Looking Back: California's Negro League
Four members of the Oakland Larks baseball team including San Jose State College alumni Johnny Allen (third from left). Photo Credit: H99.29.37. Unknown photographer, untitled (Oakland Larks of the West Coast Baseball Association), 1947. Gelatin silver photograph, 4 x 6 in. The Richard T. Dobbins Collection, Judith P. Dobbins. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California.
By the 1880s, more than thirty African Americans were on teams in baseball's major and minor leagues. But during the 1887 season, league owners agreed to make no new contracts with African American players. From that time on until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, baseball was a segregated sport.
California however, had its own unique version of African American baseball history. By the turn of the twentieth century, winter league baseball was flourishing up and down the west coast, with most of the activity here in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the Los Angeles area. The Southern California Winter League (later the California Winter League) became the most popular winter league in the state because of the weather and its ability to attract stars like Walter Johnson.
It was during the 1908-09 season that pitching legend Walter Johnson's team was defeated 6-5 in 11 innings by the Los Angeles Giants, referred to by some as "the champion colored team." This elevated interest and respect for black teams and in 1910, the legendary Rube Foster (who co-founded the Negro National League in 1920) brought an entire eastern black team, the Leland Giants, to the west coast to play in the new league. While the teams themselves weren't integrated, we now had the first integrated league. African American teams played with great prominence in the league and more often than not, took the championship.
In 1946, a Negro league was created here on the west coast, called the West Coast Baseball Association. The teams in the league were: the San Francisco Sea Lions, the Seattle Steelheads, the Portland Rosebuds (owned by Olympic great Jesse Owens), the Oakland Larks, the San Diego Tigers, and the Los Angeles White Sox.
Initially Fresno was to join the league, but San Diego took its place. Seattle was made up of Abe Saperstein's Harlem Globetrotters baseball team, renamed for local appeal. The season began on May 12 and was over by August. The Oakland Larks appear to have finished first, followed by Seattle. Oakland's first African American mayor, Lionel Wilson, was a member of the Larks. Following the season, the teams apparently reorganized and barnstormed throughout the Midwest and Latin America.
One of the Oakland Lark players, Johnny Allen, was described as one of the most extraordinary athletes to ever attend Berkeley High School, where he lettered in four sports. He attended San Jose State College playing baseball, football, and basketball. He joined the Larks in 1946. It's been speculated that Allen would have been another good choice to break the color barrier in major league baseball because of his demeanor, great skills and competitiveness.
Further Reading in the California Room: