It’s a common narrative that once major teams started to integrate their rosters in 1947, it was the beginning of the end for Negro League baseball. While this obviously did not do much to help the Negro Leagues, there is a bit more to the story.
In 1947 the Negro Leagues were split into two leagues, just like Major League Baseball -- the Negro National League and the Negro American League. The NNL collapsed in 1948, but the NAL lived on in some form until 1963. Why do many people directly connect the demise of the Negro Leagues to integration, particularly when the Negro Leagues survived for more than 15 years? If they were able to make it through the intervening years, what finally led to the collapse in 1963?
First, it should probably be noted that the majors integrated rather slowly. Even though the Cleveland Indians added Larry Doby just 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson, the final team didn’t integrate until the Boston Red Sox added Pumpsie Green in 1959. Even teams that integrated often added just a handful of players, with small numbers in their minor league systems as well.
Integration did have an extremely negative impact on the Negro Leagues in the sense that it poached their star players. Think about why the major leagues are more popular today than the minors -- the majors are where the big guns play. When all of the stars (and there were many) left the Negro Leagues, there was a less exciting team on the field in many Negro League cities.
Newly integrated major league teams were also very popular with African American fans. This left many columnists that wrote for African American newspapers with a dilemma: They wanted to encourage readers to attend the major league games, yet knew that would seriously damage Negro League game attendance. These writers knew that for many major league owners, economics were one of the primary interests. If integration could bring them more money, and more success on the field, they were more likely to embrace African American players.
Many of these writers tried to strike a balance between covering both Negro League games and major league games. For example, in Cleveland, writer John Fuster told readers that he made sure to attend both Indians and Buckeyes games. Yet as he told readers to budget money for both teams, he also wrote that the Negro Leagues were a reminder of a segregated past -- a past he wanted to leave behind. This speaks to the way the media played a role in baseball during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Negro League teams relied on the African American press for coverage. You wouldn’t find much information on their games in the primarily white daily papers, and you definitely wouldn’t be able to follow them on the radio. As the papers focused their attention on the major league teams, to the detriment of Negro League coverage, it left these teams at a disadvantage. The new medium of television also provided another outlet for the broadcast of major league games, something that could not be said for Negro League games.
There were some people that argued the Negro Leagues were a vital talent pool for the majors, a way for teams to discover new African American talent. As Negro League baseball limped into the 1950s, it tried to change its model. There was more barnstorming -- teams traveled around the country playing different teams in different cities. Some teams tried to attract attention by adding women to their rosters. The Indianapolis Clowns signed infielder Toni Stone in 1953 to play second base (where Hank Aaron had played for the Clowns just a couple years before), and her presence on the team did boost attendance. (Other women were added during the 1950s as well). It soon became clear that the league just didn’t have the talent and the fan base to continue. The core of the league in the '50s included Kansas City, Birmingham, Memphis and Detroit. Other teams in Mobile, New Orleans and Raleigh came and went. The league struggled on until 1963, and when it finally folded many fans hadn’t even realized the league was still in existence.
One may ask why more people don’t realize that the Negro American League survived for as long as it did. A simple explanation may be that the Negro Leagues were smaller and more mobile than they were prior to integration. With fewer teams, fewer stars, and teams that spent much of their time barnstorming, it became difficult to follow. The changes in media clearly hurt as well.
While a segregated institution should never be lamented, there were possible negative implications to the end of the Negro Leagues. With the slow integration of major league teams during the 1950s, it meant that African American players had fewer opportunities to enter the game. Even today, the percentage of African American players in the majors is at its lowest level in decades. The number of African American fans in attendance has fallen dramatically over that same time period.
It’s important to remember the Negro Leagues and their contribution to the baseball history, particularly the fact that the Leagues managed to survive in some form beyond 1947. It shows the complex history of baseball integration, and that things didn’t immediately change following Jackie Robinson's debut.
Stephanie Liscio is the author of "Integrating Cleveland Baseball" and is pursuing her Ph.D. in history. You can follow her on Twitter @stephanieliscio and read more of her at the It's Pronounced "Lajaway" blog.