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02/28/12 12:20 PM EST

Negro Leagues part of rich history at Stadium

For nearly two decades, tens of thousands streamed through the turnstiles of a magnificent new Yankee Stadium, descending upon that towering venue on the Bronx side of the Harlem River and witnessing performances from some of the best ballplayers of the day.

Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio may have been among those calling Yankee Stadium their workplace in the 1930s and '40s, but they were not the main attractions on these days. The Yankees shared their stadium with Negro League ballclubs then, representing an uncommon chapter in franchise history.

Seven seasons after Ruth hit the Stadium's first homer, Yankee Stadium welcomed black baseball on July 5, 1930, as New York's Lincoln Giants played a doubleheader against the Baltimore Black Sox. Yankees owner Col. Jacob Ruppert had loaned the use of the stadium free of charge to assist the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who were engaged in a union battle at the time.

Two months later, legendary slugger Josh Gibson would approach a feat never exceeded by Ruth or any other player. According to legend, an 18-year-old Gibson hit a home run to left field in September 1930 that traveled more than 500 feet and nearly sailed out of Yankee Stadium.

Precise measurements are impossible, but it is notable that as the second incarnation of Yankee Stadium closed for business in 2008, Gibson still was credited by historians with having hit one of the building's longest home runs. There will forever be debates as to whether Gibson indeed was able to clear the frieze; Gibson also belted a 1934 homer in the Bronx that rivaled any of Mickey Mantle's future exploits.

The owners of African-American teams were able to gather much-needed profits from their games at Yankee Stadium, and beginning in 1939, the Yankees sponsored a 10-doubleheader championship tournament for Negro National League clubs, the Jacob Ruppert Memorial Cup.

Nearly every African-American baseball star of the 1930s and '40s played at Yankee Stadium, including Hall of Fame members Satchel Paige, "Cool Papa" Bell, Oscar Charleston and Buck Leonard.

Black baseball games at Yankee Stadium usually were scheduled for Sundays, when the Yankees were on the road, often playing doubleheaders and occasionally four-team twin bills, where two teams would play in the first game and two different clubs would play a second contest.

A Negro National League club, the New York Black Yankees, frequently used Yankee Stadium from 1936-47 through special arrangements with Yankees president Ed Barrow. Having use of the much larger, modern facility was an important step forward for the league.

"Now we are offering [fans] games in a park which they know well," Black Yankees owner James Semler once said, according to the New York Amsterdam News. "There can be no question of them not knowing how to reach it. They manage to travel there very often without any trouble to see the big league teams play and we are offering them a brand of baseball which is just as good."

The New York Black Yankees often wore used uniforms from the Yankees, and briefly featured the league's best pitcher -- in the spring of 1941, Paige pitched and won his only game in a New York uniform at Yankee Stadium.

"This is as near as I've gotten to the big leagues, pitching in the Yankee Stadium," Paige said upon making his Yankee Stadium debut.

On Aug. 27, 1939, the Negro National League and Negro American League players met at Yankee Stadium for an All-Star Game, in which Gibson belted a three-run triple in the NAL's 10-2 victory.

Another "Dream Game" took place on Aug. 24, 1948, when the NAL defeated the NNL, 6-1, in a contest that featured future Major Leaguers Minnie Minoso, Luke Easter and Junior Gilliam.

Jackie Robinson had shattered baseball's color barrier on April 15, 1947, across town at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, and the Yankees themselves would not employ a black player until Elston Howard's debut in 1955. But Yankee Stadium played host to a precursor of Robinson's historic exploits in 1946.

An African-American All-Star team managed by Paige faced a club of AL All-Stars led by the Indians' Bob Feller in two exhibition games at Yankee Stadium that October. Indians pitcher Bob Lemon homered to win the first game for the American Leaguers, but Paige outpitched Feller to earn the win for the black All-Stars two days later.

The era of non-integrated baseball at Yankee Stadium received a farewell on Aug. 20, 1961, as stars of the Negro American League gathered for an All-Star Game -- normally held at Chicago's Comiskey Park. A 55-year-old Paige pitched three scoreless innings and was named the game's MVP.

"When these guys came along and they started playing the kind of ball, and people saw them here [at Yankee Stadium, fans] would come out," journalist St. Clair Bourne once said. "I always felt that had something to do with the gradual moving of blacks into baseball. Sooner or later, the owners were going to get smart enough to realize that the real important part of baseball was green, not black or white."

Many thanks to Brian Richards of the New York Yankees Museum for his assistance in researching this article.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.