Updated: Apr 1, 2020
February 1920 will live in American sports history forever. It was in this year that Kansas City gave birth to the Negro National League, America’s first and longest lasting professional baseball league for African Americans.
The enterprising aspirations of the ambitious men who helped organize the new league are largely forgotten today. In 1920, their names were celebrated, and the formation of the new circuit was acknowledged as an event of major historical significance.
Aspirations for a new league had surfaced as early as August of 1919 when several Western owners visited the East for observation. Charlie Mills, owner of the St. Louis Giants, noted to the St. Louis Argus, “I made a trip east visiting Pennsylvania, New York and Atlantic City with Andrew “Rube” Foster, for the purpose of seeing the big guns in Colored baseball.” Mills added “I realized we were up against a stone wall. Foster, John [Tenny] Blount of Detroit, and [myself] fully agreed to form some kind of an agreement. J.L. Wilkinson of Kansas City, Mo., joined us later. The agreement was to be formed for [the] season of 1920.”
That same month, the Indianapolis Freemennewspaper wrote that Foster had held a meeting at the Freemen office with Joe Matthews of the Dayton Ohio Marcos, Abe Molina of the Cuban Stars, Warner Jewell and George Abrams of the ABCs and Henry Fleming.” The proposed league seemed attractive on paper, and seemingly, on paper was where it was to remain.
Months later, just when it looked as if their momentum was in distress, Foster, who controlled booking and management for three teams: the Detroit Stars, Cuban Stars and American Giants went the public with a ground-shaking interview in one of the Chicago newspapers. “I am going to make the effort to arrange to have all the owners in the East to meet all the owners in the West, either at Chicago or New York.” In interview, Foster projected which western cities he wanted in the new circuit naming Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Detroit, St. Louis and Kansas City.
As prudent and well intentioned as this statement may have seemed, time was running out. spring training was only weeks away. In stepped the wisdom of Dave Wyatt and A. D. Williams of the Indianapolis Ledger, Garry B. Lewis of the Chicago Defender, Charles D. Marshall of the Indianapolis Freeman and Elwood D. Knox publisher of the Freeman. The Freeman challenged owners to “Meet Foster at the Freeman office on Monday March 1, 1920 for a three-day session.” The Argus reeled off a series of articles proclaiming that a “Colored League of Baseball clubs looks certain.” Another article informed the public of a proposed meeting to take place at Knox’s Indianapolis office on Saturday, February 14 and Sunday February 15. At the last minute, and for reasons unknown, the league meeting was switch from Indiana to the YMCA building in Kansas City, Missouri and move forward to Friday and Saturday, February 13 and 14.
On the morning of the opening session Foster humbled himself as he announced, “Gentlemen, the assets of the baseball club[s] which I represent [are] more than all the Negro baseball clubs in existence, still if it pleases you all, I am willing to throw all these assets upon the mercy of the decision of this body of newspaper men who are present.” As quickly as Foster had spoken, it was accepted.
One of the first orders of business was to elect league officials. There was no better selection for President than “Rube” Foster. Foster’s first act as head of the new organization was to release Dick Whitworth, Bill Francis, Jess Barber and Oscar Charleston from his American Giants and assign then to other teams. That portion of the session quickly gave way to the major bone of contention; the financial consideration of Foster’s booking agency. The meeting progressed for two additional days without a resolution.
On the final evening of the second day there came a breakthrough. In an attempt to satisfy their newly elected president, the writers suggested, and the owners agreed to pay Foster a five per cent commission from every game played by teams in the new league. This concession was made after owners who had booked themselves for decades, conceded to the new terms. Detroit was the lone exception to this agreement because Blount had previously agreed to pay Foster a ten per cent commission from every game his team played. The Freeman wrote, “These valuable assets were given up without the exchange of a penny and all for the good of the organization.”
One of the last orders of business was the selection of affiliated members. Nat Strong’s baseball enterprises in the East along with organizations strung out from Kokomo, Indiana to Lexington, Missouri, from Spring Valley, Illinois to Omaha, Nebraska were voted upon and confirmed. “This ended one of the most peaceful and harmonious gatherings ever witnessed among our people,” concluded David Wyatt, “Most especially so when the interest involved, sacrifices made, financial considerations and many other features, any one of which [was] enough to cast one into deep depression [when] taken into account.” Wyatt ended by calling the organizing of the Negro National League, “The biggest sensation ever experienced in the history of baseball.” Charles Mills may have stated it best when he said, “No more worry about players. No more worry about clubs that you know nothing about. A class rating for ball players and an organized business run on a business basis.” Marshall’s article in the Freemandeclared, “Wouldn’t the late Frank Leland rejoice were he alive today and informed of the fact that a real live Negro baseball league had been formed by colored baseball magnets of the west.”
In addition to Foster, the marathon session had brought together many of the greatest minds in baseball. Joe Green of the Chicago Giants had attended and so had Blount of the Detroit Stars. C.I. Taylor of the Indianapolis ABC and Mills of the St. Louis Giants, along with John Matthews of the Dayton Marcos, J. L. Wilkinson and T.Y. Baird of the new Kansas City Monarchs and Attorney Elisha Scott of Topeka, who represented the interest of Robert P. Gilkerson’s Union Giants were all there to lend their vast knowledge of baseball.
The structure of the new Negro National League was not patterned after the National or American Leagues. It was structured to resemble Chicago’s Park Owners Association. In that organization, some team owned and played in their own parks while others, those that claimed no home field, traveled exclusively. Baseball in an around Chicago had flourished with this arrangement and the new Negro National League would too.
The eight-team circuit, in addition to having two teams in Chicago, placed teams in Detroit, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Dayton. Wilkinson and Baird’s new Monarchs of Kansas City, formed from the pick of the once famous All-Nations, became the league’s first expansion team. The Cuban Stars and Joe Green’s Chicago Giants were both traveling team who claimed no home park.
After much fanfare May 2, 1920 signed the historic start of the new league. In that first game, Taylor’s ABC’s of Indianapolis defeated Green’s Chicago Giants by a 4-2 score at Indianapolis’ Washington Park before a crowd of 6,000.
Within a week the entire league was active. The vision of a Negro National League had become reality. Major League baseball, a vision that white America had claimed for themselves, had a new rival. Professional baseball would never be the same.