The first viable black league was formed in 1920 under the leadership of Rube Foster, manager of the Chicago American Giants. Foster had been Negro baseball’s best pitcher in the early years of the 20th century and then its best-known manager and promoter. His barnstorming American Giants were known all over the country through their winter tours to California and Florida and traveled big-league style in private railroad cars.
Another debilitating factor was that sometimes a league team would refuse to play a scheduled game if a nonleague opponent promised a bigger payday. Umpiring of league games was sometimes erratic because umpires were hired by the home team. Another handicap was the wide disparity in the quality of the teams; two or three clubs would dominate and earn far more money than their weaker brethren.
From 1924 through 1927, the NNL and ECL champions met in a Negro World Series. The NNL’s Chicago American Giants won two championships and the Kansas City Monarchs won one, as did the Hilldale Club, representing the ECL. The ECL succumbed to financial weakness in the spring of 1928. The NNL, bereft of the management acumen and foresight of Foster, who was hospitalized for mental illness in 1926, stumbled on until 1931 before disbanding as the Great Depression deepened and left most fans with empty pockets. Two of its solvent franchises, Chicago and Indianapolis, joined the Negro Southern League for 1932. That year another black circuit, called the East-West League, was started for eastern teams by Cumberland W. Posey, veteran manager of the Homestead Grays, a ball club based in Pittsburgh. The new league barely made it off the ground. By early June its Detroit team had dropped out, the schedule was curtailed, and salaries were slashed. The league did not last the summer.
To earn such wages, black players competed in up to 150 games a season—half to two-thirds of them against black as well as white nonleague teams. Many of their opponents were local teams within easy reach of their home cities, but others were small-town teams far out on the barnstorming trail. Most teams traveled by bus, ranging from the best that era could offer to aging rattletraps that were prone to break down. In the winter, black stars went to Mexico, Cuba, and other Latin American nations where baseball was popular.
The Negro World Series was resumed in 1942 between champions of the Negro National and Negro American leagues and continued until the NNL disbanded in 1948. Among the most noted Negro league teams was the Homestead Grays, based in both Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., which won nine pennants during 1937–45 and included the great hitters Josh Gibson (catcher), James (“Cool Papa”) Bell (outfielder), and Buck Leonard (first baseman). In the mid-1930s another legendary team, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, included five future Baseball Hall of Fame members: Gibson, Bell, Paige, manager Oscar Charleston, and clutch-hitting third baseman William Julius (“Judy”) Johnson.
The World Series, however, was far overshadowed by the East-West All-Star Game, pitting the best players of the NNL against those of the NAL, from 1933 to 1950. It annually attracted as many as 50,000 spectators to Comiskey Park in Chicago and became the biggest social event as well as the chief sport’s attraction for African Americans. Only heavyweight boxing matches featuring the black champion Joe Louis held the attention of more African Americans.