A "Gentlemanly" Game
By 1900 major league baseball, like most American institutions, was racially segregated. The roots of this separatism may be traced to the 1867 decision of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), the ruling organization of amateur baseball, to bar African American players and teams. Maintaining that only whites could uphold the "gentlemanly character" of amateur baseball, the NABBP argued that excluding blacks would prevent racial resentment and avoid a "rupture on political grounds." Professional baseball teams, however, valued winning games more than underscoring racial differences and signed contracts with skilled African American players. In 1872 a professional team in New Castle, Pennsylvania, signed John "Bud" Fowler to play second base. Although Fowler is recognized as the first black to play professional baseball, Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first to play in the major leagues. Toledo of the American Association signed Walker as a catcher in 1883. White baseball fans, especially those in the South, did not share major league team owners' appreciation for black baseball talent, however. In 1884 the Toledo manager received a letter threatening to "mob Walker" if he accompanied the team to play in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the former Confederacy. Walker did not make the trip to Richmond, as a broken rib sustained in an earlier game prevented him from traveling with the team.
The Color Line Is Drawn
Team owners decided to draw the color line against African Americans in 1887. In that year a white player on the Syracuse team of the International League refused to pose for the team picture because of a black teammate. In response International League owners decided to discontinue signing African Americans, though they permitted existing players to remain on the teams. Following the ruling of the International League, Adrian "Cap" Anson, manager of the Chicago White Sox, refused to let his team play an exhibition game against Newark of the International League because Newark planned to start George Stovey, a black pitcher. Stovey did not play because he became "sick" before the start of the game. Later that year Anson prevented the New York Giants from signing a contract with Stovey. In reporting the Stovey story, a Newark newspaper observed that "if anywhere in the world the social barriers are broken down, it is on the baseball field. There many men of low birth and poor breeding are the idols of the rich and cultured; the best man is he who plays best." Major league owners, however, did not share that sentiment and by the end of the 1880s, had released their African American players and agreed not to sign any more to contracts.
Rise of African American Teams and Leagues
African Americans began to form their own professional baseball teams and leagues in the late 1880s. The first black club was the Cuban Giants, formed in 1885 by Frank Thompson, the head waiter of the Argyle Hotel at Babylon, Long Island. The team, composed mostly of the Argyle's waiting staff, chose the name Cuban Giants because they believed they would be treated with more respect if the public did not think they were Americans. In 1887 the League of Colored Baseball Clubs organized with teams in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, Norfolk, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Louisville. It folded within a year because many of the league's teams could not afford to travel between cities. In 1888 the Cuban Giants defeated the Pittsburgh Key-stones in the first Colored Championships of America. A reporter for the Sporting News observed that "there are players among these colored men that are equal to any white men on the ball field. If you don't think so, go and see the Cuban Giants play. This club would play a favorable game against such clubs as the New Yorks or the Chicagos." The Cubans continued to dominate black baseball through the 1890s.
African American baseball in the 1900s produced some outstanding players and teams. The Philadelphia Giants, the top African American club of the decade, was organized in 1902 by Solomon White and Harry Smith and owned by white businessman Walter Schlicter. The Giants' main rival was the Cuban X-Giants, also from Philadelphia. In 1903 the Cuban X-Giants defeated the Giants four games to one for the East Colored Championships in a series that saw the Giants' Dan McClelland pitch the first perfect game by an African American. The segregation of professional baseball and the hostility of most whites toward African Americans did lead some players to leave the United States for Cuba. The Cuban Stars and the Havana Stars were the island's leading teams, and they often traveled to the United States to play other African American teams. In 1906 the Cuban teams became part of the International League of Independent Professional Baseball Clubs, which included two white teams, as well as three other African American clubs. Actually a front for Nat Strong, a white bookmaker who had ties to major league club owners, the International League enjoyed some success. On 3 September 1906 the Philadelphia Giants won the International League's pennant before ten thousand spectators, at that date the largest crowd to witness an African American baseball game.
One of the most outstanding and influential African American players of the 1900s was Andrew "Rube" Foster. The son of a Texas minister, Foster began pitching for the Waco Yellow Jackets after completing eighth grade in 1892. In 1902 he won 51 games, including an exhibition victory over Rube Waddell of the Philadelphia Athletics, who led the American League in pitching by winning 27 games that year. From this feat, Foster acquired the nickname "Rube," which remained with him throughout his life. In that same year he joined the Chicago Union Giants and pitched briefly for that club until joining a white semiprofessional team in Ostego, Michigan. Foster pitched at Ostego for less than a year before returning to African American baseball, joining the Cuban X-Giants in Philadelphia in 1903. That season he won 54 games and lost only one, leading the Cubans to victory in the African American championship. He pitched for the Philadelphia Giants the following year and led the team to the African American pennant. A salary dispute caused Foster to leave Philadelphia and join the Leland Giants in Chicago in 1907, where he enjoyed great success as a player-manager. In 1909 a broken leg kept him out of the playoffs and his team lost the series. In 1910 the Leland Giants roared back to the top of African American baseball, posting a remarkable record of 128 wins and 6 losses and winning the championship.
Arthur R. Ashe Jr., A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African American Athlete, 1618-1918 (New York: Amistead Press, 1993);
Robert W. Petersen, Only the Ball Was White (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970).