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When black baseball players had a league of their own

For kids: A picture book looks at the history of African-American baseball in the US.

By Jessica Worful / May 12, 2008



It's baseball season – time to cheer on your favorite players in the major leagues. Maybe you only root for the athletes on your home team. Or maybe you like all the guys who've got game. Either way, you probably know the names of baseball greats such as Ken Griffey Jr. of the Cincinnati Reds and Dontrelle "The D-Train" Willis of the Detroit Tigers.

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African-American players like these are huge stars in professional baseball. But it took a long time for Major League Baseball to add black players to its teams.

Baseball has been played professionally in the United States since the last few decades of the 19th century. And almost from the start, white players tried to exclude black athletes from their games. But that didn't stop the black players. They formed their own leagues and competed against one another.

You can read all about the great, gritty history of African-American teams in the illustrated book, "We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball," by Kadir Nelson. (Until the 1960s, "Negro" and "colored" were commonly accepted terms for African-Americans.)

The narrator of "We Are the Ship" is a fictional Negro League player, but the story he tells is true. And the vivid oil painting illustrations show spot-on likenesses of some of the most famous figures in black baseball.

Right off the bat, the book tells readers about the Negro National League (NNL). Rube Foster, a former baseball player, formed the NNL in 1920 in the Midwest.

By 1923, a few teams split from the NNL to form the Eastern Colored League. In 1924, the two groups held the first Negro League World Series between the champions of each association.

Despite the growing success of the Negro Leagues, they often struggled financially. And since "whites only" restaurants and hotels usually outnumbered those for African-Americans, it could take hours for players to find somewhere to rest and refuel before an away game.

During winter, many teams played baseball in Latin American countries such as Cuba or Mexico. There, black players didn't face segregation, and the people they met were fans of any good ballplayer, no matter what race he was.

Negro Leaguers played against white major-league teams, too, but only in unofficial games. Still, the games allowed white teams to see black players' skills. And major-league owners took notice when, during part of the 1930s, the Negro Leagues' all-star game drew bigger crowds than the majors' all-star match.

After several more years, a few white teams were finally ready to accept black players. Jackie Robinson first broke baseball's color barrier when he made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Soon, more African-American players signed with the majors. Hank Aaron was one of them. He wrote the forward to "We Are the Ship," and although he appreciates his major-league career, he has fond memories of his days in the Negro Leagues.

Once the greats of black baseball began crossing over, the Negro Leagues stopped attracting such large crowds. By 1960 all the black-only teams were gone.

But the Negro Leagues left a proud legacy. The expert players they produced overcame segregation in baseball and made it possible for talents like Ken Griffey Jr. to be a part of America's national pastime in a big way.

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