, a 43-year-old veteran widely considered to be the fastest man to ever play baseball, had not lost his competitive drive. Yet he willingly took himself out of the lineup during the final week of the season, ensuring that he would not finish with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. Irvin, by default, took home the crown.

Bell's uncharacteristic and unprecedented ceding of the batting title was a purely altruistic act. With Robinson excelling as a member of the International League's Montreal Royals, Major League Baseball was finally on the cusp of racial integration. Bell, in the twilight of his career, knew he was too old for any Major League teams to take a genuine interest in him. The savvy veteran realized that the recognition Irvin would receive as a result of winning the batting title might result in him getting picked up by a Major League club.

"For the first time, the Major Leagues were serious about taking in blacks," said Bell about his purposeful batting title loss. "I was too old, but Monte was young and had a chance for the future. It was important to be noticed, important he get that chance."

Irvin, and many other former Negro Leaguers, did eventually get that chance. The downside of this development was that the Negro Leagues, once autonomous and self-sufficient, began to function more as an informal farm team for young black standouts such as Irvin as they attempted to grab the attention of Major League clubs. The irony of Robinson's historic debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 was that it turned the Negro Leagues into a glorified farm system for Major League Baseball, the very entity that had purposefully excluded them for the previous 70 years.

Over the next several decades, the influence of the Negro Leagues on the professional baseball scene went into a slow and inexorable decline, one marked by a few significant benchmarks. The Negro American League, the last remaining Negro "Major" League, played its final season in 1960, one year after the Boston Red Sox became the last team within Major League Baseball to add a black player to their roster.

On June 17, 1969, utilityman Ike Brown made his Major League debut with the Detroit Tigers, and in the process became the last former Negro Leaguer to make it to the Majors. The last player in the Major Leagues who had also played in the Negro Leagues was none other than all-time home run champion Henry Aaron, who retired after the 1976 season. As an 18-year-old in 1952, Aaron had helped lead the Negro League's Indianapolis Clowns to a World Series victory.

Those very same Clowns, a comedic barnstorming team whose act preceded basketball's Harlem Globetrotters, were perhaps the last Negro League relic to disappear from the baseball landscape. The venerable club staged exhibition games throughout the country before finally disbanding in 1988.

By that point, the club was just a shell of its former self, as evidenced by the fact that it consisted entirely of white players. Major League Baseball had long been integrated, and instances of sanctioned, institutionalized racial discrimination had virtually disappeared from American life. Nonetheless, it is important to remember the vast "sea" that black baseball had once been, and the social realities that created this situation.

This sea -- a wide-ranging, ever-evolving and endlessly diverse collection of clubs and players that formed a Minor League system from which the Negro "Major" Leagues could draw -- was an overlooked and integral component of the black baseball landscape. Without it, the tidal wave that was Jackie Robinson and the integration of the Major Leagues could have never come to fruition.

Benjamin Hill is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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