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A magazine cover featuring Jackie Robinson in 1952. Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images
"The League"

Meet the first Black baseball players

Ellen Rolfes Apr 8, 2024
Heard on:
A magazine cover featuring Jackie Robinson in 1952. Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

This month, we’re watching “The League,” which is available to stream on Hulu, with a subscription. You can also rent or buy the film on several platforms.

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, but he wasn’t the first Black player in major league baseball. More than 60 years before Robinson hit the field with the Dodgers, there was Bud Fowler, William Edward White, Moses Fleetwood Walker. These men and plenty of other Black pioneers played organized professional baseball in the 1880s and 1890s, before white team owners and managers segregated the game. 

This month, we are watching “The League,” a documentary about the contributions that Black baseball players and the Negro Leagues made to America’s pastime, and their influence on the sport, despite being prohibited from playing in white-run major leagues. The film also explores how baseball became an economic and social pillar of Black communities and what happened to the Black leagues and related Black-owned businesses after integration. 

To place the film in historical context, and for your reference while you watch “The League,” here’s a timeline of Black baseball. 


The town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, bans baseball playing near its meeting house. This is considered one of the first known references to the game.


Alexander Cartwright publishes the Knickerbocker Rules, which become widely adopted by other teams playing the game.  


The U.S. Civil War begins at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.  


President Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved people in Confederate states.  


The National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players recommends excluding African-American clubs from representation in the association.  


After ratification of the 13th Amendment, which essentially abolished slavery, local and state governments begin establishing “black codes” that legalize segregation and deny Black Americans certain rights, like the right to vote, hold certain jobs and seek education.  


The first all-professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, is established. 


The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, the first professional baseball league, Is formed. 


Bud Fowler becomes first Black professional player


William Edward White plays baseball in a major-league game, the first Black man to do so. White was born a slave in Georgia, but passed as white through most of his adulthood. The Providence Grays recruited him to fill in for an injured player. White played only one major league baseball game. 


All-Black baseball teams begin barnstorming, a kind of freelance baseball in which players traveled the country playing on “all-star” teams. Many white players and teams also barnstormed during off-seasons and often played against Black teams. This continued even after white-owned leagues agreed to prohibit Black players from joining their teams. 


Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker plays for the Toledo Blue Stockings, from 1883 to 1884. In 1884, the team moves from the minors to a major league. Moses and his brother Weldy Walker, who also played for the Blue Stockings, become the first Black players to officially play professional baseball in the major leagues. Other Black men who played on integrated major league teams included George Washington Stovey, Frank Grant, Bud Fowler and Robert Higgins


The first Black baseball team, the Cuban Giants of Babylon, New York, is formed. 


The first attempt to organize an all-Black league is made, but the Southern League of Colored Base Ballists fails. Top teams find barnstorming more profitable than joining a league. 


The International League bans future contracts with Black players, but allows Black players already under contract to stay on their teams. This becomes the unwritten “color line,” which segregates professional baseball. Several Black players who pass as white, however, will play in the majors before integration occurs. 


The Cuban League racially integrates by adding the San Francisco Base Ball Club, an all-Black team, which won the pennant in its first season. 


The National League and the American League officially merge, creating Major League Baseball.


The Great Migration begins. Over the next 60 years, 6 million Black people leave the South to escape racial violence and pursue economic and educational opportunity.  


The Negro National League, the first Black baseball league, forms. It includes teams from Chicago, Cincinnati, Dayton, Ohio; Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Missouri; and St. Louis. Within a few years, two other professional Black leagues form: The Negro Southern League and the Eastern Colored League, mentioned in the doc. Other notable Black leagues include the American Negro League, East-West League and Negro American League. 


The Kansas City Monarchs beat the Darby, Pennsylvania, Hilldale Club to win the first Colored World Series.  


The U.S. stock market crashes. Most Black leagues fold over the next few years under the economic pressures of the Great Depression.  


A new iteration of the Negro National League forms.


Jesse Owens wins four gold medals in the Summer Olympics in Berlin. Shortly thereafter, sportswriters, labor unions and communist activists start a campaign to desegregate baseball.


The Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper supporting Black Americans’ interests, begins the “Double V” campaign, which linked fighting for victory against fascism abroad with victory against racial injustice in the U.S. Black team owners and players champion the cause, advocating for integration of white major and minor leagues.


Branch Rickey signs Jackie Robinson to join the Brooklyn Dodgers. Several MLB teams begin signing the top Black players without paying out their existing contracts with Negro league teams


Robinson plays his first game as a member of the Dodgers on April 15, reintegrating Major League Baseball. He becomes the first Black player in the majors since 1884.  


The Negro National League disbands, making the Negro American League the only major Black league still playing.   


The Negro American League suspends operations. Some of its teams continue to barnstorm, but most leave the field in the ’60s.  

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