🖤 Donations of all sizes power our public service journalism Give Now
"The League"

Negro Leagues barnstorming brought baseball to new places

David Brancaccio and Alex Schroeder Apr 23, 2024
Heard on:
HTML EMBED:
COPY
Teams that played in the Negro Leagues often had no choice but to hit the road and play games all over. They relied on this practice, known as barnstorming, to keep the money coming in. Pictured above: The Newark Eagles in a dugout in 1936. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
"The League"

Negro Leagues barnstorming brought baseball to new places

David Brancaccio and Alex Schroeder Apr 23, 2024
Heard on:
Teams that played in the Negro Leagues often had no choice but to hit the road and play games all over. They relied on this practice, known as barnstorming, to keep the money coming in. Pictured above: The Newark Eagles in a dugout in 1936. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
HTML EMBED:
COPY

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.


For April, with baseball season back, “Marketplace Morning Report” is tuning into the 2023 documentary “The League” for its Econ Extra Credit project. “The League” chronicles the history of baseball’s Negro Leagues, established several decades before the sport was integrated. It was a more exciting brand of baseball when compared with the MLB games of that time, and the Negro Leagues found remarkable economic success in the 1920s.

The roaring ’20s, however, came to a sober end with the Great Depression, which posed a major challenge to the Negro Leagues and their audiences. Let’s pick up the story from there by turning to the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Bob Kendrick. He spoke with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio, and the following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: So many Americans were facing so much hardship during the Great Depression. But for already-disadvantaged communities, it was even harder. How did the Negro League outfits respond?

Bob Kendrick: Black baseball had had such a tremendous ride from its formation, when Rube Foster established the Negro Leagues in 1920. And then it was almost like the perfect storm for the Negro Leagues: Rube Foster gets sick and subsequently passes away. In and around the 1930s, the Great Depression occurs. By 1933, though, Gus Greenlee, who would own the Pittsburgh Crawfords, comes back and — in essence — revitalizes the Negro Leagues. And he really kicks it off with the creation of the East-West all-star classic. So it debuts the same year as Major League Baseball’s all-star game: 1933. And, as I remind folks, yes, it did outdraw Major League Baseball’s own all-star game.

Brancaccio: Also adding energy during this time is barnstorming, right?

Kendrick: Of course. And that’s how the Negro Leagues were kind of still able to survive during those difficult and challenging times. But barnstorming remained a prevalent part — well, number one, it had always been a prevalent part of how folks got to see players from the Negro Leagues, because the Negro Leagues were heralded barnstormers. And I remind folks all the time that, through barnstorming, the Negro Leagues helped grow the fan base for baseball. Because they were literally taking baseball to communities that had never seen professional baseball. Folks knew that this was a high caliber brand of baseball, and they put it on display. And as a result, they were helping grow the game in the process.

Brancaccio: A lot of excellence on display, a lot of energy, as we say, but the streets were not paved with gold. Watching this documentary film, you see Hall of Famer Hank Aaron talking about, life was kind of hard there in the Negro Leagues, especially on the road.

Kendrick: Oh, it was challenging. And really the challenges came as they were traveling the highways and byways of this country. They could ride into a town, fill up the ballpark, but yet not be able to get a meal from the same fans who had just cheered them or not have a place to stay. So, yes, they would sleep on the bus and eat their peanut butter and crackers until they could get to a place that might offer them basic services. But as I remind our guests here at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, they never allowed that set of social circumstances to kill their love of the game. “I’m going to keep playing ball. You can’t rob me of this joy of playing baseball.”

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.