Black Baseball in Waco
As “America’s pastime,” baseball also imbibed the country’s original sin: racism. This scourge haunted the game from its earliest days, but by the start of the twentieth century the formal segregation of baseball was complete and remained so until 1947. Nevertheless, black baseball persisted, leaving an indelible mark on the sport. While black baseball in Waco shared similarities with the game elsewhere in the nation, the players it molded and its local legacies deserve recognition. To remember baseball in the city and at Katy Park without its black teams and players is to tell only part of the story.
Starting in the 1870s, black baseball in Waco operated independently but laid the groundwork for future developments. Waco fielded several unnamed teams from the 1870s to the 1890s, one of which joined the Texas Colored Baseball League in 1888. Unfortunately, league play never materialized. From 1897 to 1898, the Waco Yellow Jackets played regionally at their home field at Golden Gate Park off of South First Street. The Yellow Jackets dominated due to the superior pitching of a preacher’s son from Calvert, Texas, named Andrew “Rube” Foster. Waco, with its booming cotton industry, presented Foster with a larger market to showcase his skills and launched his legendary career. His “fadeaway” pitch (screwball) changed baseball, and Foster’s belief in black baseball led to the formation of the professional Negro National League in 1920. As baseball entered the twentieth century, the game retained its rural connections but expanded in urban areas.
Waco produced several teams and players in the 1910s and 20s that developed the game at the semipro and professional levels. Just as Rube Foster left Texas to pursue baseball in Chicago, Waco produced two future ballplayers who would go on to play for the Negro Leagues Foster inaugurated: Andrew Lewis Cooper and Crush Holloway. Cooper, a southpaw pitcher, spent the majority of his professional baseball career as a player and manager of the Kansas City Monarchs. An outfielder known for his assertive base running, Holloway played professional ball with the Indianapolis ABCs and the Baltimore Black Sox. He began his career in 1919 with the Waco Black Navigators, the city’s premier black baseball club and a member of the Texas Colored League that played their games at Katy Park. The lives and careers of Holloway and Cooper followed the flow of the Great Migration as African Americans left the rural South for the industrial North. This movement of African Americans affected Waco’s ability to consistently provide a market for semipro black baseball. It dropped out of Texas Colored League after only a year and later sporadically participated in the Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana League. Nevertheless, smaller recreational teams like the Waco Black Taborians played regular games at Taborian Park on South Second Street and on special occasions like Juneteenth. Multiple levels of organization continued to characterize black baseball in Waco for the next few decades.
Into the 1930s, black baseball endured in Waco exhibiting innovations to the game eventually adopted by white teams. Now a part of the Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana League, Waco’s Black Cardinals achieved minor league status in 1930. They participated in a historic first in Texas baseball when they played the state’s initial night game in May 1930 against the visiting Kansas City Monarchs. Within weeks, Katy Park put up permanent lights for its white team, the Waco Cubs. The introduction of night baseball—because it allowed players to earn more money by playing more games—emerged out of black baseball to impact the entire sport. Additionally, black baseball introduced the practices of numbered uniforms and utilizing protective gear. The latter became a necessity due to the quick, aggressive style of play that characterized black baseball, in contrast to the white game that hinged on homeruns. While the historical record remains spotty, it appears that black baseball for the duration of its existence in Waco welcomed white spectators in a separate section. Though formally segregated, these innovations illustrate the cross-pollination that occurred between black and white baseball, advancing the game.
It was also during the 1930s that another Waco product, George T. Walker, made his debut in the Negro Leagues. Walker pitched for the Homestead Greys and the Kansas City Monarchs from 1937 to 1943. While his was not an exceptional career, the right-hander shared in the successes of his legendary teammates, Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil. Walker continued to play baseball into the 1950s, but his career shows how the desegregation of baseball in 1947 led to the decline of the Negro Leagues and black semipro baseball. In Waco, the destruction of Katy Park from the 1953 tornado also contributed to the end of local black baseball. While it resulted in obvious benefits, the integration of baseball in Waco and around the country also meant the loss of a significant African American institution.
The semipro and independent status of black baseball in Waco does not diminish its importance. These tiers helped develop the game and its talent. Surveying this topic at the local level illustrates how national matters of racism and sports functioned in our community.