Legendary players like Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Hank Thompson and Willard Brown all got their start on the diamond thanks to the Negro Leagues.
The Negro National League (NNL) first began in 1920 and lasted until 1931. After a two-year hiatus, the NNL survived the Great Depression and rebooted in 1933 and sustained a prosperous 15-year run. In its second stint, renowned players like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell became household names within the Negro League baseball community and dominated the sport.
Unlike Major League Baseball, the All-Star Game was the biggest spectacle of the season for the NNL.
“They didn’t get the kind of attention that the white players got, so they appreciated their chance to be in the spotlight. I know what it meant to me to be an All-Star. But for them, it definitely was the highlight of the year.” – Harold Baines
Even after more than a decade of success, the opportunity to play in the MLB was too good pass up. In the mid-to-late 1940s, MLB teams began to poach the Negro League’s biggest stars.
In August 1945, Jackie Robinson signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. As the world knows, Robinson would go onto break the color barrier on April 15, 1947, and the floodgates opened soon thereafter. “Suddenly, the Negro Leagues weren’t the pinnacle of baseball for the African-American.”
The Indians would later court Larry Doby into the American League, so now the MLB had the Negro League’s two biggest stars in their ‘possession,’ and the spectacle that was the NNL was beginning to fade.
As integration became more commonplace, the Negro League morphed into farm system of sorts for the MLB.
As painful as it was, and still is, to have your very own league shut down, it opened the doors for many talented and exuberant Black baseball players, some who are still considered some of the best baseball has ever seen.