South Side and Negro Leagues go way back
Work of Foster, 'father of black baseball,' led to historic relationship with South Side
CHICAGO -- Alexander Cartwright has been called "the father of modern baseball," playing a key role in the formulation of the first published rules of the game in New York in 1845.
By the late 1800s, many African-Americans had started playing baseball, but by the start of the 20th century they were barred from participating on professional teams with white players. From that point it would be nearly 50 years until Major League Baseball's color barrier would be broken by Jackie Robinson. In the meantime, black ballplayers continued to play the game on their own teams.
And a man who has been referred to as "the father of black baseball" lived on the South Side of Chicago: Andrew "Rube" Foster.
In Chicago decades later, the White Sox will host the Civil Rights Game on Saturday at U.S. Cellular Field. A day before the game, there will be a roundtable discussion at 12:30 p.m. CT on Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center, featuring White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams and moderator Harold Reynolds, and the Beacon Awards Luncheon at 11:30 a.m. CT on Saturday at the Downtown Chicago Marriott Magnificent Mile.
Tickets for Saturday's luncheon -- featuring Commissioner Bud Selig, Beacon Award winner Bo Jackson, Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, White Sox great Minnie Minoso, Cubs great Ferguson Jenkins and keynote speaker Michael Wilbon -- can be purchased at whitesox.com. Legendary singer Aretha Franklin, the Beacon of Change honoree, will not be able to attend the luncheon because of health reasons.
Foster is part of a rich black baseball heritage on the South Side, which includes iconic Negro League stars, nearly three decades of black baseball's "national showcase" at old Comiskey Park and the first Negro League World Series.
Foster was one of the best pitchers in black baseball during the early 1900s, winning 51 games in a single season in 1902, including one against the famous southpaw Rube Waddell that earned Foster his nickname.
He later became an owner and manager, organizing the Chicago American Giants in 1911. That team would become the mainstay franchise of the first all-black league to survive more than one season, one that Foster himself would lead the drive to create nine years later.
Foster's dream of a viable all-black baseball league came to fruition in 1920, when in a meeting with the owners of other Midwestern teams in Kansas City, Mo., the Negro National League was born.
"[Foster] had the vision to be able to put together a professional league of all black teams, and he was the [first] one to do it where it survived an entire season," said Larry Lester, co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and author of many books on Negro League history, including "Rube Foster in His Time."
"There were earlier attempts to put together all-black leagues, but they failed for a variety of reasons -- financial, lack of home fields -- for whatever reason," Lester said. "That's why he has the unofficial title as 'the father of black baseball.'"
Foster's efforts to form the league and ensure its survival were fueled by a desire to show that black ballplayers were good enough to play in the big leagues. And to prove it, he created a parallel league that ran just like the Majors.
"When [Foster] created the Negro National League, he used the same rules, the same type of baseball, the same bats, played on the same fields and [in] the same stadiums that Major League teams played in," explained Lester. "And therefore the only difference was the color of the men's skin."
In 1924, the Negro National League and the newly formed Eastern Colored League held the first-ever Negro League World Series between the Kansas City Monarchs of the NNL and Hilldale Daisies of the ECL. The final three games of the Series -- won by Kansas City -- were played at the American Giants' home of Schorling's Park in Chicago.
While both leagues would be forced to fold by 1932, some of the greatest players in Negro League history, such as Cool Papa Bell, came of age during the Negro National League's 12-year run.
However, Chicago's integral importance to Negro League baseball wouldn't end with the demise of the first organized all-black league.
By 1933, another league called the Negro National League had been formed, consisting of teams in the eastern United States. And in the same season as the first Major League All-Star Game was held at Comiskey Park, on July 6, so too was the first Negro League All-Star Game -- called the East-West Game -- in the same South Side venue on Sept. 10.
The East-West Game matched stars from the Negro National League against stars from the East-West League (from 1933-35) and later, the Negro American League (1937-48). After Major League Baseball's integration in 1947, the Negro National League disbanded and its teams merged with the Negro American League, though East-West Games continued for another 14 years.
The event became an annual tradition and a wildly popular one at that. Of the 35 East-West Games played between 1933-62, the South Side of Chicago hosted 27 of them.
"Chicago was the ideal place," explained Lester, who also authored "Black Baseball's National Showcase," a book on the event's history and significance. "Most trains ran through the Chicago metroplex and Chicago had a concentrated population of African-Americans on the South Side. So this was, for [lack of] a better word, a Mecca and exchange point for a Classic game. And Chicago proved to be worthy of that.
"Especially [in] the '40s, attendance was off the charts. Between 45,000 and 50,000 people were attending the East-West All-Star Classic, and with [Chicago] being a hub for Midwest America, it provided an opportunity for people to drive to the South Side and stay at the Grand Hotel, which was usually the host hotel back then. It was just the perfect venue."
Another feature of the city that made it a great host for the game was the plethora of African-American cultural experiences to be shared, especially in the South Side's Bronzeville neighborhood.
"Bronzeville had the best food and drink and entertainment in all of Chicago," Lester said. "[The game] became a gathering place for entertainers and other professional athletes. What we've found is many entertainers such as Lena Horne and Duke Ellington and especially Lionel Hampton came to [the] ballgames. … Everybody who was anybody showed up to the East-West All-Star Game in Chicago."
A man who would count the 1944 East-West Game as his finest baseball memory, and who along with the trailblazing Foster became an icon on Chicago's South Side, was "Double Duty" Radcliffe.
Theodore Roosevelt Radcliffe earned his nickname by being both a great pitcher and a great catcher, once catching childhood friend Satchel Paige in the first game of a 1932 doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, and then taking the mound and tossing a shutout in the second game.
But Double Duty said his finest moment in baseball occurred at Comiskey Park in August 1944.
"What he always said was his biggest thrill was the 1944 East-West Game," said Radcliffe biographer Kyle McNary. "He hit a homer with a man on that was the decisive blow and there were 50,000 people there ... his mother was at the game and people were throwing hats on the field and a bunch of money on the field, and they grabbed him and put him on their shoulders and carried him around. They literally stopped the game."
Radcliffe, who was born in Mobile, Ala., moved with his brother, Alec, to the South Side of Chicago as a teenager in 1919 and immediately got involved in baseball.
"He was part of the Great Migration," McNary said. "He moved to Chicago in 1919 [and] he had relatives up there. ... He came up to Chicago looking for an opportunity and ended up playing what would be semi-pro or amateur ball and got discovered. The scouting system for the Negro Leagues was basically, 'I'm playing against a team and the guy on the other team is really good so I'm going to offer him a better deal than he's getting.' ... He ended up playing a game against the Illinois Giants, which was a black traveling team, [in] 1920, and he did well and ended up playing with them for many years."
Eventually Radcliffe joined the Chicago American Giants in 1929 and would have five different stints with the club in a 36-year career, which included serving as the team's manager. He was beloved on the South Side, where he lived until his death in 2005 at age 103.
"He was a showman," McNary said. "I knew within five minutes of talking to him who he thought the greatest player who ever lived was, and it was himself. He was just that kind of a character. ... Whatever he said he was going to do, he usually did it. He just was a supremely confident guy. He was a precursor to a Muhammad Ali and Deion Sanders and whoever else you want to think about."
The experiences of Radcliffe and Foster, among so many other black baseball players over time in Chicago, aren't limited to African-Americans. In fact, the first black Latino to play in the Major Leagues was Minnie Minoso, who broke into the big leagues with the Cleveland Indians in 1949 but played 12 of his 17 seasons with the White Sox, becoming the first black player in the history of that franchise.
Called "The Cuban Comet," Minoso played three seasons with the New York Cubans of the Negro Leagues before joining a pioneer class of early black ballplayers in the Majors, one that included Robinson, Monte Irvin and Larry Doby. A career .298 hitter with 186 home runs and 1,023 RBIs, Minoso was a seven-time All-Star and won three Gold Glove Awards, including one of the first nine ever presented in 1957.
But Minoso's greatest legacy may be the courage he displayed when faced with a duality of racial and ethnic stereotypes as the first black Latino in the Majors.
"Prior to Minoso, the majority of Latino players were lighter-skinned," said Adrian Burgos, professor of history specializing in U.S. Latino, African-American and sport history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "But Minoso was clearly black ... he was dealing with the reality of the color line in American life, the reality of being an immigrant in American life, [and] moreover, being a black immigrant.
"So he faced a challenge similar to what Jackie Robinson had to face -- of pioneering integration for the White Sox -- and 1950s Chicago had its set of racial issues and there was lots of racial strife and episodes and violence against blacks trying to integrate public housing in different neighborhoods. And then on the South Side, Minnie brought people together."
Minoso's character and playing style made him a hero on the South Side, among both baseball fans and the community at large.
"His work ethic was very much a South Side thing," Burgos added. "It goes beyond just the African-American community, but South Siders. They value working hard, and if anything, people knew that Minoso worked hard on the field. ... The other part of it is Minnie lived in the community. His kids grew up there. ... Minnie was both a South Sider where he lived and where he played."
Needless to say, the Latino community was thrilled with Minoso's rise to the Majors. They even had a song about him that was sung not only in Chicago but in New York, other Latino communities in the U.S., and even abroad.
"In Latin America -- in Cuba, in Puerto Rico -- [and] in New York City, and in the Latino communities in the U.S. that were baseball communities, they knew Minoso and they even produced songs about him," Burgos said. "There was this song [called] "Cuando Minoso Batea" ("When Minoso Bats") that said when Minoso would come up to bat he would hit the ball and it would turn into a 'cha-cha-cha.'"
The legacy of black baseball in Chicago continues to this day. And after 27 East-West Games were played at Comiskey Park, the seventh annual Major League Baseball Civil Rights Game will be played at that ballpark's successor.
And given its rich black baseball heritage, Lester's description of Chicago as the host of all those Negro League All-Star showcases many years ago rings true for this year's Civil Rights Game as well.
"Just the perfect venue," he said.