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  • Emmanuel Mehr

The Baltimore Black Sox, the American Negro League, and the Onset of the Great Depression, 1929-1930

BHW 38: October 21, 2023

Three African American Baltimore Black Sox players, all dressed in uniform and wearing a baseball glove.
Figure 1. “Three Baltimore Black Sox Players,” names unknown, public domain [1].

 

“The Mutual Association of Colored Baseball Clubs,” also known as the Eastern Colored League (ECL), was formed in December 1922. This league included six teams: the Baltimore Black Sox, Brooklyn Royal Giants, New York Lincoln Giants, New York Cuban Stars East, Atlantic City Bacharach Giants, and Pennsylvania’s Hilldale Club. It was an East Coast competitor to the Midwest’s Negro National League (NNL). [2] These “Negro Leagues” were a response to continued Black exclusion from white major league baseball. Their existence is a testament to the hard-earned social and economic success of African American urban communities across the United States in the early twentieth century. However, continued structural inequities of American racial capitalism led to league difficulties, including the dissolution of the ECL in 1928. A new league called the American Negro League (ANL) was created prior to the 1929 season. The Baltimore Black Sox became the best team in the ANL, surging to the league championship. [3] This shared Black Baltimorean community accomplishment was dampened by economic and organizational difficulties, which prevented a “Negro World Series” between that year’s ANL and NNL champions. [4] Nonetheless, the 1929 season was the best single-season performance in Baltimore Black Sox history. While Black Baltimoreans celebrated their championship, the ANL folded. Reporting on the Sox winning a post-championship series against white major leaguers in late-October, the Afro-American also noted: “the baseball czars are not so optimistic about a baseball league in the East next year. The big boys, so I hear, have found that in going over their books… they see quite a bit of red.” [5] The second-best season in Sox history was 1930, but without a functional and competitive league that year’s victories were bittersweet. [6] The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and 1930 destroyed much of African American professional baseball for the duration of the financial crisis. [7] Black investors and fans were hit disproportionately hard, in Baltimore and elsewhere. By examining these experiences in tandem with the high-performing 1929-1930 Baltimore Black Sox, much is learned about multidimensional Black Baltimorean social and economic histories.


Black Baltimoreans had reason to celebrate in 1929 even before the Black Sox won the ANL championship. Despite the uneven racial impacts of national economic success in the 1920s, African Americans in Baltimore and nationwide made substantial progress. [8] Black Baltimoreans made inroads into local politics, the legal profession, higher education, and more. [9] Black business ownership was up, and Black community organizations started to thrive. [10] While the primary investors in the 1929 and 1930 Black Sox were white, Black investors helped build the franchise from the ground-up starting in 1913. For example, Howard Young was one of the team’s original investors and executives. Born to a formerly enslaved father, Young attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. before opening Baltimore’s first Black-owned pharmacy. [11] Black Baltimoreans also carved out prominence in the city’s public life in these years, successfully integrating public transportation and building a strong history of electoral involvement. [12] Meanwhile, Baltimore’s large Black population grew further as the city’s industrial economy attracted migrants headed north as part of the Great Migration. In 1920, 108,322 of Baltimore City’s 733,826 residents, or 14.8 percent, were African American. [13] By 1930 there were 142,106 Black Baltimoreans, 17.8 percent of the city’s total population of 804,874. [14]


The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and 1930 hit Black communities particularly hard. This was true in Baltimore and across the country. The racial accumulation of intergenerational wealth meant Black Baltimoreans were less likely to own their homes, have substantial investment portfolios, or maintain large savings accounts than their white counterparts. [15] As a result, Black Baltimoreans generally felt the impact of the Depression earlier and more drastically. In 1929 and 1930, white Baltimoreans were protected from the early downturn by their privileged position in the industrial economy, while Black Baltimoreans ran into increased financial obstacles. [16] Many white workers who were let go from their skilled jobs took over the less skilled jobs previously worked by Black Baltimoreans. Gender further exacerbated these uneven impacts since substantially more Black women than white women worked. Black women were forced out of domestic jobs by white women entering the workforce. Black business owners, who made up a substantial portion of the Black middle-class, struggled as their predominantly Black clientele faced financial difficulties. [17] This partially explains why the ownership group of the Black Sox was and remained white in this period, causing tensions with the players and predominantly Black fanbase. In 1929, the team’s white owner George Rossiter was notorious for spending big on players but blatantly neglecting the stadium experience of the team’s predominantly Black fans. [18]


One measure of stability for the frequently league-changing Baltimore Black Sox was having a consistent home ballpark. However, conditions and experiences at the park were far inferior to those at the city’s major white baseball facilities such as Oriole Park. In 1929 and 1930, the Black Sox played their home games at Maryland Park in Baltimore’s Westport neighborhood. The choice of neighborhood was the facility’s main strength. Westport comprised primarily white working-class housing and industry, but it was also a long-established recreational area for Black Baltimoreans. [19] As the 1929 league champion Sox prepared to take on a team of white all-stars in late-September, Afro sportswriter Bill Gibson lamented: “the games will again be held at Maryland Park. Oriole Park, the logical place to have the series, from the standpoint of convenience to patrons and from the standpoint of money-making for the two teams, again shuts its gates in the face of dark-skinned players.” He added that if the games were at Oriole Park, they would attract patrons “who would not otherwise take a chance on ruining their clothes at Maryland Park.” [20] Gibson’s complaints about inferior conditions in a segregated system likely reflect shared Black Baltimorean displeasure with the community’s mistreatment by the white power structure.


In addition to deteriorating ballpark facilities, paid attendance at Black Sox games decreased substantially as the Depression impacted Black Baltimoreans. By early-July 1930, Gibson reported in his Afro column that, “Crowds have been so small at Maryland Park this summer that the Black Sox owner, in an effort to cut expenses, was forced to let Mule Suttles, crack first baseman and home run king, go back to St. Louis last week.” [21] Now a hall-of-famer, Suttles finished third in the league with nineteen home runs in 1929. [22] Gibson also noted the state of the economy meant players had minimal financial leverage. He wrote, “This is one year that the owners have the players practically at their mercy, and they know it.” [23] The 1929 Sox spent on experienced and talented players, so much so that they did not have a single rookie on their roster. [24] By 1931, as historian Bernard McKenna points out: “Simply put, ownership could not compete financially.” The stars that remained with the team showed their age and struggled, while the essentially leagueless team took the road in search of willing opponents. [25] The 1931 Sox played some games against the then still-functioning NNL, some against other unaffiliated clubs. They finished the year with an abysmal twenty-two wins, thirty-eight losses, and one tie. [26]


The collapse of the ANL after the 1929 season resulted primarily from the Great Depression’s disproportionate impacts on not just Black Baltimoreans, but African Americans nationwide. This was reflected in attendance numbers for Sox games as visitors at major venues. When New York’s Lincoln Giants took on the Black Sox for a series at Yankee Stadium in July 1930, attendance was unimpressive. Gibson remarked, “Here we have the biggest athletic attractions of the year and the largest crowd that can be coaxed out is 15,000.” [27] Yankee Stadium’s capacity at that time was roughly 62,000. [28] He asked, “Is it the economic condition, or is it that Negro fans don’t care?” [29] It was the former. The organizational vulnerabilities that caused the demise of the ANL and numerous other Black professional baseball leagues during the segregation era were blamed on team owners in the press. The mostly white owners provided a convenient scapegoat but are only emblematic of the broader problem of structurally unequal racial wealth distribution. When Black professional baseball teams lost Black investors and owners throughout the 1920s, perhaps this was because Black businesspeople recognized the priorities built into American racial capitalism. If so, then their disinvestment in Black leagues was smart economic thinking. The entrenchment of white supremacy meant that the white baseball leagues would always be prioritized over their Black counterparts. This is why the white major leagues continued to operate successfully throughout the Depression while Black professional leagues crumbled.


Despite the challenges posed by the Great Depression, African Americans earned many civil rights gains in this period. In Baltimore, the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was reinvigorated by the leadership and initiative of strong Black women starting in 1931. Namely, Lillie May Carroll Jackson and her daughters Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Virginia Jackson Kiah massively expanded the branch’s membership and built the organizational infrastructure needed for large-scale social change. [30] Building on these achievements after the Depression, Black Americans pushed baseball’s white power structure to integrate the sport, finally succeeding in April 1947. Importantly, the Baltimore NAACP’s leadership and agenda focused on the middle class. [31] Like the Baltimore Black Sox, this organization aimed to mobilize Black capital to enable overall racial progress. The vast majority of Black Baltimoreans and Black Americans remained in the working class and thus experienced these advancements less directly. [32] As we have seen, the impacts of the Great Depression hit the most vulnerable people first and hardest. For working-class people, the on-field success of the Baltimore Black Sox was little consolation for the economic inequities they faced. When considering the contrast between the success of the Sox in 1929 and 1930 and the lived experiences of Black Baltimoreans at this time, the shine of middle-class achievement must not detract from lived realities. It is the difference between Black Sox public heroics and Black Baltimorean struggle that makes this dual narrative insightful.


The interconnected stories of the 1929-1930 Baltimore Black Sox and the early impacts of the Great Depression on Black Baltimoreans demonstrate progress, setbacks, and contradictions. In the preceding decades, Black Baltimoreans achieved hard-earned social and economic advancement amidst the city’s booming industrial economy. Economic progress provided momentum and funding for community building and civil rights. Some of these resources went towards Black professional baseball, which became a point of community pride. Black players and teams publicly demonstrated Black excellence. However, the Depression disproportionately impacted Black communities. When economic downturn knocked white workers down occupational hierarchies, Black workers were pushed to the bottom or out completely. White workers could attend a professional baseball game and see players who looked like them throughout the Depression. This was not the case for African Americans, as financial strain hit the Black leagues hard. As the 1929 ANL champion Baltimore Black Sox played against a white all-star squad in early October of that year, white fans were preoccupied with the looming all-white World Series. Afro writer S. B. Wilkins expressed his disappointment: “Very soon now the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Athletics will hold the attention of the baseball fans the country over… [Meanwhile] For over ten years the [Black] race has been attempting to play organized professional baseball with more or less failures, all because they will not pattern after what has been proved the proper methods.” [33] It seems the problems were more structural than that.

 

[1] “Three Baltimore Black Sox Players,” photograph (location unknown, date unknown), Ghosts of Baltimore, public domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Baltimore_Black_Sox.jpg.

[2] See Daniel A. Nathan, “Bearing Witness to Blackball: Buck O’Neil, the Negro Leagues, and the Politics of the Past,” Journal of American Studies 35, no. 3 (December 2001): 457, https://www.jstor.org/stable/27557006; “Eastern Colored League: 1923 Season,” Seamheads Negro Leagues Database, accessed October 17, 2023, https://www.seamheads.com/NegroLgs/year.php?yearID=1923&lgID=ECL&tab=standings.

[3] Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 90, https://archive.org/details/onlyballwaswhite0000pete.

[4] James H. Bready, Baseball in Baltimore: The First 100 Years (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 164, https://archive.org/details/baseballinbaltim0000brea.

[5] “Black Sox Take Two From All-Star Nine,” The Afro-American (Baltimore, MD), October 19, 1929, 14, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=2h0mAAAAIBAJ&sjid=1f0FAAAAIBAJ&pg=3934%2C3416797; Bill Gibson, “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya,” The Afro-American (Baltimore, MD), October 19, 1929, 14, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=2h0mAAAAIBAJ&sjid=1f0FAAAAIBAJ&pg=3934%2C3416797.

[6] Bernard McKenna, The Baltimore Black Sox: A Negro Leagues History, 1913-1936 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2020), 195, Kindle edition.

[7] Charles C. Alexander, Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 205-206, https://archive.org/details/breakingslumpbas0000alex.

[8] Jo Ann E. Argersinger, Toward a New Deal in Baltimore: People and Government in the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 3, Kindle edition.

[9] David S. Bogen, “The First Integration of the University of Maryland School of Law,” Maryland Historical Magazine 84, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 41-45, https://digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1711&context=fac_pubs.

[10] For a strong example of these community organizations, see Dennis Anthony Doster, “‘To Strike for Right, To Strike With Might’: African Americans and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Baltimore, 1910-1930” (PhD diss., University of Maryland, College Park, 2015), 235-266, https://www.proquest.com/openview/3a77815727d27f7b3fe129699f1e724f/1.

[11] McKenna, The Baltimore Black Sox, 69.

[12] Andor Skotnes, A New Deal for All?: Race and Class Struggles in Depression-Era Baltimore (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 30, Kindle edition.

[13] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States (1920), 1922, vol. 3, Population (Composition and Characteristics), Maryland: Table 9, 424, https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1920/volume-3/41084484v3ch04.pdf.

[14] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census of the United States (1930), 1933, vol. 4, Population (General), Table 41, 98, https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1930/abstract/00476589ch02.pdf.

[15] Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, To Ask for an Equal Chance: African Americans in the Great Depression (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 28, https://archive.org/details/toaskforequalcha0000gree_p2t5.

[16] Argersinger, Toward a New Deal in Baltimore, 3, 7.

[17] Greenberg, To Ask for an Equal Chance, 29-32.

[18] McKenna, The Baltimore Black Sox, 198.

[19] McKenna, The Baltimore Black Sox, 69.

[20] Bill Gibson, “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya,” The Afro-American (Baltimore, MD), September 28, 1929, 14, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=1x0mAAAAIBAJ&sjid=1f0FAAAAIBAJ&pg=4018%2C2318353.

[21] Bill Gibson, “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya,” The Afro-American (Baltimore, MD), July 5, 1930, 14, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=tR8mAAAAIBAJ&sjid=6_0FAAAAIBAJ&pg=4298%2C3538452.

[22] “Mule Suttles,” Baseball Hall of Fame, accessed October 17, 2023, https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/suttles-mule.

[23] Bill Gibson, “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya,” The Afro-American, July 5, 1930, 15.

[24] Bready, Baseball in Baltimore, 164.

[25] McKenna, The Baltimore Black Sox, 196-197.

[26] “1931 Season,” Seamheads Negro Leagues Database, accessed October 17, 2023, https://www.seamheads.com/NegroLgs/year.php?yearID=1931.

[27] Bill Gibson, “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya,” The Afro-American (Baltimore, MD), July 12, 1930, 14, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=th8mAAAAIBAJ&sjid=6_0FAAAAIBAJ&pg=4121%2C3908525.

[28] Baseball Almanac Inc., “Yankee Stadium,” Baseball Almanac, accessed October 17, 2023, https://www.baseball-almanac.com/stadium/yankee_stadium.shtml.

[29] Bill Gibson, “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya,” The Afro-American, July 12, 1930, 14.

[30] Prudence Cumberbatch, “What ‘the Cause’ Needs Is a ‘Brainy and Energetic Woman’: A Study of Female Charismatic Leadership in Baltimore,” in Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, eds. Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodward (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 50, https://archive.org/details/wanttostartrevol0000unse.

[31] See Skotnes, A New Deal for All?, 310; Lee Sartain, Borders of Equality: The NAACP and the Baltimore Civil Rights Struggle, 1914-1970 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013), 63, Kindle edition.

[32] Skotnes, A New Deal for All?, 21.

[33] S. B. Wilkins, “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya,” The Afro-American (Baltimore, MD), October 5, 1929, 14, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=2B0mAAAAIBAJ&sjid=1f0FAAAAIBAJ&pg=3929%2C2685264.

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