Negro League Classic Was Big Event -- East-West Game Outdrew Major Leagues' All-Stars

PHILADELPHIA - It began as a means to unite and legitimize the Negro Leagues. It grew to be the annual event that united the nation's black populace and legitimized the black baseball player. It was called the East-West Game, an all-star game that was the jewel of the Negro Leagues in the 1930s and '40s.

Upon its inception in 1933, the East-West Game, like the major league All-Star Game that also started that year, was meant to make money for struggling owners. That, it did. But it did more.

It became bigger than the Negro World Series. The top black celebrities were on hand. Heavyweight champion Joe Louis. Louis Armstrong. Count Basie. With Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday looking on, Lena Horne would throw out the first ball. For blacks, it was the Super Bowl and the World Series and the Oscars and the Grammys rolled together; it was the preeminent sporting event and a place to be and be seen.

"It was more of a World Series than the World Series was," historian John Holway said.

"You'd get people from every city," said Gene Benson, a three-time All-Star with the Philadelphia Stars. "It'd be the people who were a little better off, them that could afford it - people in the numbers racket and whatnot."

The players and the fans would arrive Friday, celebrate until Sunday's game and leave Monday, having partaken of the single, regular galvanizing event for blacks otherwise limited by Jim Crow laws from many professions, white baseball included.

"The East-West All-Star Game was the mecca of black baseball," said historian Larry Lester, perhaps the leading authority on the leagues and, in particular, the East-West Game. "It was the ultimate thrill: The best players from all around the league at one place, vs. the World Series, which included only two teams."

The Negro World Series wasn't a sure bet, either. Sometimes owners refused to play, believing it to be a money-losing proposition. From 1937 to '50, when the leagues were divided into American and National, only eight World Series were played.

People from all over

That wasn't the case with the East-West Game. For three decades, fans flocked from every Negro League city to Chicago's Comiskey Park to see their favorites play. Attendance soared as high as 51,723 in 1943, when the black classic outdrew the major league All-Star Game by more than 20,000 - one of 10 times the East-West Game attracted more fans than the major-league All-Star Game.

"People would just come from all over," said Buck O'Neil, a Kansas City Monarchs first baseman and three-time All-Star. "From Baltimore. From Kansas City. From Memphis (Tenn.). It was a real holiday."

It was a non-exclusive holiday, too. As at regular league games and at barnstorming stops, whites mingled among blacks to worship some of the best to ever play the game: Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard. They arrived to see James "Cool Papa" Bell score from second base on a sacrifice bunt. They hoped to see Gibson hit a 500-foot homer. They would hear of how Paige would talk a little trash, then back it up with his wicked pitches. An estimated 5,000 whites sat among the 30,000 at the 1934 East-West Game. By 1943, whites made up 25 percent of the record crowd.

Like most of the All-Star Games in the white majors' history, Tuesday's classic at Veterans Stadium will be an exhibition - a festival for fans to beg autographs, a time of casual camaraderie for the players. It will bear little resemblance to the August weekends of the Negro Leagues' heyday.

"The East-West All-Star Game was a very serious event," Lester said. "The major league All-Star Games were more of an exhibition, a showcase. In the Negro Leagues, it was just the opposite."

The teams played hard. There was little showboating, nothing like John Kruk's comic at-bat against Randy Johnson in 1993. Unlike the majors, where three-inning appearances and even briefer cameos are an institution, Negro League managers schemed to win, especially in the game's early days.

Willie Foster, a Hall-of-Fame left-hander for the Chicago American Giants, pitched a complete game in the first classic, an 11-7 win for his West team. A crowd of 19,568 watched Foster beat future Hall-of-Famers Gibson, Bell, Oscar Charleston and Judy Johnson.

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As with most baseball history, conflicting accounts trace the All-Star Games' origin: Was it the major leagues that first had the idea? Or was it Gus Greenlee, the owner of the powerhouse Pittsburgh Crawfords and the man credited with resurrecting the organized Negro Leagues after their brief demise in the late 1920s and early '30s?

It really doesn't matter whose idea it was: It worked. Fan interest was waning throughout baseball. The nation was in the Great Depression.

"They needed something," historian Lloyd Johnson said. "Both the major leagues and the Negro Leagues."

The All-Star Game provided that something for both - especially the Negro Leagues. There was little to count upon in the black community, and local teams were no exception. When Louis fought, the black populace came to a standstill and listened to the radio account. When black stars played America's game together, a similar homage was paid.

"The East-West All-Star Game was the biggest event in black America except a Joe Louis fight," Lester said.

The starters for the first 11 games were chosen by fan ballots put in some 20 black newspapers nationwide, but primarily through the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. Management chose the reserves. Because the leagues were run in such a helter-skelter fashion - legitimate teams in Kansas City and Chicago, for instance, existed without league affiliation for long stretches - the fans used Pittsburgh as the most consistent cutoff point for East teams.

After the 1943 game, however, owners took control of the selection process to strip bargaining power from the likes of Paige, whose popularity allowed him to demand a piece of the gate receipts in addition to his standard All-Star salary for the game.

Then again, until 1940 the phrase "All-Star salary" had no meaning. Players were given traveling expenses to the game, but no more. In 1940, they grumbled a bit and got a watch for appearing in the East-West Game. In '41, more grousing got them $50. Not that $50 went far.

"(It) usually lasted one night," four-time All-Star Monte Irvin was quoted as saying in Mark Ribowsky's "A Complete History of the Negro Leagues." "When you got home you might be broke, but you had enough memories to last a lifetime."

Memories might be more valuable than money, but in 1944 participants began to receive $200 for the game. Perhaps the pay increase was the fruit of owners' guilt, since they made a killing at East-West Games. With ticket prices in the $1-to-$2 range for most of the 1940s, records show that by 1948 the Negro Leagues showed a profit of more than $50,000 for the single date.

Then again, the players' pay increase might have been the result of Paige no longer commanding a share of the gate. He frequently boycotted the game, his laconic attitude toward it mirroring his attitude toward regular-season games. A sojourn to the Dominican Republic to play in 1937 and arm trouble kept Paige out of the game for several years, but he returned in 1941. By then, the game had become bigger than even Paige, who was beginning to show signs of mortality. As his star fell, his relationship with the game soured. Divisive comments got him banned from the East-West Game by the 1944 edition. He never played in one again - a shame, it seems, because Paige's performance in the second East-West Game helped make it what it became.

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In the 1934 classic, Paige first took the mound in the sixth inning - fearing a no-show, Greenlee hadn't named Paige the starting pitcher for the East. Neither team had scored. Paige proceeded to shut out the West on one hit the rest of the way. Meanwhile, in the eighth inning, Cool Papa Bell scored from second on Jud "Boojum" Wilson's infield hit to second base to give the East its 1-0 victory.

The next year featured perhaps the most storied moment in East-West Game history. George "Mule" Suttles, of the Chicago American Giants, a power-hitting rival of Gibson, was hitless through 10 innings of an 8-8 game. Gibson was 4-for-5 and batting fourth in the lineup for the West, with Suttles fifth.

As Gibson entered the batter's box to face future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Martin Dihigo with two out and a man on second in the bottom of the 11th, Suttles called pitcher Willie "Sug" Cornelius from the bench and told him to kneel in the on-deck circle. Dihigo would see the replacement, Suttles figured, and intentionally walk Gibson. It worked.

Suttles then strode to the plate and ripped a three-run, opposite-field homer into Comiskey's upper deck in right field.

"If that had happened in white baseball, it would have been legendary," Holway said. "It would have been like Babe Ruth pointing."

But it was not white baseball. Neither Suttles nor Paige nor any of the stars who followed ever made much of an impression upon baseball's general populace, despite some thrilling feats.

In 1938, Neil Robinson, of the Memphis Red Sox, hit an inside-the-park home run that drove in two and earned the West a 5-4 win. The next season Robinson hit one out of the park in the West's 4-2 win. Louis threw out the first pitch.

The Philadelphia Stars contributed heavily to the '40 classic, as Henry McHenry helped shut out the West and Gene Benson led off and produced two hits in the 12-0 rout. Leonard, of the Homestead Grays, went 3-for-4 with two steals that day. The next year, Leonard went 2-for-5 with three RBI, two coming on his fourth-inning homer that powered the East to an 8-3 win.

The next year, Paige, playing in his first East-West Game since 1936, entered a 2-2 game in the seventh. He took the call as an opportunity to declare he had been misquoted by a reporter who claimed Paige was against integrating white baseball. Paige walked from the bullpen into the dugout, where he took a microphone in hand to defend himself. Then he took the mound and lost the game, 5-2.

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As with the Negro Leagues in general, the signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945 eventually would doom the East-West Game. The Negro National League disbanded after the '48 season. Some of its teams were absorbed by the Negro American League. The East-West Game continued in some form through 1962, eventually moving to Kansas City. However, the last true classic was played in 1950, a 5-3 West win. It was a death everyone saw coming, including the players.

"When Jackie got signed, I quit baseball (after 1948)," said Benson, Robinson's roommate during the 1945-46 winter season in Venezuela. "I could see what was happening. I could see the leagues would fold."

Dissolving leagues

The owners saw it, too. Effa Manley, who ran the Newark (N.J.) Eagles for her husband, Abe (and begged him to sell after the '47 season), crusaded for a policy to keep major-league owners from stealing the best black players. It didn't work. The leagues dissolved from their strong standing in the postwar era into barnstorming outfits by the late 1950s.

The East-West Game proved a device in the demise, because major-league scouts would show up routinely at the classic in the 1940s. There, they could see Robinson, Irvin and Larry Doby, all future major-leaguers, play against the best players not in the majors.

"The East-West Game may have been the primary factor in the integration of baseball," Lester said. "It was the most visible event during the summer. It was a great avenue to see who was the best in the black leagues."

It also proved that there was a huge segment of the population that loved baseball, but not the white-only brand - which lends credence to the theory popular then and now that it was not so much hatred of prejudice as love of profit that led to breaking the color barrier.

"(Dodgers president) Branch Rickey had more to offer those (15) prejudiced owners than just a little black boy. He had all those 50,000 black fans," Chicago American Giants manager "Gentleman" Dave Malarcher said in the video, "Only the Ball Was White."

And Rickey and the other 15 owners got those fans. East-West Game attendance dropped from 42,000 in 1948 to fewer than 27,000 in '49, then to fewer than 25,000 in '50, the smallest crowd in a decade. By then, five major-league teams had integrated their major-league squads.

"Black people were going to the major-league parks to see the black players play," O'Neil said.

Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Robinson and Doby, otherwise sure Negro League All-Stars, broke the major-league All-Star Game barrier in 1949, and blacks became fixtures in the big-league classic.

Meanwhile, East-West crowds dwindled to 10,000, and less. While baseball landed a blow for societal change possibly as important as the 1954 Supreme Court decision that struck down the "separate but equal" doctrine in Brown vs. Board of Education, the major leagues also took a black institution, withered it to nothing and pocketed the profit.

"While they might have been pioneers of integration, saviors of mankind, they were also businessmen," Lester said. "They saw this as an economic opportunity. Branch Rickey may have been a devout Methodist, but he was also a businessman. He heard the jingle of the pesos. And that's what eventually killed the Negro Leagues."