The Baseball color line was the unwritten policy that excluded African American baseball players from Organized Ball in the United States before 1947. As a result, various Negro Leagues were formed, which featured those players not allowed to participate in the major or minor leagues.
The separation's beginnings occurred in 1868, when the National Association of Baseball (NAB) players decided to bar "any club including one or more colored persons." As baseball became a professional sport, professional players were no longer restricted by this rule, and for a short while, in 1878 and again in 1884, African American players played in the big leagues. Over time, they were slowly excluded more and more. As prominent players such as Cap Anson, John McGraw, and Ty Cobb steadfastly refused to take the field with or against teams with African-Americans on the roster, it became informally accepted that African-Americans were not to participate in Major League Baseball.
Responding to the lack of opportunity for black players in the NAB, Rube Foster founded The Negro National League in 1920. Considered by historians to have been perhaps the best African-American pitcher of the 1900s, Foster also founded and managed the Chicago American Giants, one of the most successful black baseball teams of the pre-integration era. This created two parallel major leagues, and until 1947, professional baseball in the United States was played in separate homogenous leagues.
During his term in office as the first baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis was alleged to have been particularly determined to maintain the segregation via then-existing constitutional doctrine of "separate but equal" institutions. In fact, an unabashed Landis was quoted as publicly criticizing Rube for fielding such highly competitive teams in exposition games against National Association of Baseball teams, saying: “Mr. Foster, when you beat our teams, it gives us a black eye.”
In 1943, baseball executive Bill Veeck attempted to buy the Philadelphia Phillies franchise; rumors began circulating that he intended to purchase the contracts of several Negro Leaguers in order to make the longtime also-rans more competitive in a period when war requirements had depleted most rosters. However, the franchise was instead sold to a different ownership group, and some historians have recently questioned the likelihood of Veeck's rumored intentions.
Jackie Robinson, with the backing of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, made the momentous leap from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball on April 18, 1946. And the rest, as they say, is history…
Editor’s Note: For details about Jackie Robinson’s ascension to the major leagues, and his impact on professional baseball past and present, check out the article “500 HRC Sluggers Celebrate Black History Month By Remembering Jackie Robinson”.