The Baseball Color Line

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The Baseball Color Line (also known as the color barrier) was an unwritten rule that did not allow African Americans to play Major League Baseball in the states from 1884 until 1946. Owners forced African Americans out of the game. It applied to dark skinned players who were of Latin descent, as well as blacks.

There was also a gentleman’s agreement made to keep out certain races by owners. Some leagues did not spell it out in their policies about keeping out blacks, but some of the older ones did. Some of the lines were drawn in the 1880s and 1890s.

How it Started

It all dates back to 1868, when the National Association of Baseball players kept out any teams that had one or more colored people on them. There was a short time, in the year 1878 as well as in 1884 that black players were allowed to play with the white players. They were allowed to have black players play as baseball had become a professional sport and the players did not feel restricted by this rule.

In 1883, The Toledo Blue Stockings (a minor league team) and the Chicago White Stockings were about to play a game against one another. A player for the Chicago team Adrian Anson, refused to play against any man of color, as the Toledo Blue Stockings’s catcher, Moses Fleetwood Walker, was black. The game was played without incident. Walker would become the first regular black player in the minors when the Blue Stockings joined the American Association the next season. That being said, the sport was about to regress significantly, as many people agreed with Anson’s point of view.


The African Americans, as the year 1900 grew closer, were forced to play in leagues that only included African Americans. Due to less and less work for black players in the NAB, Rube Foster organized the Negro National League in the year 1920. Historians have all said that Foster may have been the best African American pitcher of the 1900s. Foster also managed and founded the Chicago American Giants, a very successful black teams before integration. For a time, there was actually two major leagues that never intersected, and for a long time (until the signing of Jackie Robinson), professional baseball in the states was played in two separate leagues, one made up of whites, and the other made of blacks.

After the second World War and before President Truman made the army desegregate, Branch Rickey broke the color line to sign Jack Robinson in 1946. Rickey made the move seventeen years before the Civil Rights Act made racial discrimination illegal. The slow process of integration in Major League Baseball was started on April 15, 1947 when Jackie Robinson made his Major League debut. He played that entire season with death threats and hate mail, but would go on to win the Rookie of the Year for the National League. He would later have a day (April 15) named after him, have his number 42 retired by every time in baseball, and be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Less than three months later, Larry Doby would break the color barrier in the American League when he started playing games for the Cleveland Indians in early July of that year.

There are instances of other teams breaking the color barrier. A team called the Bismarcks, from Bismarck, North Dakota; they were a semi-pro team from the 1930s. Tom Dunkel wrote a book about the team that he called “Color Blind”. On the team was Ted Radcliffe, Satchel Paige, and Vernon Johnson. The team won the 1935 National Baseball Conference, a semi-pro tournament played in Wichita, Kansas. The team played outside of leagues due to the mixed race roster; it included not just African Americans, but Native Americans, as well as other minority groups. The teamed was owned by the owner of Bismarck’s car dealership, Neil Churchill.

By the 1960s, the percentage of players who were black and playing in Major League Baseball was either greater than or equal to that of the general population.

As the 1950s approached, many more black players were being offered contracts in the majors and in the minors. To the point that it started to hurt the Negro Leagues. Stars of the Negro League like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Satchel Paige left the Negro Leagues behind to play in the Major Leagues. The Negro National League ended in 1948 and the Negro American League lasted until 1960. Integration was a difficult task for Americans to stick to, and baseball was no exception. Some teams were quick to embrace integration, but others had to have a lot of pressure put on them first before they would give in.