It happened north of Joplin in the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri. There, in February 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster’s vision took shape in a new professional sports organization: the Negro National League.
Originally the new league featured eight teams primarily from the heartland — the Chicago American Giants, Cuban Stars, Chicago Giants, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis ABCs, Kansas City Monarchs and St. Louis Stars.
The Negro League took shape during a period called the “dead ball era” when white pitchers such as Cy Young, Walter Johnson and Mordecai Brown held hitters at bay with dominant athleticism pitching a ball that resembled a modern-day softball.
Barred from participating in white Major League Baseball because of the color of their skin in 1884, Jim Crow de facto discrimination held sway in American society and not just in the Deep South. It was pervasive everywhere. White baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a shrewd political operative, did nothing to encourage integrating America’s pastime; white team owners turned a blind eye to black talent, clinging to segregation like the rest of America. As for an explanation, black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois helps us understand the way Jim Crow baseball was when he wrote, “One fact and one alone explains the attitude of most whites … they cannot conceive of Negroes as men.”
But nothing could stop them. Black players, many from the Deep South, apotheosized into the pantheon of baseball legend and lore: Josh Gibson, the black Babe Ruth; Oscar Charleston whom fellow Negro National Leaguer Buck O’Neil claimed to be greater than Willie Mays; Cool Papa Bell, whose roommate and fellow teammate Leroy “Satchel” Paige said was so fast he could “flip the light switch and be in bed before the room got dark.”
It would be a Kansas City Monarchs shortstop by the name of Jackie Robinson who in 1947, after careful grooming by the Brooklyn Dodgers Branch Rickey, shattered the color barrier creating opportunity for Paige and Larry Doby, a true baseball superstar in any era, to play a pivotal role in the Cleveland Indians winning the 1948 World Series.
Except for their fans in the black communities they played in, for decades they languished in obscurity knowing full well their talent was equal or superior to their generational counterparts in the white Major Leagues.
While I have not known the racism that African Americans experience, I can tell you that other forms of discrimination continue to exist, including sex discrimination and age discrimination.
Those black athletes persevered, offering a lesson to us all to persevere in the face of adversity
Jean Griffith taught at Pittsburg (Kan.) State University, Missouri State University and other schools. He lives in Carthage.