Baseball: Negro Leagues


More than any other city, Philadelphia epitomized the significance of Negro League baseball in urban communities. For a remarkable eight decades, local fans consistently supported a series of Black ball clubs whose successes generated racial pride and represented a triumph of African American institution-building.

In Philadelphia, the first all-Black baseball teams surfaced in the 1860s. By far the most prominent was the amateur Pythian Club, which not only scheduled games against several white opponents but also unsuccessfully attempted to affiliate with the National Association of Base Ball Players, the major baseball organization of the era. Although the assassination of Octavius V. Catto (1839-71), the club’s driving force and local Black leader, brought the Pythians’ story to a premature close, other organizations emerged to take their place. The mid-Atlantic-based Cuban Giants, considered to be the first Black professional team, debuted in 1885 and was heavily comprised of Philadelphia amateur players. Initially perceived as a gimmick (the players spoke a sort of mock-Spanish to pass as Cuban), the Cuban Giants soon had fans buzzing about their exceptional talents on the field. To survive, the team took on any and all comers, rambling up and down the East Coast in search of profitable games.

In the years that followed, the Cuban Giants regularly visited Philadelphia, an especially attractive venue thanks to its thriving semiprofessional baseball scene and large Black population. But local African Americans had no hometown professional team to support until the formation of the Philadelphia Giants in 1902. Like other Black clubs, the Giants spent a good deal of time on the road, although they sometimes rented Columbia Park, the Athletics’ home field at Twenty-Ninth and Columbia Streets.

Rise of the Hilldale Club

The Philadelphia Giants were a success on the diamond but not at the box office and finally disbanded in 1911. In the meantime, a group of Black teenagers established the Hilldale Club, an amateur team playing in an “open field” in Darby southwest of the city. With dozens, if not hundreds, of similar squads organizing and folding each season, no one foresaw that Hilldale would one day become a major Black institution.

The man behind the Hilldale miracle was a gentlemanly little postal clerk named Edward Bolden (1881-1950), who began as the team’s scorer but soon took control of the young club. Over the next several years, Bolden heavily publicized the team in the pages of the Black weekly Philadelphia Tribune, rented home grounds at Chester and Cedar Avenue in Darby, and aggressively recruited the best local players. Their following grew so rapidly that Bolden and a group of fellow postal employees incorporated the team in 1916 with plans to move to an all-salaried roster the following season.

As a full-fledged professional team, Hilldale (also known as the Daisies) became one of the most successful Black ballclubs in the country in the 1920s. The thousands of rural Black southerners pouring into the Philadelphia region as part of the Great Migration further expanded Bolden’s already sizable customer base, which eagerly turned out for Hilldale’s regular Saturday home games in Darby (Pennsylvania blue laws prevented Sunday baseball until 1934). Strong white semiprofessional teams, often sponsored by business and industrial concerns such as Lit Brothers, Strawbridge and Clothier, and Fleisher Yarn, provided additional revenue. Flush with cash, Bolden signed nationally known superstars such as catcher Louis Santop, but he always kept his eye out for area talent. Future Baseball Hall of Fame third baseman Judy Johnson was a product of the Wilmington sandlots, while infielder Billy Yancey got his start on the fields of South Philadelphia.

The post-World War I prosperity of Hilldale and other Black teams led to the formation of the first permanent professional leagues: the Midwest-based Negro National League (NNL) in 1920 and the Bolden-backed Eastern Colored League (ECL) in 1922.   Not surprisingly, Hilldale captured the ECL’s first three pennants and participated in the Negro Leagues’ first World Series in 1924. Although beaten by the Kansas City Monarchs five games to four, Hilldale got the better of the rematch in 1925, taking the deciding game at Phillies Park (later known as the Baker Bowl) at Broad and Lehigh Streets.

The Depression Takes a Toll

Bolden had built a tremendous ballclub, good enough to beat a barnstorming group of Philadelphia Athletics in five of six games in 1923. But Hilldale struggled to weather the subsequent economic downturn in Black Philadelphia, culminating with the onset of the Great Depression. By 1930, Bolden had departed, soon to be replaced by John Drew, a wealthy Delaware County politician and bus magnate. After watching attendance shrink to less than 200 fans per game, Drew finally pulled the plug on Hilldale in July 1932.

Although the business of Negro League baseball was at its nadir, Bolden returned in 1933 with a new club, the Philadelphia Stars. This time, Bolden brought in financial backing from Eddie Gottlieb (1898-1979), a veteran promoter and key figure in professional basketball, first with the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association and later with the Philadelphia Warriors. Eager to attract the rapidly growing Black population of West Philadelphia, the Stars obtained home grounds at Passon Field at Forty-Eighth and Spruce Streets before moving to Parkside Field at Forty-Fourth and Parkside. The park’s location, adjacent to a Pennsylvania Railroad roundhouse, was hardly ideal for baseball. Trains entering or departing the roundhouse generated heavy smoke, which not only affected visibility but also showered coal dust and soot on unfortunate fans.

In 1934, the Stars joined the now eastern-based Negro National League and won their first and only championship that season. In general, the club was never able to match Hilldale’s dominance of the 1920s, often falling short to the powerhouse Homestead Grays. Still, Black Philadelphians faithfully continued to support the Stars as a vital African American institution, one that provided otherwise unavailable opportunities for a number of elite local athletes. Outfielder Gene Benson attended West Philadelphia High School, infielder Mahlon Duckett and catcher Bill Cash went to Overbrook, while catcher Stanley Glenn starred at John Bartram. But the Stars missed out on the era’s best local Black ballplayer, Nicetown’s Roy Campanella, who eventually signed with the Washington Elite Giants in 1937.

Financially, the Stars reached their peak during the early 1940s, when a booming war economy transformed the previously shaky Negro Leagues into one of the major Black businesses in America. Now able to fill larger venues, Gottlieb and Bolden began to lease Shibe Park, home of the A’s and Phillies, for weekly night games in 1943. Two years later, the Stars drew an impressive 101,818 fans for only nine weeknight dates at Shibe (the Phillies and A’s, meanwhile, drew only 773,020 combined for the entire season).

Integration Dooms the Negro Leagues 

The Stars’ prosperity did not last long. The postwar integration of Major League Baseball dealt a crippling blow to the Negro Leagues, worsened in Philadelphia by the abandonment of Parkside Field after 1947 and death of Bolden in 1950.  Gottlieb and Bolden’s daughter Hilda briefly attempted to keep the team afloat by selling top players to Organized Baseball, but Black Philadelphians were now far more interested in the Brooklyn Dodgers and other integrated teams. The Stars disbanded after the 1952 season, and Negro League baseball itself collapsed by the early 1960s.

Hilldale Park and Parkside Field are long gone, but the proud history of Negro League baseball in Philadelphia has not been forgotten. Historical markers commemorate both of these ballparks where African Americans congregated in the thousands each week to watch the best Black baseball talent in America.

Neil Lanctot is a historian who has written three books, each reflecting his keen interest in sports and race.  His writing has also appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, and several other journals and anthologies. (Author information current at time of publication)

Copyright 2014, Rutgers University 


Parkside Field

Library of Congress

The Pennsylvania Railroad YMCA originally operated the sports field at Forty-Fourth Street and Parkside Avenue for the Pennsylvania Railroad employees' football team beginning in 1903, decades before it became a prominent home field for the Philadelphia Stars. The Pennsylvania Railroad owned Parkside Field, which was located adjacent to the railroad's train yard, and the area remained undeveloped until the construction of the ballpark and seating area began in the 1920s. In addition to Pennsylvania Railroad employee games, local high schools and organizations regularly rented the field and ballpark for their own games. Edward Bolden brought the Philadelphia Stars to Parkside Field in 1936, after the team had already achieved success as part of the National Negro League and a victory in the 1934 Negro National League Championship. The close proximity of Parkside to the Pennsylvania Railroad yard often meant soot and smoke from the trains easily made it onto the field, the players, and the attendees. This 1938 image of the Parkside ballpark shows the wooden grandstand behind home plate. The Stars' final game at Parkside Field was in 1947, when the team was swept into the larger decline of the Negro Leagues and the Stars lost their lease to the field. The Parkside Field ballpark was razed in early 1948.

Philadelphia Stars Mural

As the second team assembled by Edward Bolden in 1933, the Philadelphia Stars started with strong financial backing, utilized some of the best athletic talent available in Philadelphia, and left a durable legacy that is still remembered today. The African American population of Philadelphia continuously supported the Stars at their weekly games throughout the 1930s and 1940s. National recognition of the Stars became apparent when they joined the Negro National League and won the league's championship in 1934. Bolden rented a number of fields for the Stars to play in throughout Philadelphia, which increased their exposure throughout the city, but Parkside Field was the primary location to see a Stars game from 1935 to 1947. After World War II, African American baseball teams around the country saw a decline as Major League Baseball began to integrate black baseball players onto their teams. The Stars played their last games in 1952, but the legacy of the team continues in the twenty-first century.

The West Philadelphia Business Association of West Parkside commemorated the legacy of the Philadelphia Stars in 2004 by raising the funds to restore Parkside Field into a community park and create three pieces of remembrance. The old location of Parkside field became the Philadelphia Stars Negro League Memorial Park after extensively landscaping. The three pieces of remembrance were part of three separate partnerships. The West Philadelphia Business Association of West Parkside joined with: the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to create a historical marker on the edge of the park near Belmont and Parkside Avenue, the Philadelphia Phillies to create a memorial statue of a Stars player, and the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program to develop the mural pictured here. David McShane designed the mural and his team of painters finished the project in 2006. (Photograph by Joshua Lisowski for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Octavius V. Catto

Library of Congress

In 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War, Octavius V. Catto and Jacob C. White Jr. founded the Pythians black baseball club of Philadelphia as part of their larger push for acceptance of African Americans as equal citizens in the United States. Both Catto and White came from prominent African American families (Catto's father was a minister of the First Presbyterian Church and White's family owned the Mount Lebanon Cemetery) and received an advanced education from Philadelphia's Institute for Colored Youth (precursor to the current Cheney University).

Both Catto and White later became teachers at the Institute for Colored Youth, and began to work within the Philadelphia community to increase African American civil rights and access to services. White became the first African American public school principal in Philadelphia at the Robert Vaux Elementary School, president of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital, and remained heavily involved with his families cemetery business. White assisted Catto in organizing the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League in 1865 to fight for the political rights of African American throughout Pennsylvania. The establishment of the Pythians in 1867 was another attempt to gain broader public support of African American equality and fueled racial pride among Philadelphia's African American population. During their first season, Catto and White attempted to get the Pythians a membership into the National Association of Baseball Players, but the team was denied based on the race of the team members. This rejection did not deter the Pythians from continuing playing and establishing themselves as one of the best teams in the early years of the Negro Leagues.

Although many of the Pythian players were from Philadelphia, the team consisted of prominent players from around the Mid-Atlantic region. Middle-class African American athletes from New York, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., filled the Pythians roster and helped the team win numerous games along the East Coast. The Pythians gained more recognition by playing one of the earliest interracial games against the white Philadelphia City Items in 1869. The Pythians' momentum gained in the early years was quickly lost when Catto was assassinated in 1871. White continued managing the team after Catto's death, but by the end of the 1870s there was more competition among the growing number of African American baseball teams.

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Related Reading

Lanctot, Neil.  Fair Dealing and Clean Playing: The Hilldale Club and the Development of Black Professional Baseball, 1910-1932.  Syracuse:  Syracuse University Press, 1994.

Lanctot, Neil.  Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Lanctot, Neil.  Campy — The Two Lives of Roy Campanella.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2011.

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Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy