The PBBC Tips Our Caps to the Negro Leagues
The story of African Americans in baseball is as old as the story of baseball itself. Henry Rosecranse Columbus Jr., a freed slave and successful barber/businessman, wrote in his 1820 journal about “playing ball” at festivities celebrating Pinkster Day, a Dutch holiday adopted by the slave community. On one of the rare days when they were largely freed from work, slaves spent their few leisure hours at play.
For the next hundred years, the landscape of black baseball was shaped by some of the most important names in the sport’s history. Men like Bud Fowler, Octavius V. Catto, Fleet Walker, Frank Grant and Sol White made important contributions both in and out of organized baseball. Fowler in particular possessed a keen understanding of the sport’s business aspect. He advanced the concept of barnstorming, a cornerstone of black baseball for the entirety of its existence. He also made multiple attempts to form a viable league for African Americans, though he was continually thwarted.
It took until 1920 before a man had the respect, influence and capital necessary to form the first enduring league for the black community. Rube Foster, the most celebrated pitcher of his age, had been pushing for such a league for almost a decade, but the race riots in his hometown of Chicago in 1919 spurred him to further action. The following year, at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, he and his fellow owners established the Negro National League. What followed was the golden age of black baseball.
This year, 2020, was intended to be one of celebration for the 100th anniversary of Foster’s feat. Like so much in our society, those events have largely been put on hold. Thankfully, the good people at the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, steered by the incredible Bob Kendrick, have reopened their doors to offer socially-distanced opportunities to experience their historic and moving collection.
In lieu of the originally planned celebrations, baseball fans have been tipping their caps and sharing their efforts on social media. The authors of the Pandemic Baseball Book Club are no exception. We are indebted to the men and women who played for and managed, scouted in and yes, wrote about the Negro Leagues. Their story is vital to black history in this country. Their role in the civil rights movement cannot be overstated.
It is fitting — and sad — that it was racial unrest that inspired Foster to enact his bold plan. Today, activists are again in the streets, hoping that this time, just maybe, they can convince the rest of the country that black lives matter. Many do not realize it, but the cause for which they fight was emboldened a century ago by a group of forward-thinking men who wanted simply to play.
They were the ship; all else the sea.