By Justin Broubalow, Research Historian
Major League Baseball has finally returned after the COVID-19-induced shutdown that began in March. Aside from the impact of the global pandemic, this season is particularly noteworthy because MLB, along with players past and present, is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Negro National League, the first professional baseball league for African American athletes. But all-Black teams formed a major component of baseball before 1920, and these predecessor teams were vital to the creation of the Negro league. Few were as influential as Chicago’s Leland Giants, who straddled baseball’s color line and exemplified the entrepreneurial spirit of Chicago’s Black middle class.
In the early twentieth century, racial prejudice in the North was on the rise as waves of Black Americans moved from the South to find jobs in northern cities during a period known as the Great Migration. Although one of the major push factors causing this migration was southern hostility toward civil rights and racially-motivated violence, white northerners bristled at the prospect of a rising Black population in their cities. As a result, white northerners adopted formal and informal forms of segregation that resembled the Jim Crowism of the South, routinely excluding African Americans from many public and private spaces, including places of recreation.
By this point, MLB owners had already adopted a gentlemen’s agreement establishing the infamous color line in the major and minor leagues, barring Black athletes from playing on the sport’s professional teams. However, all-Black teams were integral to the semi-professional baseball landscape. The Leland Giants—whose namesake was their owner, Frank Leland, a Black former baseball player and Chicago businessman—dominated semi-professional baseball during the first decades of the twentieth century.
The Leland Giants achieved their fame in part by adopting a style of play known as “scientific” baseball. The concepts of professionalization and expertise were essential to the ethos of the Progressive Era, and baseball was no different. Scientific baseball emphasized carefully-executed plays using good fundamentals over flashy acts of showmanship. The Leland Giants employed well-placed bunts, mechanically-sound pitching, and careful judgment in the field. The alternative was a more vaudevillian approach, often a resort of all-Black teams that found it difficult to draw paying fans, especially white patrons. The Cuban Giants, for instance, developed a series of on-field comedy routines, including a pantomime known as “shadow ball” that involved simulating an imaginary game on the field without the use of a baseball.
But the Leland Giants eschewed gimmicks in favor of what baseball fans widely considered respectable play. Both the Black and white press lauded the Leland Giants for their technical skill. The Chicago Defender wrote in 1911 that the Leland Giants played “genteel, scientific, and gentlemanly ball.” The Chicago Tribune noted that Andrew “Rube” Foster, the team’s manager and star pitcher, was “a student of the dry school of pitching,” an allusion to the fact that Foster didn’t throw the spitball, a pitch that was by that point considered vulgar.
Aside from their style of play, the Leland Giants were distinct among other Black semi-professional baseball teams because they regularly played against white teams and easily drew large crowds of white fans. During the 1909 season, the Leland Giants traveled 4,465 miles playing Black and white teams throughout the Jim Crow South—Memphis, Birmingham, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. During this tour they traveled in luxurious, usually segregated Pullman railcars, illustrating their elite status. During the same season, they also took part in the Chicago City League as its only Black team and won the league’s championship with a season record of 31-9. One Tribune sportswriter admitted that “while undoubtedly it is galling to many persons to see a colored nine take honors from five white teams, the Leland Giants are entitled to a place in the league by their drawing powers.” The writer went on to state that “at least five of them would be in the major league if white.” The Leland Giants culminated the season with a three-game exhibition against the Chicago Cubs, who had won the World Series the last two seasons. The Leland Giants ultimately lost all three games, but playing the top team of the exclusionary major leagues was in and of itself extraordinary.
Despite the popularity of the Leland Giants among white crowds, African Americans were largely excluded from sharing most amusement spaces with whites. With this in mind, team owner Frank Leland forged civic ties with Chicago’s Black business leaders to create “respectable” leisure spaces for the segregated Black population. The issue of respectability was crucial during the Progressive Era, particularly surrounding leisure time. Progressives, Black and white, promoted what they perceived to be clean, wholesome recreation over seedier activities such as gambling, drinking alcohol, or attending cinemas. While Black culture was frequently subject to the moral policing of white progressives, Black progressives like Leland held similar views about respectability. Rather than simply mirroring the racist stereotypes of white progressivism, Chicago’s Black business leaders developed a parallel yet distinct public sphere that represented the cultural spaces they wished for their own community. Just as white progressives established “respectable” amusements in Chicago like parks and playgrounds, Leland united with other members of Chicago’s Black business class, including star player Rube Foster, to form the Leland Giants Baseball and Amusement Association (LGBAA). In addition to the baseball team, the LGBAA also funded a new summer resort, skating rink, and restaurant. The Association purchased its own stadium for the Leland Giants, an unprecedented move for an all-Black team. Overall, the Black middle class often viewed Black-owned enterprises like the LGBAA as key to racial uplift, a way to gain status, wealth, and respect inside and outside the Black community at a time when discrimination and racism ruled the day.
The LGBAA’s amusement hall opened its doors on November 2, 1902, and as Broad Ax editor Julius Taylor explained, “Every enterprise which is not intended to degrade the Negro conducted by Afro-Americans, tends to raise every worthy member of the race up in the business world.” Taylor concluded that as long as the hall was managed in a first-class manner, “it should receive the patronage of the decent amusement loving public.”
The idea of a parallel, yet equally respectable, sphere for the Black population eventually crept into the baseball side of the business. As early as 1910, Rube Foster began laying the groundwork for a professional all-Black league that would be on par with the major leagues. The plan accelerated after World War I, when even greater numbers of African Americans lived in northern cities and had more money to spend thanks to the wartime staffing needs of urban factories. In February 1920, the Negro National League was officially created with Rube Foster as its president. The initial eight teams included the Chicago American Giants, the successor to the Leland Giants. A year later, the Negro Southern League joined the Negro National League under the governance of the National Association of Colored Professional Base Ball Clubs. Being the only professional outlet for Black players, the Negro leagues cultivated the talents of stars like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, whom baseball analysts frequently rank among the best baseball players of all time. But once Jackie Robinson, himself the product of the Negro leagues, crossed MLB’s color line, the Negro leagues quickly faded away as more Black players followed suit.
With the Leland Giants as their vehicle, Frank Leland, Rube Foster, and fellow Black entrepreneurs understood the importance of leisure spaces to community relations, social engagement, and economic success. The Leland Giants demonstrated to a wide audience that Black baseball was worthy of respect by all, and the LGBAA helped to shore up a sense of pride within Chicago’s Black population that racism often denied them. It is precisely because of these successes that Major League Baseball is honoring the Negro Leagues and their players in 2020.