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Negro Leagues
Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson, ca. 1947-1956
Library Photograph Collection

African Americans were locked out of major league baseball from the beginning. Some blacks had played on amateur white teams during the 1860s and 1870s, but that was rare. In the South, Jim Crow tightened its grip on baseball as it did on society. Northern and Eastern teams were largely segregated as well, and some players refused to play against integrated ball clubs.

By the 1880s, African Americans — including Tennesseans — fielded their own professional and semi-professional teams. Until the early 20th century, they played independently of any league. Despite early attempts to organize, it wasn't until 1920 that the Negro National League was established. Others followed: the Negro Southern League, Eastern Colored League, Negro American League, and several short-lived leagues.

Negro League team rosters included some of the top players in the country, but informal agreements between white baseball club owners prohibited African Americans from playing in the better-known and better-financed white leagues. The "Gentleman's Agreement" of the 1920s pounded the final nail in the coffin and banned black players from professional white leagues for more than sixty years. However, many black and white teams still competed in "barnstorming," traveling from city to city and playing each other in unofficial games. The African American teams played with flair and were great crowd pleasers. Some historians say that (white) baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis thought the black teams were a little too good, and he discouraged the practice of barnstorming.

Tennessee State Technical and Agricultural School for Colored Boys baseball team

Tennessee State Technical and Agricultural School for Colored Boys baseball team, Pikeville, Tennessee, 1950s
GP 47, Frank Goad Clement Papers

Tennessee was home to several African American baseball clubs. In 1926, the Chattanooga Black Lookouts scouted pitcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige in Mobile and hired him at $250 a month (Satch kept $50 and sent the rest to his mother). He arrived in town with a few clothes he carried in a brown grocery sack. "That's how I hit Chattanooga, Tennessee," he remembered.

Paige's first away game was in Memphis, and the Black Lookouts had traveled cross-state in an old school bus. Because the team could not afford lodging, the players slept outdoors at the ball park and used their suitcases as pillows. When they earned a little money on the road, they stayed in "Negroes only" motels. Satchel also played briefly for the Nashville Elite Giants and Memphis Red Sox.

During his long career, Paige played for more than a dozen teams. During his barnstorming years, he faced some of the biggest power hitters in the white leagues. Joe DiMaggio and Floyd (Babe) Herman said Paige was the toughest pitcher they had ever seen. He became so accurate that he would warm up by throwing strikes across a gum wrapper as home plate. Satch was around 59 years old (he was sheepish about his age) when he played his last game. He was the first pitcher from the old Negro Leagues to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and is considered by many to be the greatest pitcher of all time.

Other big names appeared in Tennessee during the Negro Leagues' years. Future New York and San Francisco Giants standout and Hall of Famer Willie Mays played for the Chattanooga Choo-Choos when he was just 15! Not long before becoming a superstar country singer, Charley Pride pitched for the Memphis Red Sox and was said to have a "pretty good little curve."

Zinc company Negro League baseball team

Zinc company Negro League baseball team, Jefferson City, Tennessee, 1930s
Looking Back at Tennessee Collection

Among Tennessee's more well-known professional and semi-professional black baseball teams were the Chattanooga Black Lookouts, Chattanooga Choo-Choos, Knoxville Giants, Memphis Eurekas, Memphis Eclipses, Memphis Red Sox, Nashville Elite Giants, and Nashville White Sox.

Other pro and semi-pro African American teams sported memorable names such as the Albany Bachelors, Atlanta Black Crackers, Baltimore Lord Baltimores, Birmingham Black Barons, Boston Resolutes, Chicago Brown Bombers, Indianapolis Clowns, Kansas City Monarchs, New Orleans Black Pelicans, Philadelphia Excelsiors, Philadelphia Pythians, and the Washington (D.C.) Black Senators. Hank Aaron played shortstop with the Clowns and helped them win the 1952 Negro League World Series.

The Nashville black community's enthusiasm for baseball ran high, and no comment on its history would be complete without mention of Thomas T. Wilson. Wilson founded the Elite Giants in 1921 and built a stadium in the heart of the city's largest African American neighborhood. The white Nashville Vols often played pre-season games with the Elite Giants at Wilson Park.

Attempts by a few white managers and owners to integrate during the 1930s and 1940s caused much division within the baseball establishment. Finally, in 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey blew the color barrier wide open when he hatched a secret plan to sign Jack Roosevelt Robinson to a major league contract. Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers organization after just one season with the all-black Kansas City Monarchs. He made his first appearance in a Dodgers uniform in 1947 and won the Rookie of the Year Award that year (the first time it was ever awarded). After playing 10 seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he retired from baseball in 1956. The next year, Satchel Paige became the first African American pitcher in the previously all-white American League when he joined the Cleveland Indians in 1948. To many players in mid-century America, however, the acceptance of integrated baseball did not come easily and Johnny Beazley was no exception.


Baseball game at Cumberland University

Baseball game at Cumberland University, Lebanon, Tennessee, ca. 1895
Looking Back at Tennessee Collection

baseball team

Unidentified baseball team, Hohenwald, Tennessee, ca. 1900
Looking Back at Tennessee Collection

Clarksville Fire Department baseball team

Clarksville Fire Department baseball team, Clarksville, Tennessee, ca. 1900
Looking Back at Tennessee Collection