Satchel Paige. Josh Gibson. Jackie Robinson. These all-star baseball players conjure up an image of the golden age of the game, as well as a time in America when the world was dramatically divided by race. Most of us know the story of Robinson breaking the color barrier to become the first Black major league player, but the history leading up to that dramatic moment is a powerful story of athletic prowess, business development, and cultural change.
A Pastime of Their Own: The Story of Negro League Baseball is your chance to delve into this fascinating history. Taught by Professor Louis Moore of Grand Valley State University, these 12 scintillating lectures take you onto the field, through the locker rooms, and into the smoky back rooms of the business world in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and other great American cities.
Although little is known about the game before the Civil War, the story of Black baseball players, teams, leagues, and businesspeople mirrors the social history of America from the 1850s through World War II. For instance, you might be surprised to learn that in the era of Reconstruction, baseball was an integrated sport. The game was particularly important for Black Americans working for self-determination—and you could often find pickup games at Juneteenth celebrations in the 1860s and 1870s.
But as Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow, so, too, did an infamous “gentleman’s agreement” segregate baseball into white and Black teams—hampering athletes but opening doors to Black businesspeople seeking economic success around the game. Among other topics, Louis introduces you to:
- Legends like Bud Fowler, Rube Foster, and Gus Greenlee who took their knowledge of the game and applied it to the business of ball;
- The best teams in Black baseball, such as the Philadelphia Pythians and the Kansas City Monarchs;
- Classic games such as the first Black World Series and the perennial favorite East-West Classic; and
- Some of the best players to ever set foot on a baseball diamond, including Oscar Charleston, Moses Fleetwood Walker, Larry Doby, and many others.
From the creation of “Negro Leagues” to players who became stars, and from cross-town rivalries to the struggles of breaking the color barrier, the hidden history of Black baseball is one of the greatest sports histories ever recorded. A Pastime of Their Own: The Story of Negro League Baseball gives you a fast-paced survey of this magnificent story.
Play Ball! Reconstructing the Origins of Black Baseball
As America’s pastime, baseball has symbolized many things: the spirit of competition; the good cheer at friendly neighborhood gatherings; the mobility of a growing nation; and the autonomy of individual players, managers, and owners to assert their independence and find a place in the American economy.
For Black Americans newly emancipated after the Civil War, baseball was a perfect vehicle to prove their merit in a nation transformed. Although the game was integrated in the Reconstruction years, you can find a foreshadowing of segregation in the manner in which late-19th-century media covered the sport.
As Louis lays out, only Black media covered Black games. One of the first box scores ever recorded was the 1859 matchup between the Henson Club of Jamaica Long Island and the Unknowns of Weeksville, Brooklyn. The only reason we know about this game is thanks to the Weekly Anglo-African newspaper.
Despite the lack of fanfare, Black ball quickly moved from a regional activity to a national game, with teams all over the country.
Batter Up! Building the Leagues of Their Own
The promise of equality in Reconstruction soon gave way to the passage of Jim Crow and segregation laws. In baseball, white team owners quietly laid out a gentleman’s agreement in the 1880s never to allow a Black man to play in the major leagues—leading to a parallel history of Black and white baseball, with segregated fields and segregated teams.
Within this tragic story, however, Louis shows the innovations and resilience of Black ball players and businesspeople. In this course, you will meet people like Bud Fowler, one of the best players in the nation who led an early effort to create a professional Black baseball organization in the late 19th century.
In the early 20th century, Andrew “Rube” Foster—Black baseball’s first true superstar—built a successful team based on his style of play (“small ball”). He then went on to create the Negro National League, which served as both a way to solve the economic challenges of owning a baseball team and a symbol of Black social and economic progress.
Soon, thereafter, rival Ed Bolden created the Eastern Colored League, and the two Black baseball leagues lifted up the game—but faced challenges during the Great Depression.
Grand Slam! The End of an Era
As you will discover throughout this survey, the story of Black baseball reflects the larger history of America. When the Depression clobbered the nation, league owners and team managers struggled to make ends meet. Players had to forego paychecks.
Yet time and again, Louis draws out a story of triumph over tragedy. Out of this era rose some of the greatest players in the game, including Josh Gibson (commonly referred to as the “Black Babe Ruth”), Satchel Paige (one of the most successful and famous players in the Negro Leagues), and Oscar Charleston (manager and first baseman extraordinaire).
Following the Depression, World War II changed everything, highlighting the color line in America’s pastime and the equal worth of Black citizens. With urging from the Black press and the undeniable talent in the Negro Leagues, white major league owners recognized integration was inevitable.
Louis explores the story of Jackie Robinson and then Larry Doby breaking through the color barrier—changing baseball forever. It was truly an end of an era, and a triumphant finale to A Pastime of Their Own: The Story of Negro League Baseball.
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