In a time when many Blacks were thought to be less able than white citizens, the Negro Leagues, which were professional baseball leagues composed primarily of African-American teams, were a step towards showcasing the talents and abilities of Black athletes.
“When you look at baseball, it was really one of the first professional sports to integrate,” said Chris Herndon, director of marketing and communications for the Indianapolis Indians. “Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to star in the Major Leagues. Many people point to Robinson in baseball for laying the groundwork for better race relations in the U.S., but a lot had to take place before that could happen. The Negro Leagues gave Black athletes an opportunity.”
Many people don’t know that the city of Indianapolis played a huge role in the history of the Negro Leagues. It was Feb 13, 1920, when the first successful organized Negro League was established in a YMCA in Kansas City, Mo. However, it was in the city of Indianapolis where the first Negro League game was played.
“Different teams held a meeting to plan and organize in Kansas City, but the first ever Negro National League game took place in Indy,” said Geri Strecker, assistant professor of English at Ball State University and a Negro Leagues historian. She added that during this game, the Indianapolis ABCs beat the Chicago American Giants.
Strecker and a group of Ball State professors had been working to find the location of “Washington Park,” where Black teams such as the Indianapolis ABCs played.
“It was kind of tricky to find the exact location where the park was. We looked at old maps and photos, and used Geographic Information System technology,” she explains.
The location of the original “Washington Park” is close to where the Indianapolis Zoo is located now. On July 22, as part of the Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference, there will be a historical marker dedication at the site of what was Washington Park.
There were actually many Negro Leagues throughout time. The Negro National League and the Negro American League were the most popular. Similar to the all-white Major Leagues, the Negro Leagues had their own World Series. During the years, 11 inter-league Black World Series events were held.
Two of the most notable Negro League teams that played for Indianapolis were the Indianapolis ABCs and the Indianapolis Clowns.
Strecker says that Indianapolis was also home to two other little-known African-American teams: The Indy Athletics that played for one season in 1934 and the Indianapolis Crawfords that played in 1940.
One of the greatest Negro League players, Oscar Charleston, was born in Indianapolis. Throughout his career he played with the Indianapolis ABCs, Indianapolis Crawfords, Indianapolis Clowns, New York Lincoln Stars, Chicago American Giants and St. Louis Giants, among others.
After Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, it was more difficult for Negro League teams to attract fans. Many African-American baseball fans started to follow Black players who played on white teams. As the leagues decreased in popularity they started to fade away.
Strecker says that the Negro Leagues will continue to be an important part of baseball history because they allowed Black athletes to show the world that they were capable and talented.
“The players and managers in the Negro Leagues fought for many years to gain recognition for Black athletes. These teams weren’t always playing in good conditions or making much money, but they played because they knew it was important. They were trying to make the rest of the country realize they were first class athletes.”
Left to right: Indianapolis Clowns stars King Tut, manager Oscar
Charleston and Connie Morgan.