We’re used to thinking about Negro leaguers as ballplayers—but on this Labor Day, let’s think about them as workers. They were, after all, trying to make a living, and Negro league baseball would not have existed had it not been a business that paid its workers.
There were vast differences between the black leagues and the white majors—differences in playing conditions, job security, the ease of traveling around the country and finding accommodations. But the starkest contrast can be found simply in how much players in the two organizations were paid.
In 1923 the Indianapolis ABCs were a pretty good team, finishing fourth in the Negro National League with a 44-32 record—finishing only percentage points out of third place, and just five games back of the champion Kansas City Monarchs. They had (among other players) center fielder/first baseman Oscar Charleston, who hit 11 home runs, drove in 94 runs, and stole 25 bases in 84 games; pitcher Darltie Cooper, who went 14-4; slick-fielding third baseman Henry Blackmon, who batted .296, slugged .448, and finished second on the team with 7 homers; veteran leadoff hitter George Shively (.300); and second baseman Connie Day (.294, 18 doubles).
The war between the Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League was really heating up during the 1923/24 off-season, and the ABCs' roster was full of tempting targets for the rich eastern clubs. In the midst of this, the team’s owner, Olivia Taylor (widow of C. I. Taylor), embroiled in a PR war with her want-away players, released the monthly wage figures for most of her roster, in an effort to show how well paid they were. It was published in the Chicago Defender (January 26, 1924, p. 10).
If we assume that the typical contract at this point was for six months, then here are the seasonal wages for each player (arranged in descending order):
As it happens, Baseball-Reference.com has listed some historical salaries for major league players. Let’s look at a team of comparable quality (relative to its league): the 1923 Cleveland Indians, who went 82-71, good for a .536 winning percentage and third place in the American League (the ABCs had a .579 winning percentage, but finished fourth). I chose the Indians to compare for another reason: their best player was center fielder Tris Speaker, a player I’ve always thought is a very good comp for Oscar Charleston. They were both great left-handed hitters, and both were known for playing a shallow center field, relying on their speed to get to balls hit over their head.
Here are the twelve highest salaries on the 1923 Cleveland Indians:
That’s right: Tris Speaker in 1923 earned more than fifteen times what Oscar Charleston did.
As you read down the lists, the discrepancies shrink; the next six Cleveland players were paid about six to eight times as much as their Negro league counterparts. The white players toward the end of the list earned about three or four times as much as their ABCs equivalents.
A few notes and qualifications:
• Speaker was the Indians’ manager (which saw him gain some extra pay, as did Dismukes on the ABCs), older than Charleston, and had won the World Series in 1920. The ABCs didn’t have any comparable achievements, at least since their unofficial western championship of 1915.
• Cleveland, of course, had many more players on salary; the ABCs certainly employed more players during the 1923 season than these 12 (who presumably were the salaried players retained at the end of the season).
• The black players could, of course, supplement their incomes via post-season barnstorming, as could the white players, and through winter league baseball; but that’s irrelevant to this comparison.
•I haven’t checked, but contracts in the white major leagues probably covered a longer period of time, at least seven or eight months from spring training through the post-season. It was common at this time (and for several decades on) for major league players to seek off-season employment (and some, like the best black players, played winter baseball).
•Most of the ABCs players were able to get better pay by jumping to the ECL. Of the players listed here, only Dizzy Dismukes and Namon Washington stuck with the team in 1924 (Blackmon played one game with Indianapolis before jumping the team). Day, Holloway, and Blackmon went to the Baltimore Black Sox; Gerard Williams and Tex Burnett joined the New York Lincoln Giants; Shively and Omer Newsome went to the Washington Potomacs; and Cooper, Corbett, and Charleston went to the Harrisburg Giants, where Charleston took over as player-manager. All were presumably better paid than they had been in Indianapolis.
Not every ABCs player would have made it in an integrated major league—but then, neither would every Indians player. Nobody, however, would deny that the best players in the Negro National League—Bullet Rogan, Cristóbal Torriente, Oscar Charleston—would have been stars in the major leagues. The Charleston/Speaker discrepancy gives us a neat snapshot of just how much the best black baseball players were disadvantaged financially as a result of the color line.
(I originally produced this comparison for an interview I did last spring with an eighth grader who was doing a project on Negro league baseball for History Day.)