The picture shown above made me realize that many Europeans are not aware of the phenomenon barnstorming tour. The two players shown are Satchel Paige (left) and Dizzy Dean. Before Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in 1947, black and white players never could face each during regular season games.
In first half of the twentieth century, baseball players had to work in the off season to make ends meet. Negro League players but also Major League players. An MLB player earned about the money of a blue collar worker, Negro League players got less. To make ends meet many players participated in barnstorming tours. Those tours came to places where no Major League baseball was played. Places like Des Moines in Iowa, Birmingham in Alabama or California, where they had the Californian Winter League.
MLB players like Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, faced teams with Negro League players like Satchel Paige (who had his own barnstorming team), Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell.
As written above, these tours visited towns where they couldn’t see their heroes during the regular season. In this way the barnstormers were sure that the games were sold out.
But barnstorming wasn’t something that was solely something for MLB and Negro League players. In 1915 the House of David started touring. House of David was a religious community founded in 1903. To raise money for their community they started touring rural America and played against local amateur teams, semi-pro teams and negro league teams. Because of their religion, they grew long hair and beards. Sometimes they hired big names like Grover Cleveland Alexander (a famed pitcher) and Satchel Paige to enforce their team. Sometimes the hired players grew beards but most of the time they played with fake beards.
The team(s) eventually folded in the mid-1950s. I write teams because at times the House of David had three barnstorming teams travelling around the country.
In 1921 Babe Ruth started a barnstorming tour. But a rule of MLB outlawed this tour. The rule said that players who had played in the World Series were not allowed to play in off season games. But Ruth opposed this rule and it was eventually lifted in 1922.
Many of the Negro League teams made barnstorming tours during the regular season. In the beginning the Negro Leagues were organized very loosely. The schedules were irregular and gave the teams the opportunity to travel around the country to earn some extra money. Most famous were the Kansas City Monarchs. The team drove around country side, visiting places where professional baseball was rarely seen. The Monarchs took their portable lighting system with them, so night games could be played. The system didn’t come close to nowadays standards but the Monarchs were well ahead of their time. The first MLB game played under artificial light took place in Cincinnati on May 24, 1935. The Monarchs introduced their portable lighting system in 1930.
Later the House of David team “stole” the idea and toured with their own portable lighting system as well.
The 1930s and 1940s were the hay days of the barnstorming tours. Despite being very popular as a distraction of everyday life, Negro League teams faced several hardships. Even though they drew large crowds in white towns, they were not welcome in hotels most of the time. This forced them to sleep on their busses, in barns or along the roadside.
In the thirties Dizzy Dean and Satchel Paige (see picture on top of this post) faced each other regularly in barnstorming games. Dean was born in segregated Arkansas and used terms like “coon” and “nigger”. But despite his redneck image he played negro league teams very often.
Another team that was famous for its barnstorming were the Indianapolis Clowns. This team toured the country and sometimes dressed themselves up like cannibals with skirts made of banana leafs. The team was founded in 1915 in Florida as the Ethopian Clowns, moved to Cincinnati and later to Indianapolis. Often they are regarded as the Harlem Globe Trotters of baseball. The drew large crowds but fellow Negro League players didn’t like the way they caricaturized their own people. Long after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier, the Clowns still played baseball in the Negro leagues. They hired the first female to play second base in male professional baseball in 1953. Eventually the team folded in 1988. By then the Negro Leagues had ceased activities for thirty years already and the team was no longer an all black team anymore. The biggest player that played for the Clowns was Hank Aaron. He was signed to a contract that earned him $200 per month in 1952. But after three months, the Clowns sold his contract to the Boston Braves for $10,000.
Hank Aaron in a Clowns uniform
Long before these barnstorming tours became a common good, the first official tour marked as a barnstorming tour was practiced by the Brooklyn Excelsiors, who played games around New York in 1860. In 1875 the first female barnstorming tour took place between teams called the Blonds and Brunettes. The Boston Red Stockings and the Philadelphia Athletics would tour Great Britain in 1874. Al Spalding took MLB players on a world tour to Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Egypt, France and Great Britain in 1888 and 1889.
I think that you can say that these tours were the predecessors of the tours made by Major League Baseball to countries like Japan and Taiwan nowadays.
The current (independent) Atlantic League’s champions, the Lancaster Barnstormers are named after the early 1900s Lancaster barnstorming teams.
If this article has raised your interest on the subject barnstorming tours, just google on the term. You will find quite some information about the history of it. Really interesting.