Backtrack: All-Black Pro Baseball

The Indianapolis Clowns settled here in 1946 and played exhibition games into the 1980s.

Image courtesy Indiana Historical Society

After the end of the Civil War in 1865, there was suddenly more time for fun—like the national pastime, baseball, which started picking up steam around that time. But black players were denied entry to white leagues almost from the start. African Americans soon established their own amateur leagues, but with no paychecks, playing in them was a labor of love. Indianapolis has the distinction of both hosting the debut of what would become known as the professional Negro Leagues, and later maintaining the last all-black pro baseball team in existence.

Back when black baseball was still relegated to amateur play, a pitcher named Andrew “Rube” Foster dominated the games, and in the early 20th century moved into managing teams. He had his sights set higher for black baseball players. In a turning point for African-American athletics, Rube Foster established the professional Negro National League here 100 years ago this month. On May 2, 1920, players suited up for the league’s first game, at Indianapolis’s Washington Park, where the hometown ABCs defeated the Chicago American Giants.

Washington Park, located where the Indianapolis Zoo stands now, was built in 1905 for the white Indianapolis Indians and originally had a capacity of 4,000. By the time the ABCs played there in 1920, it held up to 20,000 people, making it larger than all current minor-league parks. The two clubs shared the park until 1926, when the ABCs folded.

In a turning point for African-American athletics, Rube Foster established the professional Negro National League here 100 years ago this month.

By then, other baseball leagues for African Americans had begun to sprout up, and would continue to do so with varying success. There was the Eastern Colored League, the Negro Southern League, the Negro American League, and others. The Negro Leagues, as they were collectively known, sputtered during the Depression, but were healthier than ever by 1942, when some 3 million fans turned out to watch them, and their World Series was revived that September.

The star ABCs player, Oscar Charleston, was an Indianapolis native and all-time great who batted .353 in the debut season of the Negro National League.

That’s also around the time the push to integrate the Major Leagues was really gaining steam, and Jackie Robinson officially did it in 1947 by manning first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. With a declining fan base, the Negro Leagues limped through the next decade or so, and were mostly extinct by 1960. The last team to survive was the Indianapolis Clowns, where Hall of Famer Hank Aaron had begun his professional baseball career. Aaron was 18 years old when he played with the Clowns for three months in 1952, at $200 a month, when he was scooped up by MLB’s Boston Braves. The Clowns carried on until 1989, but less as a competitive team and more as a sideshow.