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The Newark Eagles won the Negro World Series in 1946. Two years later, the team was sold and relocated to Houston and then to New Orleans. The team folded in 1951. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
"The League"

What happened after baseball integrated

Ellen Rolfes Apr 30, 2024
Heard on:
The Newark Eagles won the Negro World Series in 1946. Two years later, the team was sold and relocated to Houston and then to New Orleans. The team folded in 1951. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

In April, 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. 

Baseball was one of Rodney Page’s loves growing up in New Orleans.

His father, entrepreneur Allen Page, was a devoted fan and promoter of Black professional baseball in the city and throughout the South. The elder Page owned and managed the Black Pelicans and New Orleans Creoles, and he had a stake in the St. Louis Stars, which split its time between New Orleans and St. Louis for a few years. 

“He was a generous soul, sometimes to his own chagrin, I believe. When he was doing well, he supported a lot of people in the Black community,” Rodney Page said. 

But by Rodney Page’s birth in 1948, Major League Baseball had already integrated, and the Negro Leagues’ popularity had peaked. Many teams were struggling to stay afloat, and the Page family’s own wealth had faded. 

“We went from riding in a black Cadillac in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s, when [Black baseball] was booming, but also dying, to riding the city bus within a period of four or five years,” Page said. 

In New Orleans, Page’s father tried to retain and attract fans to Black baseball by signing women players and managers, including Toni Stone, to the semipro team he owned, the New Orleans Creoles. He also promoted some East Coast and Midwest teams that moved south after MLB’s integration. But by the early ‘60s, most of the league teams had folded. 

Buck O’Neil would say, ‘You wouldn’t let us play [in the major leagues], so we created our own.’ We’ve had to endure and transcend. We’ve had to do for ourselves, and we were doing that,” said Page. “But sometimes for something new to be born, something has to die.” 

By the late ’40s, all-Black teams no longer served the purpose they had in previous decades. Integration was more important than the success or failure of all-Black teams. 

“Major League Baseball hijacked the Negro League fans, and rightfully so,” Larry Lester, co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, said on “Marketplace Morning Report.” “We wanted to see if Black players [were] the best in the world, not just in our neighborhood.”

Historian Neil Lanctot, who wrote two books about Black baseball, including “Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution,” said that the Negro Leagues folded largely due to their flawed organization and business operations, which were nowhere near as strong as those of MLB teams or even many in the minor leagues. 

“[Jackie] Robinson started complaining about the Negro Leagues in the ‘40s,” Lanctot said. “It was a pretty miserable place to make a buck, that’s what Robinson said. Because, of course, compared to what came in the major leagues, it was. The Negro Leagues were run on a shoestring.” 

Lanctot also emphasized that the Negro Leagues’ business “survived on segregation,” and that was a central struggle for them.  

Many Black newspapers, funeral homes and insurance companies remained solvent because even after segregation ended, white-owned businesses in those industries often refused to serve Black customers. But Black baseball teams had a harder time proving their value when their star players left and signed with MLB teams. 

“Once segregation ended, they weren’t going to survive unless they had something unique to provide,” Lanctot said. 

While team owners like Allen Page lost their shirts, Lanctot noted that most Black players in the Negro Leagues kept playing. He tracked what happened to all the Negro Leagues’ players five years after Robinson signed with the Dodgers and found that most were still employed playing baseball, even if not in the majors. 

“If they were within the age of still being able to play baseball, they funneled out to play in minor league baseball, in Mexico, in Canada. They found a place to go, and most made as much money as they made in the Negro Leagues,” Lanctot said. “In many cases, the lifestyle was preferable because it was a lot easier to play, say, in Mexico or Canada, where they didn’t have to travel some of the insane distances that they did in the Negro Leagues.” 

Page said he’d never want to return to the days of segregation. Integration came with new opportunities, but it meant many talented Black workers left Black communities and businesses.  

“When schools integrated, I had a former teacher of mine who told me, she said, ‘Ronnie, it broke my heart. When the schools were integrated, all the white principals took the best teachers from Yates [a  formerly all-Black school], and they sent the poorest white teachers off to us.'”

The racism Black people faced often drove them to rely on one another and created the strong community bonds that Page saw when he was growing up. He recalled that some of the games his father organized brought tens of thousands of Black people together. 

“The team owners were very proud of being able to run their own leagues. [They’d] hire other Black businesses whenever possible, to run the catering, to drive your bus if you were able to afford a bus,” said Michael Haupert, a sports economist at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “The hotels they stayed in were run by Blacks. The restaurants they ate at were run by Blacks. They bought their uniforms from Black tailors.” 

After the integration of MLB, Lanctot said Black Americans followed famous Negro League stars’ careers in the majors. But by the 1960s, he said, Black interest in baseball started to wane. 

“I think having Black teams in the community probably really fostered this tremendous interest in baseball,” Lanctot said. “Today you have very minimal interest in baseball in the Black community [compared to the past]. That’s a legacy of integration, I think, some linkage to losing those teams in the community, which did mean something.”

What we’re watching next month

In May, we’ll be watching “Indie Game: The Movie” a 2012 documentary profiling four developers in the then-burgeoning independent video game industry. It’s a kind of origin story for the industry we’ve covered in “Skin in the Game.”

“Indie Game” is available to rent or buy on several streaming platforms.

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