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Cool Things - Negro Leagues Baseball Program

Front of Kansas City Monarchs baseball program

Watching the Monarchs play baseball was a pleasant Sunday afternoon for everyone--African American, white, or Hispanic. Fans of all colors grabbed a program (like this one) and a bag of popcorn, then kicked back to enjoy the game.

Fans of the Kansas City Monarchs usually dressed in their Sunday finest, their stomachs full of picnic food and their spirits revved by the marching band outside the ballpark. For the equivalent of today's pocket change, they got a program and hours of professional baseball. Between 1920 and 1960, Negro League teams provided more than just an afternoon's diversion. Baseball offered a pathway to the middle-class for African Americans at a time when few such opportunities existed.

Shut Out

The color line was drawn in baseball long before legalized segregation in the United States. Shut out of the white professional leagues, blacks began organizing to play the game as early as 1887. One of the first attempts to create an African American professional league was short-lived. The National League of Colored Base Ball Players' first and only season consisted of 13 games. A second attempt failed in 1910 when the most popular black team refused to participate.

Over the next ten years, the idea of professional black baseball lay dormant while the athletes kept their day jobs and played on barnstorm and semi-pro teams. Andrew "Rube" Foster, a former baseball player turned booking agent, dreamed of an exclusively black-owned and -operated organization. He called together representatives from prominent teams from across the country, the African American press, and Elisha Scott, a lawyer from Topeka. This time organizers hit a home run. They successfully formed an umbrella organization called the National Association of Colored Professional Base Ball Clubs (NACPBBC). Eight teams went one step further and created the Negro National League (NNL), which became the most enduring professional black baseball league. The creation of the NACPBBC and NNL meant more than just an opportunity to play baseball. They allowed black players and owners to keep the money they earned, instead of lining the pockets of white-run organizations.

Baseball as Big Business

The "Great Migration" of southern blacks to northern cities and small towns between 1910 and 1940 ensured there were enough players and avid fans for the new league. Baseball grew into a big business in black communities across the country. As America's largest black enterprise, baseball took in roughly two million dollars annually during the boom years of World War II. Nearly 75% of the revenue stayed in the black communities, and often a portion of the gate revenue was dedicated to a local charity.

Back of baseball program

Very few blacks during this period had the educational opportunities that would allow them to hold positions much higher than common laborer. Baseball offered an escape from poverty and into middle-class status. Players like George "The Teacher" Sweatt from Humboldt, Kansas, benefited financially from playing with the Monarchs for about three years of his seven-year career. Sweatt used his baseball earnings to continue his education, and became a public school teacher in Coffeyville, Kansas, during the off-seasons.

Kansas cities and towns supported the hometown athletes drafted by the Monarchs. A few of the known Kansans who played for the team include Zack Forman of Parsons; Oscar "Heavy" Johnson of Atchison; Tom "TJ" and William Young, both of Wichita; George Giles of Manhattan; Eugene Collins of Kansas City; and Robert Thurman of Wichita. The money was good. Even during the Great Depression, players typically earned three to four times above the average black worker. This trend continued well into the 1940s.

Calls for racial integration in all aspects of life also affected baseball. When Jackie Robinson joined the Monarchs in 1945, white leagues had already noticed a decline in revenues. While it was socially difficult for black fans to attend the games of white players, white fans could easily attend black-played games, and increasingly did so. To divert the stream back to dwindling white teams, league policies were changed to reflect new laws. This allowed Robinson to sign a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and removed the 60-year-old color line in baseball.

Integration was a double-edged sword because it changed black baseball forever. The impact was immediate. The best players, including Monarch pitcher Robert Thurman, signed with white clubs. A domino effect occurred in the NNL, which first lost fans, then players, then entire teams. By 1954, the Monarchs had a limited schedule and did not generate enough revenue to play in the expensive Kansas City market. The new owner moved the team to Grand Rapids, Michigan. This program is from one of the final games the Monarchs played against the Indianapolis Clowns, most likely dating from 1955. An example of how Negro Leagues baseball attracted fans of all colors and backgrounds, it was donated by members of the Lopez/Rosales family of Wichita. The program is in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.

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Entry: Cool Things - Negro Leagues Baseball Program

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2010

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.