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Collection By Popular Demand: Jackie Robinson and Other Baseball Highlights, 1860s-1960s

Drawing the Color Line: 1860s to 1890s

Americans began playing baseball on informal teams, using local rules, in the early 1800s. By the 1860s, the sport, unrivaled in popularity, was being described as America's "national pastime."

Baseball rules and teams were gradually formalized during the mid and late 1800s.

  • 1845

    Alexander Cartwright published a set of baseball rules for the Knickerbocker Club of New York, and his rules were widely adopted.

  • 1869

    The Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first openly-salaried team and are thus considered the first professional team.

  • 1871

    The first professional baseball league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, was established.

  • 1876

    The first major league, the National League, was formed.

African Americans played baseball throughout the 1800s. By the 1860s notable black amateur teams, such as the Colored Union Club in Brooklyn, New York, and the Pythian Club, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had formed. All-black professional teams began in the 1880s, among them the St. Louis Black Stockings and the Cuban Giants (of New York). Reflecting American society in general, amateur and professional baseball remained largely segregated.

One of the few black players on an integrated professional league team was Moses Fleetwood "Fleet" Walker, a catcher for the minor league Toledo Blue Stockings. In 1883, the Chicago White Stockings, led by star player Adrian "Cap" Anson, refused to take the field against the Blue Stockings because of Walker's presence. The Blue Stockings manager insisted that the game be played, and Anson relented. When the Blue Stockings joined the American Association in 1884, Walker became the first African-American major leaguer. In July of 1887, the International League banned future contracts with black players, although it allowed black players already under contract to stay on its teams. These are but two of the events that shaped the unwritten "color line," which segregated professional baseball until the 1940s.

During the 1890s, most professional black players were limited to playing in exhibition games on "colored" teams on the barnstorming circuit. Players on major league teams also barnstormed in cities and towns after the regular season was over. In some places black teams and white teams played each other, and some blacks played for all-black teams in otherwise all-white leagues. In amateur baseball, some athletes played on integrated teams such as the Navy baseball champions from the USS Maine.

Although original documents are scarce, several books listed in the bibliography describe nineteenth century baseball, and Sol White's History of Colored Base Ball reproduces documents from black baseball's early days.

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