The Legacy of Black Professional Baseball in America

Jump in joy baseball fans, Opening Day 2024 is here! Today, some fresh-faced rookies will get their first chances to be on a Major League Baseball roster. It’s a wonderful day that is the culmination of years of hard work to reach the pinnacle of the sport. Although the sport is more diverse than ever before, it’s startling to see that the percentage of Black players on Major League Baseball rosters, whose legacies are etched into the trophies, records and fabric of this sport, is at its lowest in decades.

It’s not entirely clear why this number is so low, however external factors like Black youths focusing on other sports by choice or because of economic barriers to baseball have been hypothesized.

External factors prevented talented Black ballplayers from shining in this sport for decades. Hall of Famer Buck O’Neil’s life is thematic of the history of Black professional baseball in America. It’s a story of struggle and triumph, compliance and defiance, and the collective effort of Black ballplayers, coaches and executives to advance the equality of a sport that reflects many aspects of American life.

Although O’Neil would eventually become posthumously enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2022, when he missed getting into the Hall of Fame in 2006 by one vote, hundreds of people who gathered in Kansas City to celebrate his enshrinement felt disappointed, angry and defeated.

Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, was one of those defeated individuals that day. For over 25 years, he has been associated with the museum that O’Neil helped found in 1990 and thought he would have to console O’Neil over this defeat. Instead, O’Neil held his head high and comforted the crowd.

“What I remember the most about that day was the incredible courage and fortitude and compassion that Buck had in the face of defeat,” Kendrick said. 

O’Neil was a product of the Negro Leagues. He played for and then managed the Kansas City Monarchs before becoming the first Black coach in MLB in 1962 for the Chicago Cubs. He dedicated his life to the sport and eventually became an ambassador for a league that barred Black players like him for the better part of 60 years.

Black ballplayers, whose race was legally emancipated from slavery nationwide in 1865 due to the 13th Amendment, were barred from the growing American Pastime 22 years later in 1887.

“They always ask me, ‘Buck, I know you hate people for what they did to you or what they did to your folks,’” O’Neil said. “I can’t hate a human being. That’s God’s creature and God never made anything ugly. You can get ugly if you want to, and a lot of people did, but God didn’t make you that way.”

Black ballplayers were barred from MLB, but that wouldn’t stop them from playing baseball and forming their own leagues.

In 1920, Rube Foster, manager of the Chicago American Giants, organized the Negro National League, the first long-lasting professional Black baseball league. The first of seven Black major baseball leagues recognized by MLB today, Black ballplayers displayed their skills to the nation after being barred from the major leagues 33 years prior.

The Seven Major Negro Leagues by Jonathan Hoffman

From Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson to Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston, Negro League stars put their athletic feats on display for Black and White audiences alike. 

After WWII, the idea that Black soldiers were dying for the U.S., and coming back home to segregation, created a turning point. In 1947, Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking MLB’s color barrier, and ushering in the civil rights movement.

“Jackie was so different than we were because we were acclimated to segregation, but not Jackie,” O’Neil said. “When [Brooklyn Dodgers Owner] Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to that contract, that was the beginning of the modern-day civil rights movement.”

Larry Doby followed Robinson, when he became the first Black ballplayer in the American League in 1947 for the Cleveland Indians. More Black stars would emerge in MLB, with Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella and others joining MLB. Older Negro League stars like Satchel Paige, Monte Irvin and Willard Brown also got their chances in MLB.

In the first decade following integration, Black ballplayers won seven of the 18 Rookie of the Year Awards, six of the 10 National League Most Valuable Player Awards and the inaugural Cy Young Award for major league’s best pitcher in 1956.

Black players broke long-standing career records. Lou Brock broke the career season stolen base record in 1979 that stood for 78 years, then Rickey Henderson would break his record 22 years later. Henderson broke another record, setting the career record for most runs scored in 2001.

Hank Aaron famously broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1974, then Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s record in 2007.

Black baseball player participation in major leagues, whether it was the Negro Leagues or eventually MLB, helped shape and create the great sport we get to watch today. More research needs to be done on MLB’s changing player demographics and it’s encouraging to see local and national efforts by former Black players like Curtis Granderson and MLB itself address the issue.

To honor the legacy of Negro League baseball, MLB is hosting a game this year at Rickwood Field, the oldest professional ballpark in the United States and former home of the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, June 20 between the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals.

To celebrate the future Black stars of tomorrow, MLB is also hosting the HBCU Swingman Classic, which will highlight the history and legacy of HBCU baseball programs while also providing 50 HBCU players with the opportunity to showcase their talent on a national stage, during All-Star week.

Meanwhile, current Black stars like Mookie Betts, Marcus Semien and Aaron Judge continue the legacy that Jackie Robinson and his fellow Negro League stars established.

Information about the Negro Leagues were gathered from Baseball Reference and SABR. Historical images were sourced from Getty Images, MLB and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Interview audio from Buck O’Neil on prejudice and Jackie Robinson as well as Bob Kendrick’s interview about O’Neil were sourced from YouTube.

Jonathan Hoffman

Jonathan Hoffman is a graduate student at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism. He's a lifelong Dodgers fan from Los Angeles who grew up in a family full of Phillies fans. Follow on Twitter/X and Instagram @JHoff100 if you also obsess over Clayton Kershaw and sports uniforms.

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