Who Created the First Black Baseball League?

negro national league established in 1920

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

During segregation, Black baseball players had to improvise and form their own leagues. In 1920, a group of interested parties convened in Kansas City to form a new professional league. Who created the Negro National League?

Rube Foster
Andrew “Rube” Foster oversaw the creation of the Negro National League in 1920. Photo by J.E. Mille[r], K.C. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

February is Black History Month and no look at Black American history would be complete without reviewing the contributions of Black athletes, even during segregation when so little seemed possible. Although the recorded history of Black American baseball dates back to the 1850s, segregation kept Black baseball players out of Major League Baseball until Jackie Robinson joined the MLB in 1947.

However, that didn’t stop Black ball players from playing in their own leagues. The first was the Negro National League (NNL). Where did it come from? In his video series A Pastime of Their Own: The Story of Negro League Baseball, Dr. Louis Moore, Professor of History at Grand Valley State University, looks back at organized baseball for Black Americans in the years immediately following World War I.

Who Founded the Negro National League?

Perhaps the biggest champion of organized baseball for Black players was Andrew “Rube” Foster, a Black player himself. He traded the pitching mound for the manager’s office and oversaw the creation of the NNL in 1920.

“But the idea that produced the Negro National League had been percolating in Foster’s head for more than a decade,” Dr. Moore said. “It had really begun to come together in late 1919, when Foster had written the first in a series of articles for the Chicago Defender. Entitled ‘Pitfalls of Baseball,’ the series analyzed what was wrong with Black baseball and how a league could fix the problems.”

Foster hoped to establish Black leagues in the Midwest and the East and used the National and American leagues as his template. As more Black migrants came to the North and Midwest following World War I, Foster saw it as the perfect time to establish leagues, if team owners could act fast.

Foster led the effort to organize, and he convinced his bitter rival C. I. Taylor—a Spanish-American War veteran and owner of the Indianapolis ABCs—to follow him in the effort. The two set aside their widely publicized differences and worked together for the good of the sport.

How Was the Negro National League Formed?

“At the behest of Rube Foster, on February 13, 1920, seven baseball owners—one white and six Black—sat in a downtown YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri, ironing out plans for what would be one of the most significant sports deals in American history,” Dr. Moore said. “Joining them would be four, well-respected Black sportswriters to help smooth all the rough edges as the teams made the league’s bylaws.”

The inclusion of journalists at the meeting also helped spread the word that Black baseball leaders were going to organize to form a league.

According to Dr. Moore, the owners present included Joe Green of the Chicago Giants, John “Tenny” Blount of the Detroit Stars, Charlie Mills of the St. Louis Giants, John Matthews of the Dayton Marcos, C. I. Taylor of Indianapolis, Rube Foster, and J. L. Wilkinson. Wilkinson formed the Kansas City Monarchs and Foster also represented the interests of Cuban Stars owner Abel Linares.

“When, after the two days of negotiating, all sides agreed to the terms of the league and posted $500, they finally had an official organization: the Negro National League,” he said. “This was a historical moment, to say the least. While there had been other attempts to form Black leagues, with the increasing Black migration out of the South, combined with a growing American economy, this attempt felt like it could actually work.”

And it did. The NNL lasted until 1931 and was only defeated by the economics of the Great Depression.

A Pastime of Their Own: The Story of Negro League Baseball is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily