A Black Baseball Legacy
by Michael E. Lomax
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, baseball had been a special game among African Americans. The sport’s institutional and organizational development evolved as part of African American community building in the pre-Civil War era. Baseball served as a response to the health problems and high mortality rate brought on by the urban pathology affecting US cities. At the same time, African Americans utilized the sport to further the ultimate goal of integration into mainstream America. The Philadelphia Pythians’ attempt to become a member of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) exemplified the African American effort to assimilate into US society.
The Pythians’ effort ended in failure, but Black baseball’s institutional and organizational development took root. The Black game was transformed into a commercialized amusement by a generation of African Americans who attempted to work within the parameters of a segregated institutional structure. These entrepreneurs operated their segregated enterprises (Black baseball teams) within the fabric of the mainstream economy (professional baseball). Several Black baseball clubs established a symbiotic business relationship with White professional and semiprofessional teams when the latter struggled to place their game on a sound economic footing. Simultaneously, Black baseball club operators established their own rivalries and constructed an unconventional playing style that made their game uniquely African American.
Black baseball magnates acknowledged that in order for them to conduct business they would have to negotiate with the White power structure, which meant dealing with the new industry that became “Organized Baseball” as well as a host of unaffiliated semiprofessional teams and leagues. These Black club operators utilized a business practice known as economic cooperation that had its roots in the late eighteenth century. Early Black baseball entrepreneurs recognized that any success would only occur by pooling their economic resources collectively. Therefore, consolidating resources served to establish business enterprises.
The Cuban Giants emerged as the most successful Black baseball club of the late nineteenth century—a direct result of economic cooperation. The Giants’ development was the result of consolidating three Black teams into a top-level independent club. The Cubans formed a partnership with a wealthy White businessman and during the week played their home games in Trenton, New Jersey, and barnstormed Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania for weekend games. During the winter months, the Cubans traveled south and established a home base in St. Augustine, Florida. The players were hired as waiters, but their primary responsibility was to entertain the guests with their ballplaying skills. The Cuban Giants became the model that other Black clubs endeavored to emulate.
The Gorhams of New York exemplified the Black team operating in the late nineteenth century. They were formed in Manhattan at a time when New York’s Black middle class resided there. The Gorhams did not established a home base of operation, resulting in them barnstorming the nation for gate receipts. Several attempts were made to establish a home base, however, most of them turned out to be bad business decisions. The Gorhams would, nevertheless, develop a rivalry with the Cuban Giants in the form of a Colored Championship series, designed to stimulate interest in the Black game. There were no substantial Black enclaves that could sustain a commercialized amusement of that type, resulting in the Cuban Giants and Gorhams marketing their games to a White clientele.
The Cubans and Gorhams faced several hurdles that hindered their efforts to operate in the White baseball world. White player hostility made it problematic to maintain continuity in scheduling games. Some club owners in White baseball struggled to place their game on a sound economic footing, making it difficult to sustain consistent business relations. With the exception of Chicago, Illinois, in most large metropolitan cities the semiprofessional teams and leagues did not develop stability.
Simultaneously, Black baseball clubs benefited from White professional and semiprofessional baseball’s fledgling existence. Black teams created a demand for themselves once their caliber of play equaled or surpassed White teams. Playing one exhibition game with either the Cuban Giants or Gorhams could result in a struggling White club meeting its payroll and expenses. Black baseball entrepreneurs had to be enterprising in marketing and promoting their clubs. Winning games by scores of 20–1 or 16–2 detracted from fan interest. Thus, the Cubans and Gorhams created an alternative playing style when games became too one-sided. Their clowning antics on the diamond served to entertain the fans in the stands, but when the situation called for it, both clubs could also be fierce competitors.
By the late 1880s, White players’ hostility towards Blacks had gained wider acceptance and resulted in club owners scheduling fewer games with Black teams. This circumstance was more symptomatic in the minor leagues because their White stars threatened to jump other circuits. The players’ revolt of 1889, and the subsequent war with the American Association the following year, led to the AA folding. Their demise led to the National League absorbing the Association’s four best franchises, and with several minor leagues collapsing, fewer games were scheduled against Black teams. 1
Yet Black baseball clubs continued their symbiotic business relationship with White semiprofessional teams. Semiprofessional clubs emerged in the 1870s. They were called semiprofessionals or semipros to distinguish them from their professional counterparts. Semipros generally belonged to no league but paid their players and charged admission. Semipros often signed their players to one-year contracts that rarely contained a reserve clause for the following season. At the beginning of each season, players had to make new arrangements. Semipro teams, particularly in Chicago, attempted to form leagues and associations patterned after the National League. Although these leagues and associations were ineffective, they did lead to the creation of rivalries between Black and White clubs. Maintaining this business relationship resulted in Black baseball entrepreneurs making concessions to operate in the White semipro world. Black baseball magnates accommodated racial prejudices by marginalizing the effects of any potential conflict with racist overtones. They had a vested interest in downplaying any possible racial conflicts to sustain their business ties. This assertion is not to suggest that some conflicts that occurred did not have racial implications, but to these late-nineteenth century Black baseball entrepreneurs, such compromises were necessary to advance their economic interests.
Black baseball experienced tremendous growth and expansion in the opening decade of the twentieth century. Several Black teams, as well as Cuban squads, emerged to challenge established teams like the Philadelphia Giants, the Leland Giants, and the Cuban X Giants for players and gate receipts. Black team owners confronted challenges similar to those that conventional Black businesses faced, most notably the ways in which a separate Black economy was being imposed on them. Ballpark ownership remained the biggest obstacle to the Black game’s growth and development. Owners of teams in the American and National Leagues enjoyed the advantage of being able to sustain a fanbase and maximize revenues that African Americans never enjoyed. This resulted in several African American club owners entering into partnership with White businessmen to gain access to suitable playing facilities and maintain business ties with White semipro teams.
The growth spurt that Black baseball experienced sparked efforts to form leagues and associations. League formation represented the overall attempt to place the Black game on a sound economic footing. Although the African American team owners used the National and American Leagues as their model for organization, they did not operate their circuits in the same manner as the White majors. Black baseball entrepreneurs did not embrace the fact although they were competitors on the field, they needed to be partners in business who had to cooperate to much greater degree than entrepreneurs in some more conventional business enterprises. Instead, they sought to maintain their symbiotic business relationship with White semipro clubs and concurrently schedule games that were regional and national in scope while ideally expanding their network internationally to Cuba. A “balanced schedule” was impossible when few clubs owned their own parks. To owners like Rube Foster, it was in his best interest to keep his ballpark busy on weekends rather than taking road trips that would increase travel expenses.
The early efforts to form leagues and associations produced several teams that were Black-owned and operated and functioning as full-time enterprises. Five teams—the Bacharach Giants, Chicago American Giants, Hilldale Athletic Club, Indianapolis ABCs, and the St. Louis Giants—utilized the same mode of operation that Black baseball entrepreneurs had employed in the late nineteenth century to transform their clubs into top independent teams. They began by assembling and sustaining a team of talented players, then gaining access to a ballpark within close proximity to a large urban area in order to build a fanbase. To sustain rivalries that would stimulate spectator interest, these Black clubs began to scheduled more games among themselves than with other White semipros and Cuban teams. Scheduling exhibition games with all-star teams composed of major and minor league players served to heighten a Black team’s prestige. Embarking on extended barnstorming tours elevated a Black team to the ranks of an elite touring team; the tours also served as a means of market expansion.
Efforts at market expansion illustrated that Black baseball clubs did not rely solely on a separated Black economy for their economic viability. The Chicago American Giants and the Indianapolis ABCs tapped into their respective consumer markets while maintaining their business ties with White semipros that allowed them to exploit the White baseball market. Access to ballparks allowed the American Giants club owner Andrew “Rube” Foster and ABCs magnate Charles Isham “C.I.” Taylor to develop and maintain fanbases in Chicago and Indianapolis, respectively, and to expand into new markets in the West and South nationally and internationally to Cuba.
As the United States entered World War I, the Great Migration—the mass movement northward of African Americans—dramatically expanded the Black consumer market, particularly in large urban centers in the North. Several Black baseball magnates attempted to tap into this growing market by creating civic ties with the Black middle class and developing a business relationship with the Black press. They used the race rhetoric of self-help and racial solidarity and racial uplift to sustain press and community relations. Race rhetoric served, in fact, to promote a sense of heightened prestige for their respective communities.
By the end of the 1910s, Rube Foster had emerged as the premier Black baseball owner, and his Chicago American Giants became the benchmark that African American team owners attempted to emulate. Operating in the largest market in the Midwest allowed Foster to develop a booking service to maximize revenues and heighten his prestige. He created a barnstorming network that enabled him to book games for midwestern Black clubs throughout the Midwest and East. Creating this network was plausible because several Black teams operated on a full-time basis, and in many ways these barnstorming tours represented a dry run for the formation of a Negro League.
In the 1920s, several forces combined to make league formation plausible. The Great Migration dramatically expanded the Black communities where several Black baseball teams resided. The expansion of the Black press provided the means for these club owners to tap into this growing market. League formation coincided with the remarkable economic growth of the United States. Baseball’s market expanded through the accelerated growth of cities and small towns as the US changed from a rural society to an urban one. Combined, these factors allowed Rube Foster to form the Negro National League (NNL), and led Hilldale club owner Ed Bolden—along with Brooklyn Royal Giants magnate Nat Strong—to organize the Eastern Colored League (ECL).
Throughout the NNL’s and ECL’s existence, Black club owners operated their respective leagues in what can best be described as the “business alliance” model. This approach was based on the supposition that Black club owners would have maximum control over their players under contract and over the franchise, meaning the team’s name and logo, which could be commodified. An association with a few club owners in certain cities enabled them to collectively eliminate players jumping their contracts, giving the owners tighter control over Black baseball’s player labor pool. The business alliance model allowed owners to form loose associations among themselves to ensure that their clubs secured the best playing dates and parks in which to play. This arrangement, however, came at the expense of some of the league clubs. In most cases, several of them became reliant on Rube Foster and Nat Strong to book additional games to generate gate receipts. This arrangement led to constant franchise shifting in the NNL, with the American Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Detroit Stars, and St. Louis Stars being the only teams to operate consistently throughout the league’s existence. In the East, a peculiar business arrangement evolved where Bolden sought to maintain an alliance with Strong to schedule lucrative weekend games away from their ballparks. Weaker franchises like Bacharach Giants either scheduled their own weekend games or used Nat Strong’s booking agency for contests in Gotham.
By the mid-1920s, the business alliance approach had begun to unravel. Rube Foster, Ed Bolden, and Nat Strong placed their economic interests above their respective leagues’ interests. From their perspective, it was not in their best economic interests to pattern their leagues after the White major leagues. They refused to recognize that their leagues’ overall economic interests and their interests were one and the same. The separate Black economy being imposed on them and the decline of White semiprofessional baseball meant that these club owners were becoming more reliant on the Black consumer dollar. The illnesses of both Foster and Bolden resulted in both leagues losing what effective leadership they had. When the United States entered the Great Depression, the NNL and the ECL faded into the dustbin of history.
Despite their demise, the Negro National League and Eastern Colored League left their imprint on the African American experience specifically and American baseball in general. The Negro Leagues inform us of the ways African Americans strived to compete within the framework of the US economy, and simultaneously they represented the overall pursuit for freedom and self-determination. The Black baseball business developed into a commercial enterprise at a time when segregation shaped the relationship between Black and White people. African Americans made it clear that despite their exclusion from mainstream America, they would develop their own institutions and shape their own sporting patterns. S.K. Govern, Benjamin Butler, William Peters, and Frank Leland in the late nineteenth century—along with Rube Foster, C. I. Taylor, Ed Bolden, and to a lesser degree John Connor, Henry Tucker, and Thomas Jackson in the early twentieth century—operated by any means necessary to advance their economic interests in the national pastime. These Black baseball entrepreneurs were not merely passive participants responding to forces that affected them. They endeavored to form Black independent teams and the Negro Leagues as business enterprises in their own image..2
About the Author
Michael E. Lomax is a retired associate professor of health and sport studies at the University of Iowa and the author of Black Baseball Entrepreneurs, 1860-1901: Operating by Any Means Necessary.
- Lanctot, Neal. Fair Dealing and Clean Playing: The Hilldale Club and the Development of Black Professional Baseball, 1910-1932. Jefferson, N. C.: McFarland, 1994.
- Lanctot, Neal. Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
- Lester, Larry. Black Baseball’s National Showcase; The East-West All-Star Game, 1933-1953. Bison Books: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
- Lomax, Michael E. Black Baseball Entrepreneurs, 1860-1901: Operating by Any Means Necessary. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003.
- Lomax, Michael E. Black Baseball Entrepreneurs, 1902-1931: The Negro National and Eastern Colored Leagues. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014.
- Overmyer, James. Queen of the Negro Leagues: Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Inc., 1998.
- In the 1880s, the American Association represented a major league along with the National League. Back
- S. K. Govern was a co-owner of the Cuban Giants. Benjamin Butler operated the Gorhams of New York. William Peters and Frank Leland operated the Chicago Unions. Leland broke away from Peters and formed the Chicago Union Giants. The following club owners operated the following clubs: Rube Foster (Chicago American Giants); C. I. Taylor (Indianapolis ABCs); Ed Bolden (Hilldale Athletic Club); John Connor (Brooklyn Royal Giants and Bacharach Giants); and Henry Tucker and Thomas Jackson (Bacharach Giants). Back