ago this spring, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers was the only Negro
player in major league baseball. He made a yearly salary of only $5,000. Last
season 57 of the 400-odd players in the National and American leagues were
Negroes and were paid a total salary just short of $1 million.
The Negro major
leaguers make up what is now probably the most interesting group in sports.
"Negroes aren't supposed to stick together," says Cincinnati Pitcher
Brooks Lawrence, "but the closest kind of adhesion I've ever known has been
among Negro ballplayers." The Negro players live in a private world that
their white teammates do not enter. They have their own hangouts, such as the
Sportsman Club in Los Angeles. "That's headquarters there," says one.
"We won't be in town a half hour before we check in to see what's going
They have their
own slang, and they guard it closely. "Why should I tell you what they
mean?" demanded St. Louis Infielder-Outfielder Bill White when I asked him
the meaning of "mullion" and "hog-cutter." "Maybe they're
secret words. Maybe we've got a code of our own. Ask someone else, not me. I'm
not going to tell you." They have their own nicknames. One player is Old
Folks, another is Snake. They have their own code of behavior.
They have their
own leaders. Top banana at present is George Crowe, a 36-year-old utility first
baseman for St. Louis. They have certain reservations about white and Latin
Negro players. In addition to all this, the Negro major leaguers occupy a
special position in Negro society at large. They are, says Professor E.
Franklin Frazier, chairman of the Department of Sociology at Howard University,
"an important part of the bourgeoisie elite."
participation in baseball goes back almost as far as the white's. The first
Negro professional, Bud Fowler, began playing in the 1860s. He stopped in the
'90s because of the color line, but if he had been lighter he could have played
on. The first Negroes to appear in a major league box score were the Walker
brothers—Fleet, a catcher, and Welday Wilberforce, an outfielder—who both
played briefly in 1884 with Toledo of the American Association. They had to
quit when the team was threatened with mob violence in Richmond. Fleet went to
Newark where he caught George Stovey, a famous Negro pitcher, but in 1887 he
and Stovey left baseball after Cap Anson of the White Stockings balked at
playing against them in an exhibition. The color line had been drawn.
their own teams. Waiters at a smart Long Island hotel formed the first one. To
get games, they called themselves the Cuban Giants, and on the field they spoke
a gibberish that was supposed to be Spanish. Negro leagues followed shortly.
Certainly, some players were good enough to star in the majors-Josh Gibson, the
home run hitter, for one—but the color line held firm, though now and then it
bent slightly. While managing Baltimore at the turn of the century, John McGraw
signed Charlie Grant, a Negro second baseman, and claimed he was an Indian
named Tokohoma. The ruse worked until Tokohoma went to Chicago for an
exhibition game. Jubilant Negro fans jammed the stands and waved a banner
reading OUR BOY, CHARLIE GRANT.
failed, several light-skinned Negroes undoubtedly did "pass" into
organized ball. In his later days, Bud Fowler said he knew of three or four. In
the 1920s Negro players gossiped that Babe Ruth himself was passing. "Look
at his nose, his lips," says one oldtimer. (It is not uncommon for Negroes
to lay claim to a celebrity who has features that may be Negroid. "The
Negroes," says Frazier, "as with any people who have a low status and a
negatively valued world, want to go ahead and neutralize that by claiming
important people are Negroes.")
Life in the Negro
leagues was hard. A star might play in as many as three games a day and earn
only $400 or $500 a month. But after Jackie Robinson broke in, major league
clubs began to pick the Negro leagues clean. The Negro National League
collapsed. The Negro American League limps on, with teams traveling by bus from
Greenwood, Miss., to Flint, Mich. for one-night stands.
The major league
club with the most Negroes is San Francisco. Ten of the 37 players on the
Giants' winter roster are colored. The man responsible is Alex Pompez, a
67-year-old Negro who owned the New York Cubans in the Negro National League.
Pomp has played a part in the signing of practically every Negro in the Giant
organization. He got Willie Mays for $10,000, Willie Kirk-land for $2,000 and
Willie McCovey for $500. His job with the Giants is unique. First of all, he is
in charge of scouting all Negro and Latin players. Secondly, he is in charge of
all Negro and Latin prospects during spring training. He supervises their food,
living quarters (he bunks Dominicans with Dominicans, Cubans with Cubans),
manners (no hats on when eating) and dress. He gives little pep talks.
first start out," Pompez says, "I tell my boys, 'If you want to stay in
organized baseball, you got to do things a little bit better. You got to fight,
play hard and hustle.' And they do. They're more ambitious, and they're hungry.
Every year we got the leading hitter, most valuable player, the big home run
hitter." His most delicate task is explaining the color line to Latin
Negroes who are new to the segregated South. "When they first come here
they don't like it," he says. "Some boys cry and want to go home. But
after they stay and make big money, they accept things as they are. My main
thing is to help them. They can't change the laws."