The Long Road to Jackie Robinson: Nineteenth Century Pioneers in Black Ball

by Ryan Swanson

Painting of Josh Gibson by Graig Kreindler Jackie Robinson in 1945 with the Kansas City Monarchs. Art by Graig Kreindler. Used with the permission of Jay Caldwell.

For two weeks during the summer of 1870, Charles Douglass and his Washington DC Mutual Base Ball Club might as well have been the ’27 New York Yankees. Or the ’31 Homestead Grays. Either way, they dominated.

What started out as a friendly exhibition trip turned into baseball tour de force. The Mutuals played eight games on the trip and won them all. Among their lopsided victories, the club defeated the Baltimore Enterprise 52 to 23, the Lockport New York Artic Club 26 to 0, the Rapids Club of Niagara Falls 64 to 10, and the Mutuals of Buffalo 72 to 10. Only a Rochester All Star team offered any sort of challenge (23 to 19). The results caught the attention of the New York Clipper, baseball’s preeminent newspaper, who referred to them as “The Mutuals, of Washington—a colored club—recently on a tour through the western part of the state of New York.”

For Charles Douglass, the tour provided validation. He, too, could organize and promote and fight for opportunity. He, too, could win. Just like his famous father, Frederick Douglass.

Charles was born in 1844, the third son of Frederick and Anna Douglass. He grew up in upstate New York. In 1863, Charles joined the famous, all-Black Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment. Illness, however, kept him from seeing much action during the Civil War. After the war ended, Charles settled in Washington, DC. There he joined the throngs of former soldiers looking for employment in the ballooning federal government. For Charles—married, father of seven, son of one of the most important African American leaders of the nineteenth century—baseball became an outlet and platform.

The Negro Leagues Are Major Leagues Logo We have dramatically expanded our coverage of the Negro Leagues and Black major league players.

Douglass played the infield (mostly second base) and served as a club officer with the Washington Alert Base Ball Club. In 1868, he switched to the Washington DC Mutual Club. Both clubs, as was the case for all Black baseball clubs, operated in a perilous athletic environment. They negotiated for field time. They foraged for dues in order to pay for bats and balls. And they fought for respect among their baseball peers.

During this post-Civil War period, there is no evidence of Black ballplayers clamoring to join White baseball clubs.

A strange mix of racial integration and separation paralyzed the United States immediately after the Civil War. Clearly, the Reconstruction era meant new possibilities and promises. The Freedman’s Bureau, the Civil Rights Act, and the 13th through 15th Amendments made it obvious that slavery was done. The cruel institution would take no more American lives. But figuring out how the new realities of Reconstruction translated to everyday life was complicated. Charles Douglass and several other Black DC ballplayers, for example, worked in the racially integrated Treasury Department. Why then was the feared Third Auditors Office baseball nine reserved just for White men? Didn’t Reconstruction extend to the ballfield?

Baseball boomed in the United States during the middle of the nineteenth century. Clubs formed by the hundreds. Teams popped up in urban areas especially, playing wherever they could find space. In Washington, DC, Black and White baseball clubs (including Charles Douglass’s teams) enjoyed playing on the White Lot, a baseball field directly in front of the Whites House. The game grew in fits and starts. It almost always reflected the tensions of the times rather than transcending them. Baseball club names—the Confederate Club, the Robert E. Lee Club, the Secesh Base Ball Club, and the Ku Klux Klan Base Ball Clubs in the 1870s for example—made it clear that elements of White supremacy were never far from the game.

Then as now, baseball had a northeastern bias—the number of baseball clubs in nineteenth century New York City and Boston dwarfed that of other cities. But the game’s development had no strict geographical boundaries. Clubs organized and played in urban and rural areas, and in the former Confederacy and the states of the Union.

In a nation that defined race primarily on Black and White terms, the fact that African American clubs rose up quickly was significant. The ballot, education, and land were preeminent concerns for Black Americans, yes, but so too was finding community and recreation. Baseball fit. One of the first games of baseball on record involving Black teams had occurred in New York City in 1859. The Henson Club defeated the Unknown Club, 54–43. From there, the number of Black clubs increased steadily. This growth created animosity among White ballplayers. When the press reported on games involving Black players, they often did so with only thinly veiled racism. The Brooklyn Eagle, a baseball-crazy newspaper, for example, said of an 1862 contest: “The dusky contestants enjoyed the game hugely, and to use a common phrase, they ‘did the thing genteelly.”

Baseball itself in the nineteenth century still had unresolved issues. Fundamental rules were in flux. Debates ensued, for example, over whether pitchers should be allowed to throw overhand, if a ball caught on the bounce should count as an out, and if hitting a baserunner with the ball (“soaking” the runner) should be allowed. The game featured the core competitive elements that baseball fans know today—pitcher versus batter, runner versus fielders, etc.—but without the finer details ironed out.

The National Association of Base Ball Players was founded in 1857. The group oversaw the game’s early years and then its surge in popularity following the war. At the 1865 NABBP Convention in New York City on December 14, 1865, delegates altered the existing rules to state, for example, that a fair ball only resulted in an out if “caught without having touched the ground.” Further, the Conventioneers made some effort at controlling who could play and under what circumstances. “In playing all matches,” Sec 29 of the NABBP rules read, “nine players from each club shall constitute a full field, and they must have been regular members of the club which they represent, and of no other club…for thirty days prior to the match.”

For the first few years following the Civil War, no official policy or precedent existed governing the relationships between Black and White baseball players.

Painting of Octavius Catto by Graig Kreindler Octavius Catto was a Philadelphia-based educator and civil rights activist who founded the Pythians. Art by Graig Kreindler. Used with the permission of Jay Caldwell.

Charles Douglass had a compatriot in Philadelphia: Octavius Catto. Catto played second base for the Pythians, the premier Black base ball club in Philadelphia during the 1860s and 70s. Like Douglass, Catto did his most important baseball work off the field. Catto fielded balls and hit well enough, but it was as an administrator and promoter of the club that Catto shined. For Catto, the Pythians made up just one part of a burgeoning portfolio of activism. Catto taught at the Banneker Institute, fought for the desegregation of Philadelphia’s street cars, and served as a member of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League. And he played baseball.

In the summer of 1867, the two men’s clubs met on the ballfield. First, Catto and the Pythians played host. “We have secured the grounds of the Athletic Base Ball Club and all conveniences (the best in the city) have been put at our disposal,” Catto wrote to his DC counterparts prior to the game. Then, a few weeks later, the Pythians traveled to DC for a rematch. For the reception after the contest in Washington, DC, Douglass organized a lavish picnic. His father contributed five dollars to the effort.

The 1867 season ended in disappointment for the Pythians and for Black baseball more broadly. This disappointment stemmed not from anything that happened on the field, but rather due to a bureaucratic decision. In October 1867, the Pythians sent a club delegate—Raymond Burr—to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in order to petition for official membership in the Pennsylvania Association of Base Ball Players (PABBP). This organization served as a regional arm of the National Association of Base Ball Players.

Certainly, the Pythians had a case to make. The club had just completed a successful season, winning the majority of its games. The club featured a full roster of dues-paying members. It had a suitably hierarchical slate of officers. The Pythians could even point to friendly relations with the leadership of the Philadelphia Athletics, the most prominent of the state’s White baseball clubs. A’s President Hicks Hayhurst occasionally umpired Pythians games.

None of this mattered to the leadership of the PABBP. Genial, non-committal support was one thing; official recognition was quite another. The Pythians' application for membership caused an immediate stir. While the Nominating Committee usually rubberstamped all applications (after all, the goal was to grow the membership ranks as quickly as possible), it set the Pythians’ application aside. Burr noticed the tension growing in the room. He also realized that a vast gulf existed between the personal sympathies of his White counterparts and their willingness to take any sort of stand for the Pythians.

“The members of the convention clustered around your delegate,” Burr wrote in his report back to the Pythian Club. “Whilst all expressed sympathy for our club, a few only…expressed a willingness to vote for our admission.”

In the end, the White club representatives forced Burr to retreat. “As there seemed no chance for anything but being black balled,” Burr wrote, “your delegate withdrew his application.”

Thus, in a courthouse in Harrisburg on a cool October day in 1867, the PABBP laid the foundational stone in baseball’s racial segregation.

Two months later, the National Association extended the racial demarcation line. The NABBP’s nominating committee issued a statement on what clubs might apply for membership. “It is not presumed by your committee that any club who have applied are composed of persons of color, or any portion of them; an the recommendation of your Committee in this report are based upon this view, and they unanimously report against the admission of any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.” With the decision, baseball became officially segregated. The “National Pastime” shut its doors to the likes of Charles Douglass and Octavius Catto.

Four years later, Catto was murdered on his way to vote in Philadelphia.

Painting of Bud Fowler by Graig Kreindler Bud Fowler, SABR’s 2020 Overlooked 19th Century Base Ball Legend, was a pioneer as a player, manager, organizer, and promoter. Art by Graig Kreindler. Used with the permission of Jay Caldwell.

When the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players formed in 1871, it did so building upon the Whites-only precedents already in place. Then, in 1876, the National League organized and followed suit. Professionalization only solidified the separation that had been established between White and Black clubs.

Historians sometimes argue about whether it was by de facto or de Jure segregation—by custom or by law—that America’s Jim Crow landscape emerged. The answer, of course, is both. For baseball it all ended with the same result. As Sporting Life would report, “Nothing is ever said or written about drawing the color line in the [National] League. It appears to be generally understood that none but Whites shall make up the League teams, and so it goes.”

Indeed, and so it went.

Practically speaking, finding field space became increasingly difficult for Black teams. In Washington, DC, city officials closed the White Lot—a mecca for baseball activity in the District—to Black baseball clubs in 1873. “The White Lot has been closed to all ball players except the Creightons,” the Washington Herald reported. The reason? “The gangs of lazy negroes and other vagrants infesting the grounds made this action necessary.”

The White Lot closure coincided with Charles Douglass’ retirement as a ballplayer and baseball club organizer. While creeping middle age probably had something to do with his leaving the diamond, the increasingly racist undertones of so-called national pastime may have as well.

The second generation of Black baseball players and leaders was noticeably thinner than the first.

Those Black men that were needed to replace the likes of Charles Douglass and Octavius Catto faced nearly insurmountable opposition during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Plessy v. Ferguson America made organizing a baseball game among Black men a Herculean task.

But Black baseball always persisted.

Black clubs played throughout the United States during the early years of the twentieth century. They secured games wherever and with whomever possible, including exhibitions with White clubs. Individual players probed at the rigid segregation of Major League Baseball. Moses Fleetwood Walker, Weldy Walker, Bud Fowler and William Edward White, among others, pushed the boundaries. They faced virulent racism in return. “My skin is against me,” Fowler said. “If I had not been quite so black, I might have caught on as a Spaniard or something of that kind. The race prejudice is so strong that my black skin barred me.”

The Cuban Giants organized out of Long Island and played, off and on, from 1885 until 1914. In doing so, the club created a mechanism by which to pay Black men (even if they were called “Cuban” to the press) to play high level baseball. Most historians refer to the Cuban Giants as the first professional Black baseball club. One member of the Giants, Sol White, became the preeminent historian of early Black baseball. Such accomplishments in the face of ever-escalating resistance must be appreciated as acts of persistence and social rebellion. These players and teams, from Douglass and Catto to the Cuban Giants, paved the way for the Negro Leagues.

And what, finally, about the Negro Leagues? Rebuking the racist decisions of 1867 and the “Gentleman’s Agreement” of MLB owners—to say nothing of the intolerable realities of Jim Crow America more generally—the Negro Leagues emerged in earnest in 1920. Rube Foster guided the creation of the Negro National League. The Eastern Colored League later formed as worthy rival. Other circuits came and went. Far from accepting the inequities of the time, these teams and players involved pursued opportunity and autonomy. The clubs were successful Black-owned businesses. The biggest Negro Leagues stars rivaled anything that Major League Baseball could offer. Josh Gibson. Satchel Paige. Oscar Charleston. Monte Irvin. Cool Papa Bell. Buck Leonard. Smokey Joe Williams. The list goes on and on.

When Jackie Robinson broke the National League’s color line in 1947, he had the opportunity to be a trailblazer because of the Black ballplayers that had preserved and grown the game over the previous ninety years. Charles Douglass had died just months after Jackie Robinson was born. The two, of course, never knew each other, but a torch had been passed nonetheless. From Douglass to Robinson, Black baseball established a stronghold in America’s sporting landscape and by doing so changed the very fabric of the nation.

About the Author

Ryan Swanson is an Associate Professor of history, in the Honors College, at the University of New Mexico. He also serves as the Director of the Lobo Scholars Program. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University 2008. His latest book, The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of the American Athlete, came out in 2019. He is also the author of When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Dreams of a National Pastime, which won the 2015 Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) research award, and co-editor of Separate Games: African American Sport Behind the Walls of Segregation, which received a North American Society for Sport History (NASSH) book prize in 2017, and Philly Sports: Teams, Games, and Athlete’s from Rocky’s Town. Swanson has published a wide variety of articles, book chapters, and editorials on the role of athletics in the United States.