The 2020 season marked the 100-year anniversary of when Rube Foster, the “Father of Black Baseball,” formed the Negro National League in 1920. To honor the occasion, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred made the following statement last December: “All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s finest players, innovations and triumphs against the backdrop of injustice. We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”
In 1969, MLB recognized six major leagues to draw statistics and facts from, but at that time it did not recognize the Negro Leagues. More than 50 years later, MLB has finally rectified the injustice and now recognizes seven Negro Leagues as major leagues: National Negro League I, Eastern Colored League, American Negro League, East-West League, Negro Southern League, Negro National League II, and the Negro American League.
However, the rich history of Black baseball teams predates the formation of those leagues. Although records for Black baseball are skimpy primarily because white newspapers did not publish information about the games and because many teams did not keep records, Black Americans have played the national pastime since it first gained popularity across the country in the 1860s.
Here in Baltimore, the earliest reference to a game between Black teams can be found in the Baltimore American. The game was played at the Madison Avenue Grounds on August 16, 1870 and was an inter-city game between the Baltimore Enterprise and Washington Mutuals clubs. The catcher for the Mutuals was Charles R. Douglass, son of the famed social reformer Frederick Douglass. Perhaps the famed orator came to see his son play that day.
The most prominent of the early Black teams, the Weldons, later called the Baltimore Giants, earned a national reputation between 1905-1912 by taking on the best “colored” baseball clubs in the nation. They played from 1908-1912 at Union League Park, an enclosed ballpark on McComas and Light streets in South Baltimore. Newspapers reported that families would watch games from the rooftops of their Charles Street homes, just beyond the right-field wall.
By 1913, the Baltimore Black Sox were formed, and they were the Colored Champions of the South six times between 1913 and 1922. The team represented the city in four different Negro Leagues, winning the ANL title in 1929. After the Black Sox dissolved, the Nashville Elite (pronounced E-Light) Giants moved to Baltimore in 1938 and represented the city at various times in both Negro National League II and the Negro American League in a 27-year span.
Between 1913 and 1951, Baltimore baseball fans saw many great players who played for and against the Black Sox and the Elite Giants, and we can brag that Hall of Famers Pete Hill, Biz Mackey, Ben Taylor, Jud Wilson, Leon Day, Willie Wells, and Roy Campanella all played for Baltimore teams in the Negro Leagues.
On April 28, 1946, a crowd of 25,306 came to see Jackie Robinson play for the International League Montreal Royals (the top farm club of the Brooklyn Dodgers) against the minor league Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles’ players initially refused to play against Montreal, but they relented after the league president told them they would be banned from the game for life if they did not take the field.
Robinson and his wife, Rachel, suffered vicious and relentless race baiting from the stands during that series. Talking of the event years later, Robinson compared his treatment at the hands of Baltimore fans to the time two players tried to spike him in Louisville in 1946: “The nasty things Baltimore people threw at me hardened me to the point where [the spiking] was rather easy to take . . . I knew I was coming into the South, and I suppose I was preparing for just about anything, but that Baltimore, holy gee . . .”
After the color barrier was broken in 1947, some Elite Giants achieved great success in the previously white major leagues. Joe Black played six years for the Elites before joining the Dodgers, winning a Rookie of the Year Award and becoming the first Black pitcher to win a World Series game.
Infielder Jim “Junior” Gilliam played three years with the Elites before also joining the Dodgers for a 14-year career that included a Rookie of the Year Award, two All-Star Game appearances and general acclaim as one of the most respected players in the game. And most famously of all, Campanella played eight years with the Elites before becoming an 11-time All Star and three-time MVP in a 10-year career with the Dodgers, which was tragically cut short when a car accident left him paralyzed in 1958.
The breaking of the color barrier also was the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues as more and more prominent stars signed with MLB teams. The last All-Star game was held in 1962 and, by 1966 ,the Indianapolis Clowns were the last Negro League team barnstorming.
You can still visit the sites of the Negro League Parks in Baltimore. About a mile south of today’s Oriole Park, the Baltimore Black Sox played primarily at two ballparks. From 1917-1920, they played at Westport Stadium, located on Annapolis Road between Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Patapsco Avenue. From 1921-1932, they played at Maryland Baseball Park, located at the intersection of Bush Street and Russell Street, on the site where the current Wheelabrator Waste Management Facility stands. When the Elite Giants came to town in 1938, they played at Bugle Field, which was located at what is now Edison Highway and Federal Street in East Baltimore.
When you have a free afternoon, walk these spaces, stop and imagine the crowd roaring at the feats of these remarkable players, and be reminded that Baltimore played an important role in the glorious and shameful history of our national game.
Sources for this article:
McKenna, Bernard. The Baltimore Black Sox: A Negro League History, 1913-1936. McFarland and Company, Inc, 2020
Luke, Bob. The Baltimore Elite Giants. the Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009
Bready, James H. Baseball in Baltimore: The First 100 Years. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1998.
Lowry, Philip J. Green Cathedrals: The Ultimate Celebration of all Major League and Negro League Ball Parks, Fifth Edition. Society for American Baseball Research, Inc. 2009
ONLINE SOURCES INCLUDE:
The Baltimore Sun. A Chronology of Negro League Baseball. 29 Apr 1990, Sun · Page 41
The Baltimore Sun. Wayne Hardin. Stadium Sites Recall Glory Days of Black Baseball. 24 July 1994
Tom Delise grew up in New York as a Mets fan and Yankee hater and, to this day, Tom Seaver is his baseball hero. He has lived in Baltimore for 34 years and has held season tickets for the Orioles since 1992 and the Ravens since they moved here. He retired in 2018 after a 40-year career as an English teacher and now spends much of his time reading, especially about “old-time” baseball. He lives in the Bolton Hill section of Baltimore with his wife, Christine, and his dogs Shakespeare and Cordelia.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s Calling the Pen, a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to Calling the Pen, send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.