The first “Negro league,” which I would define as a professional circuit explicitly dedicated to clubs staffed by black players, was the League of Colored Base Ball Clubs, or the National Colored League, of 1887. The NCL was as national in its range as the major leagues of the time, its six clubs including Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Lousville, and Baltimore. This proved to be way too ambitious, considering the limited resources available; the league collapsed within a couple of weeks, leaving players stranded in faraway cities. It was fully twenty years before another “Negro league” would emerge, with a very different scope and somewhat reduced ambition: the National Association of Colored Base Ball Clubs of the United States and Cuba. Virtually nothing has ever been written about this league, which seems to have lasted no fewer than three seasons, from 1907 to 1909.
Let me begin, though, the year before this Negro league got started, with a different league that was in important ways its predecessor. In 1906 William Freihofer, who owned a chain of bakeries in the Philadelphia area as well as a white semi-pro club called the Philadelphia Professionals, organized the International League of Independent Professional Base Ball Clubs, which in its original form consisted of two black clubs, two Cuban clubs, and one white team:
A quick rundown on the International League’s original teams:
•Cuban X Giants, owned/managed by E. B. Lamar;
•Philadelphia Quaker Giants, owned by Jess and Eddie McMahon, managers of Olympic Field in Manhattan;
•Cuban Stars of Havana (originally called the Cuban Stars of Santiago, though this was quickly dropped), owned by Manuel Camps, a Cuban immigrant and Brooklyn cigar manufacturer, and booked by E. B. Lamar;
•Havana Stars (also called the Havana Club or just the Havanas), owned/managed by Alfredo Pastor, a Cuban baseball official, and booked by E. B. Lamar;
•Philadelphia Professionals, owned by Freihofer himself and managed by John A. O’Rourke, the league’s secretary/treasurer.
Freihofer also provided a “handsome silver cup” to be awarded to the league champions at season’s end:
In some ways, the International League looks to us more like a tournament than what we would consider a league. The original plans were for a five-team league to play an 8-game “season,” with every club playing every other club twice. Needless to say, the league clubs played a number of games against each other that didn’t count officially in the standings, and played many, many games against non-league opponents. The Philadelphia Giants, for example, played a total of 145 games in 1906, but would only play five official International League contests.
The race for the Freihofer Cup claimed several casualties. The Havana Stars were the first to succumb, falling apart in early June, with several of the players being poached by other International clubs. Their place in the league was at first to be taken by the Wilmington (Del.) Giants, a team led by the old Cuban Giants veteran George L. Williams, but league secretary John A. O’Rourke eventually decided to admit the Riverton-Palmyra (N.J.) Athletic Club, another white team, instead (Philadelphia Inquirer, June 24, 1906, Sports, p. 2).
In July the Quaker Giants and the Cuban Stars both failed to make scheduled appearances and were dropped from the league (though they continued to exist), and their places (and records) were taken over by the Philadelphia Giants and the Wilmington Giants (“New Teams in International League,” Trenton Evening Times, July 24, 1906, p. 11). The Philly Giants, inheriting the Quakers’ 3-0 record, were immediately installed as favorites to win the Freihofer Cup (“What the Future Greats Are Doing,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 5, 1906, Sports, p. 2).
On Labor Day, September 3, playing in the Philadelphia Athletics’ Columbia Park, the Philadelphia Giants, behind Rube Foster, defeated the Cuban X-Giants and Harry Buckner 3 to 2, clinching the International League championship. Here are the final standings:
The Inquirer was pretty optimistic about the circuit’s future prospects: “The league despite, several drawbacks, weathered all the storms of the first year and the prospects of a bigger and stronger circuit next summer are indeed encouraging” (ibid.).
As I said, I wouldn’t consider the 1906 International to be a “Negro league,” strictly speaking, due to the presence of the two white teams. But it was the predecessor to a genuine Negro league.
I used to think that the National Association was an outright continuation of the International League, just with the white clubs dropped; but I no longer think that was the case, given the name change, the absence of Freihofer and his Cup, and the fact that the new league had little to do with Philadelphia (nearly all of the 1907 games between its clubs were played in New York and New Jersey). The key alliance was now between Walter Schlichter of the Philadelphia Giants and Nat C. Strong of New York, who was consolidating his control of independent baseball on the east coast.
Some of the men behind the National Association: Walter Schlichter, John Connor, Nat Strong, John Bright.
Standings for the 1907 National Association were published somewhat more erratically than for the 1906 International League, though they did appear every so often. In the end the Philadelphia Giants were again the champions.
I haven’t found final published standings for the 1907 National Association, but here’s how each club fared against the other teams in the league:
Philadelphia Giants: 13-7-0
Cuban Giants: 5-5-1
Royal Giants: 10-14-1
Cuban Stars: 2-4-0
The league still existed in 1908, its membership unchanged:
It’s unclear exactly when they clinched it, but on September 28 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle asserted that the Royal Giants had already won “the championship for 1908 of the colored League of the United States.”
Here are the records of each club against other league members in 1908. The Royal Giants seemed to have deserved that championship:
Royal Giants: 19-10-1
Philadelphia Giants: 16-15-0
Cuban Giants: 6-12-1
Cuban Stars: 3-7-0
The National Association lasted through the 1909 season:
There was very little coverage of the 1909 pennant race. According to Nat Strong, the Cuban Stars and Royal Giants were engaged in a series that would decide the championship in late September and early October, and the Royal Giants had won the first two games:
I’ve been able to find three games between the Cuban Stars and Royal Giants in September. The Royal Giants beat the Cubans 5 to 3 on September 6 at the Bronx Oval, then won again 2 to 1 on September 12 at Meyerrose Park in Brooklyn. The Cuban Stars turned the tables for a 4 to 2 win at the Bronx Oval on September 21. In a later letter to the Freeman (December 18, 1909), Strong said the Royal Giants had won the championship, and maintained that “the usual colored championship series will be played during the season of 1910.”
Again, the records of each club against the other National Association clubs for 1909:
Royal Giants: 9-3
Cuban Stars: 8-5
Philadelphia Giants: 6-12
Cuban Giants: 0-3
Despite Strong’s confident assertions, in 1910 there’s no hint of the National Association of Colored Base Ball Clubs of the United States and Cuba. If I had to guess I’d say that it was done in by 1) the decline of the Genuine Cuban Giants; 2) the Cuban Stars’ increasing involvement in the Midwestern game as they spent more and more time in and around Chicago and less on the east coast; and 3) Nat Strong’s realization of the money he could make pitting his Royal Giants against white semipro and town teams in both New York City and upstate New York.
In fact, Strong would remain for years the biggest obstacle to organizing the eastern blackball teams, and there would be no eastern league until he was persuaded to lend his (half-hearted) support to the ECL in 1923. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Giants, the first truly great African American baseball team, were strangled by the lack of good opponents in the east, which caused them to take long, expensive, and ultimately unsustainable western jaunts in pursuit of better paydays.
As far as I can tell two players appeared in both the first Negro league (the National Colored League of 1887) and the second one (the National Association of 1907-1909): Sol White, 19-year-old third baseman for the 1887 Pittsburg Keystones, and veteran player-manager for the champion 1907 Philadelphia Giants; and John Nelson, who pitched for both the 1887 New York Gorhams and the 1908 Genuine Cuban Giants.
Old school: John Nelson and Sol White
UPDATE 2/6/2014 Just realized I forgot the 1886 Southern League of Colored Base Ballists, which certainly qualifies as a Negro league per the above definition.