Life in the Negro Leagues February 25, 2002
Play Ball!
Even if you're not a baseball fan, you've probably heard of the New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals, and Boston Red Sox. But what about the Kansas City Monarchs, Homestead Grays, and Pittsburgh Crawfords? How did these teams contribute to the national pastime and to America's history?

During the early twentieth century the Negro Leagues were home to the best black baseball players in the country at a time of widespread racial segregation. With names like the Kansas City Monarchs and Homestead Grays, and talents like pitcher Satchel Paige and slugger Josh Gibson, the Negro Leagues quietly rivaled the all-white teams of Major League Baseball.

At age 89, John "Buck" O'Neill provides living testimony to a remarkable baseball era and an important chapter in American culture. He played for and then managed the Kansas City Monarchs — an all-black baseball team that rose to the top of the Negro Leagues.

As a boy growing up in Florida during the 1920s, O'Neill had read about the great Negro League players, but he had only seen the white teams who came to Florida for spring training.

"I wasn't even thinking about black baseball or white baseball — just baseball," he says, "But I didn't see any black guys playing Major League Baseball."

That all changed when his uncle and father took him to see black star Rube Foster, one of the founders of the Negro Leagues. During the winters, Foster and his fellow black players would come to Palm Beach, Florida, to entertain the white patrons of that city's fancy hotels.

"I saw these guys play ball," O'Neill remembers. "I had never seen anything like it. These guys were running, stealing bases, hitting home runs, everything. I said, 'That's for me.'"

O'Neill talks about his first look at black baseball players.

O'Neill didn't play baseball seriously until he went to an all-black college in Jacksonville, Florida. He points out that a large number of Negro League players went to such colleges, where they first learned the game of baseball. Also, the professional black teams frequently trained on the campuses of all-black colleges and discovered new, young talent in the process.

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The Monarchs of the League
In 1937, O'Neill became the first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro League equivalent of the mighty New York Yankees. The Monarchs almost always won the league championship. They regularly filled stadiums around the country with more than 40,000 black fans.

"And we had pitcher Satchel Paige, one of the best draws in baseball," O'Neill adds. "So that was like the Yanks going in with Babe Ruth." Paige's overpowering speed and clever variety of pitches had allowed him to win 54 games in just two seasons with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. When he came to the Monarchs in the 1940s, he promptly led his new team to four straight pennants.

O'Neill describes the Monarchs' supremacy in the Negro Leagues.

When the Monarchs traveled, their players frequently were barred from hotels and restaurants because of their race. But O'Neill says there was more to the story.

"There were a lot of places where we would go — especially in the South — where we couldn't go into different places to eat," he recalls. "But one of the things about the South, they had outstanding black hotels. They had outstanding black restaurants. The best food in town did not have to be downtown."

Black colleges invited traveling teams to train on their campuses, O'Neill adds, and black churches would provide early services so that the players could get to their games on time.

O'Neill explains that life on the road
for the Negro League teams was better
than people may think.

O'Neill excelled and went on to lead the league in hitting one season with a .353 batting average. But he and teammate Satchel Paige were not alone in their exploits. Josh Gibson became known as the black Babe Ruth because of his slugging prowess. Although the Negro Leagues did not keep complete player statistics, Gibson hit an estimated 800 home runs during his career. In 1936, Gibson is reported to have slammed a record 84 home runs.

The Negro League season often lasted 200 games, compared to the present Major League schedule of 162 and the older schedule of 154. Using the chart below, you can compare Josh Gibson's numbers with those of Yankee immortal Babe Ruth and the St. Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire.

Year Player Games in season Home runs
1927 Ruth 154 60
1936 Gibson 200 84
1998 McGwire 162 70

  • For each of the above players, calculate how many games on average it took to hit a home run.
  • Which player needed the fewest games on average?

More Links
Negro League Baseball.Com provides comprehensive background and many stories about this era in baseball history.

Learn more about famed slugger Josh Gibson.

Witness to History
The Negro League player who made the greatest impact on baseball history, though, was Jackie Robinson. In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black player to join the all-white major leagues.

"We were just so thrilled," O'Neill exclaims about his teammate. "We had always hoped for this, and a lot of people said it would never happen. But I knew, I knew one day it had to happen. We knew Jackie was going to be a success in the major leagues because he was a top athlete. And we had so many guys that were capable of playing in the major leagues. The best athletes in the world were playing black baseball."

O'Neill recalls the integration of Major League Baseball in 1947.

Robinson did not take long to make his mark with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was named Rookie of the Year in 1947 and the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1949. By the end of his 10-year major league career, he had amassed 273 doubles, 54 triples, and 137 home runs.

  • How many extra base hits (doubles, triples, and home runs combined) did Robinson average per year?
  • What was his approximate ratio of doubles to triples? Of doubles to home runs?

O'Neill believes that the economic success of the Negro Leagues helped the integration of Major League Baseball. He points out that the white owners of the major league teams saw great monetary benefits to adding Negro League players.

"We were filling up those ballparks playing each other. We'd fill them up with black people," he says. "So this is a new source of revenue — untapped. We played at Comiskey Park in Chicago. We got 50,000 people. We played at Yankee stadium. We got 30,000 or 40,000 people.

"This is a capitalistic society and money's the thing, and I just knew that someday somebody was going to see the fruits of our labor."

O'Neill says he was too old at age 35 to make the shift as a player to Major League Baseball. But he does regret that he didn't get a chance to manage in the newly integrated major leagues. He managed the Monarchs for nine years before the Negro Leagues faded out several years after Robinson's historic achievement.

O'Neill went on to work as a scout for the Chicago Cubs, for whom he discovered future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock. And at 89, he says he still keeps an eye on up-and-coming players. "I always thought I hadn't seen the best. I was fortunate to sign two Hall of Famers. I always have the feeling that I haven't seen the best athletes yet. And that's what keeps me here."

Related Activities
Home Runs
This Tangible Math activity lets you explore data on the home run leaders in the National and American Leagues, from 1962-1995.
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For teachers: Look at the science of baseball with this Riverdeep archive "Teaching the News" article.