The election of prominent Negro Leagues stars such as Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil is the latest step in the long-overdue recognition of the high level of the league. Now considered a major league, there is increased interest in all things Negro League. Those interested in this uniquely important league can also collect Negro Leagues trading cards
Until Jackie Robinson famously broke the color barrier in 1947, non-white ballplayers were not allowed in Major League baseball. An unwritten agreement between the owners and league leadership upheld the immoral exclusion of players of color.
Not to be denied a chance to participate in professional baseball, those owners and ballplayers who were not allowed to participate in major league baseball formed the Negro Leagues. At its peak, the leagues included a series of multi-city organizations.
The Negro leagues started in the early part of the 20th century. Their heyday was from around 1920 through when the Robinson debuted in the major leagues.
The historical importance of the Negro Leagues in both baseball and American history cannot be doubted. As a small step to atone for the past sins, Major League Baseball announced they were adding Negro League statistics to the official record. Sites like Baseball-Reference are doing their part to make those Negro League statistics that exist available as part of the statistical record.
This development has helped spotlight the Negro Leagues and its players.
The players who appeared in the Negro Leagues can be broken into two categories. First are those that later had the opportunity to play in the major leagues. Meanwhile, others did not make it to the MLB due to timing and racism.
In addition to Robinson, some of the game’s all-time greats made their debuts in the Negro Leagues. This list includes Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, and Larry Doby (the first black player in the American League). Others, such as the Negro Leagues great Satchel Paige, made brief appearances in the majors after their playing prime was over.
Several great players never got the opportunity to play in the major leagues. Nevertheless, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Martín Dihigo, and Josh Gibson were among the best to play the game. As a result, there are now 35 players in the Hall of Fame predominantly for their Negro League performances.
The Early Baseball Era Committee looks at players who played before 1950, and the Golden Days Era Committee which looks at players from 1950-1969, recently announced their results. Both selections feature Negro League players.
The Early Baseball Era ballot featured several former Negro Leaguers. That includes pitcher John Donaldson, P/2B Bud Fowler, left fielder Vic Harris, shortstop Grant “Home Run” Johnson, pitcher Dick “Cannonball” Redding, infielder George “Tubby” Scales, and Buck O’Neil. Buck was a player, manager, scout, and coach in his long career, as well as the breakout star of Ken Burns’ Baseball series.
The committee elected Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil to the Hall of Fame in an exciting development. Unfortunately, both players are deceased. Perhaps they will show O’Neil’s speech from the 2006 induction ceremony when several other Negro League players were inducted.
The Golden Days Era Committee ballot had Minnie Miñoso, who started his playing career in the Negro Leagues. I wrote about Miñoso in our look at the Golden Days Era. Spoiler Alert: Miñoso was among the four players elected from the Golden Day Era ballot. That means we have six players joining the Hall of Fame in 2022, including three former Negro Leaguers.
When the 2022 BBWAA ballot results are announced on January 25th, that class may grow larger.
We can’t expect multiple brands and sets each year because of the era. No platinum parallels, game-used cards, and serial numbered cards. Indeed, significant releases of big-league cards in the pre-war period are few and far between.
Negro league cards from the 1900-1947 era are even hard to come by. Most of the cards that feature Negro League stars from that era are from Cuban or Mexican league cards or postcards. The reason is that many Negro League players appeared in those leagues during the offseason.
Some examples of cards from this era include 1923-24 Tomas Gutierrez (Oscar Charleston RC), 1929-30 Cienfuegos Postcards (Cool Papa Bell RC), 1923 Billiken (Oscar Charleston), 1927-28 Mallorquina (Martin Dihigo RC), 1924-25 Aguilitas (Biz Mackey), and 1945 Mexican League (Ray Dandridge RC).
When you find these cards, they are typically in poor condition and relatively expensive. That being said, if Negro League cards of this era match your collecting interests and budget, there is a robust collecting niche around pre-war cards.
Since the Negro Leagues faded into history, several sets have been released celebrating the league’s stars. Some of these sets are now on the older side themselves and quite collectible.
When released, this was a bit of an odd-ball, small brand. However, the Laughlin Old Time Black Stars set is collectible today. Unfortunately, the cards don’t contain photos of the Negro League stars but rather rough drawings.
PSA has graded 1,638 cards from this set, with most falling into the 6-8 range – there are only 138 PSA 9’s and 8 PSA 10’s. While this set may not be for everyone based on the rough photos, it’s worth exploring one of the first sets honoring the Negro Leagues.
A few years later, Laughlin produced a follow-up set, the 1978 Laughlin Long Ago Black Stars set. The collection also has 36 cards, with a PSA pop of 783 with 19 PSA 10’s.
The 1980-01 Perez-Steele Hall of Fame Series aren’t exactly cards (they’re postcards). Furthermore, they aren’t all Negro League players (the 245 postcard set does feature a number of Negro League stars). However, many of these are available on eBay ungraded relatively cheap. Therefore, they may not be a significant investment but are a fun collectible.
This 36 card set features some of the greats of the Negro Leagues. This set again features artwork and not photos, although the artwork is of a higher quality than Perez-Steele. PSA has graded 406 cards from this set, with 70 PSA 10’s.
The Ted Williams sets from 1993 and 1994 contain several cards of Negro Leaguers, this time with photos. Why did Negro League players appear in a set honoring the “Splendid Splinter?” In his 1966 Hall of Fame induction speech, Williams famously called for Negro League stars to be honored with induction into the Hall of Fame.
While these aren’t high-dollar cards, there aren’t many graded, so there may be a fun collecting project here.
In 2020, The Negro League Museum released this set. They limited this edition to 5,000 sets featuring the artwork of artist Graig Kreindler. With its appealing look, this may be the set for you.
The Negro Leagues are a fascinating and long-overlooked part of the history of this great game. While tricky, if you can predict who the next Negro Leaguer is to make the Hall of Fame, you could see some nice short-term gains.
More generally speaking, this is likely a buy-and-hold scenario. The new interest in the Negro Leagues seems to be genuine and will be long-standing. Therefore, holding is a good idea whether you’re looking at rare pre-war cards or sets produced in the years since.
Even if they don’t present clear investment opportunities, I’d argue that you can’t go wrong adding a few Negro League cards to your collection from a pure collecting perspective.
The Negro leagues will always be a great paradox in baseball history. The MLB should be lauded for the current celebration of black baseball, culture, and athletes. Yet, on the other hand, the need for the league to exist highlights the historic shortcoming of baseball.
On a baseball level, it also means that pre-integration major league baseball didn’t represent all the greatest players of the era and kept baseball fans from so many great matchups – Satchel Paige vs. Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson vs. Josh Gibson, and so on.
As card collectors, we can do our part to celebrate the Negro Leagues and remember the terrible history that forged them. So whether you’re investing or simply collecting – making space for Negro League cards in your collection is a fulfilling enterprise.