The best books on Black baseball leagues before Jackie Robinson

Who am I?

I have long been fascinated by how Black players and team owners strove to put forward their best efforts in the decades before professional baseball was integrated in the late 1940s. I have been researching and writing about the Negro Leagues for more than 30 years, with three books and several contributions to Black baseball compilations to my credit. I was a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame special committee that elected 17 Black baseball figures to the Hall in 2006. Black baseball’s efforts were finally acknowledged in 2020 when Major League Baseball, which once wanted nothing to do with the Negro Leagues (except to sign away their best players starting in 1946), finally acknowledged them as major leagues.


I wrote...

Queen of the Negro Leagues: Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles

By James Overmyer,

Book cover of Queen of the Negro Leagues: Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles

What is my book about?

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, this book honors the life of Effa Manley, the trailblazing female co-owner of baseball’s Newark Eagles. She was the first woman inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, there was no one like her in the sports world of the 1930s and 1940s. She was a sophisticated woman who owned a baseball team. She never shrank from going head to head with men, who dominated the ranks of sports executives. That her life story remained unchronicled for so long can only be attributed to one thing: her team, the Newark Eagles, belonged to the Negro Leagues.

This important work shines the spotlight on a previously unsung segment of baseball history. Drawing extensively from Eagle team records and Manley’s scrapbook, Queen of the Negro Leagues is the definitive biography of a groundbreaking female sports executive.

The books I picked & why

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Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams

By Robert Peterson,

Book cover of Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams

Why this book?

Peterson was a magazine writer in the 1960s who became curious about those Black baseball teams he saw play in the Pennsylvania town where he grew up. He set out with his tape recorder to track down and interview many Negro League figures, and dove into library newspaper collections to find the facts to back up their reminiscences. First published in 1970 and still in print, this is the first comprehensive history of Black professional baseball, the history of which was in serious danger of being lost to modern memory when the Negro Leagues were put out of business in the 1950s following Major League integration. Many of us who write about Black ball read this book first.


If You Were Only White: The Life of Leroy Satchel Paige

By Donald Spivey,

Book cover of If You Were Only White: The Life of Leroy Satchel Paige

Why this book?

Don Spivey’s book about the great Satchel Paige is a biography the way it should be written. It treats Paige not only as the legendary ballplayer he was, but also as a fascinating person: a disadvantaged youth who learned to pitch in reform school and a daring individualist in a team game who showcased his superior talents by, for example, calling in his outfielders, then striking out the side. Spivey believes Satchel’s outrageous record of constantly switching teams in search of better pay was not irresponsible – he grew up poor and decided as a man he would not live that way again. Spivey makes another assertion that few other Paige biographers have: Satch’s easy-going manner hid a man whose bosom was “constantly burning and smoldering because of racism in America.”


Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy

By Jules Tygiel,

Book cover of Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy

Why this book?

The story of the Negro Leagues is not complete without the telling of the story of where their existence led. Shunned by a segregationist “gentlemen’s agreement” among white Major League executives, Black players in the first half of the 20th century competed among themselves, producing individual star players, powerhouse teams, and memorable on-field moments. The signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946 signaled that the color barrier was finally coming down. Integration today seems so obvious but getting Blacks into the majors was a complex business, fraught with potential pitfalls. Tygiel’s book is the best single telling of this important American story. 


Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball's Greatest Forgotten Player

By Jeremy Beer,

Book cover of Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball's Greatest Forgotten Player

Why this book?

Charleston is one of the very best to ever play in the Negro Leagues. He entered Black baseball even before the first Negro League was started and played 27 seasons up to World War II. He managed in the Negro Leagues for 15 seasons, his gigs including the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the early 1930s, one of the best professional teams of all time. Beer’s award-winning book tells the whole life of this Hall of Famer and straightens out historical misconceptions, for example showing that his reputation for dirty play and a terrible temper is ill-founded (“While he was happy to join fights in progress, he did not usually start them”).


Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution

By Neil Lanctot,

Book cover of Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution

Why this book?

The Negro Leagues, like all organized sports leagues, were showcases for the stars of the game – Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and the like. But, like all the other leagues, they were businesses, too. Sports entrepreneurs, most of them African American, invested in all-Black teams that formed a “shadow” alternative to Major League Baseball where the players, and most of the owners, too, were not welcome due to segregation. Lanctot, a history professor comfortable with deep and extensive research, chronicles the successes and failures of the Black leagues, which were almost always existing on a financial knife’s edge, until the integration of pro ball in 1946 spelled their death.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in baseball, Negro league baseball, and Jackie Robinson?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about baseball, Negro league baseball, and Jackie Robinson.

Baseball Explore 74 books about baseball
Negro League Baseball Explore 8 books about Negro league baseball
Jackie Robinson Explore 13 books about Jackie Robinson

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, I Was Right on Time, and Mamie on the Mound: A Woman in Baseball's Negro Leagues if you like this list.