Reprinted from Black Ball News (1992)
"We are getting so much hell, that we don't deserve, as we built the League and did not hurt anybody while we were building it...I think you and I will both have to refuse to run for office, also Manley, as we are Club Owners and Rickey is telling that to the world." -C.W.Posey, Excerpted from a letter to Thomas Wilson, Baltimore Elite Giants owner and NNL President, Nov. 19, 1945
Branch Rickey's now famous observation that the "Negro leagues are in the zone of a racket" was at the same time self-serving and largely accurate. Positioned as he was to be the first white owner to scoop the golden nuggets from the talent filled stream of Negro baseball, Rickey's criticisms of the black leagues was certainly calculated to lower the overhead expense of his panning operation. If Negro teams were not perceived as legitimate businesses with legal claim to the services of their players, Rickey must have reasoned, the cream of the black leagues' talent could be skimmed off for the major leagues with little or no compensation to black team owners. Still, Negro Leagues team owners would not have felt as threatened by Rickey's public criticisms if there had not been an element of truth in his observations.
Historically, Negro Leagues teams were largely owned by men who
derived their principal incomes either from illegal gaming operations
or other less than savory pursuits. Scheduled league games were
preemptible should more profitable exhibition opportunities arise.
Bogus "championship" games, and even "World Series" games were
contrived by promoters to boost attendance.
Top star players were shuffled between teams as "ringers" to gain
advantage and increase fan appeal during genuine championship matches.
Even the umpiring was questionable, as officials were accountable to a
league office controlled by a team owner with a vested interest in the
outcome of league games. The Negro Leagues never had a truly
independent commissioner with authority to act "in the best interest of
baseball," and player raiding was a common method of filling out a
These are facts about which the black press had railed for at least 25 years before Rickey's sudden interest in the integrity of black baseball. Taken alone, these facts would seem to convict Negro baseball on the charges advanced by Rickey. But, it is both a mistake and unfair to judge black baseball on these facts alone. There is more to the story.
Webster defines a racket as "a dishonest scheme for obtaining money." While many of the practices of Negro Leagues team owners and promoters may be fairly described as sharp, these practices were not, necessarily, dishonest, and most were born of necessity rather than greed.
It is not difficult to understand the motivations of a club owner who, seeing his team failing under financial pressures, forsakes a league schedule in favor of more profitable exhibition venues. As to the charge of staging bogus "championships" and "playoffs", it should be said that a little puffery is at the heart of all entertainment promotion. Baseball was, and remains, the first cousin of show business, depending for its existence upon an ability to attract patrons through the turnstiles. Without resourceful and creative promotion, no Negro baseball team could have survived in the era of racial segregation.
Operating a Negro baseball league was a difficult business. In scheduling games, most black team owners were at the mercy of powerful, white stadium owners and booking agents. Travel arrangements were complicated by racial segregation. And, perhaps most importantly, the effects of racial bigotry were felt most keenly at the ticket office. Segregation of the races limited the primary market for black baseball to that group of citizens who were fewest in number and least in discretionary income. In light of these circumstances, it seems unfair to judge the operations of the Negro Leagues against the standard of the white majors.
While it may be appropriate under the circumstances to over look some of the failings of the Negro Leagues, historians have seemed more comfortable in over looking the leagues' successes. Beyond the day to day accomplishments of Negro players on the field and their contributions to the national pastime, the Negro Leagues made significant contributions to the black community, and thereby to all America, in at least three areas - civic activism, social activism and cultural pride.
Just as the mainstream American entertainment industry has a history of active participation in civic projects, Negro Leagues team owners were quick to commit their resources to the support of worth while civic projects. During the early 1940s, the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks (IBPOE) sought to address the need of urban, black youth for improved recreational facilities, parks and equipment. In responding to this need the IBPOE recognized athletics as a vehicle for promoting education and ethnic pride in the black community. For assistance in raising funds for its athletic and education programs, the IBPOE called upon Homestead Grays owner, C. W. Posey. In response, Posey offered his services as Commissioner of Athletics for the IBPOE and, together with promoter and publicist, John L Clark, undertook the promotion of a series of baseball games that were to raise thousands of dollars for the IBPOE programs.
The first IBPOE benefit game arranged by Posey and Clark was scheduled for Independence Day, 1940 in Forbes Field, Pittsburgh. The game was to feature Posey's own Homestead Grays against their hottest league challengers, the Baltimore Elite Giants. Posey declared July 4 to be Elks Athletics Day and promoted the event throughout the East. In his advertising, Posey emphasized that the net proceeds from the game would be given to the IBPOE to supplement the organization's education, civil liberties and expanded athletics programs.
The skills of the professional promoter were focused on making the event a financial success for the Elks. Posey motivated lodge members throughout Western Pennsylvania to participate in an advance ticket sales drive by offering prizes to the lodge and temple selling the highest number of box seat tickets for the event. The day was a smashing success.
Three weeks later Posey staged yet a bigger IBPOE fund raiser in Yankee Stadium. Again pitting his Grays against the Elite Giants, Posey dubbed the day Elks' Field Day. The attendance of New York's mayor and his family was arranged, as were appearances by several big name celebrities. Boxing greats Sam Langford and Jack Dempsey, and such revered entertainers as Ethel Waters were on hand to lend their support, as were numerous local, political leaders. In addition to the baseball game, the day's program offered the spectacle of some of Negro baseball's best athletes competing against one another in such events as the 100 yard dash, throwing accuracy, base circling races and a version of Home Run Derby. As expected, the event was a major success for the IBPOE and the black youth who benefited from the day's proceeds.
The great success of the Yankee Stadium event prompted other civic organizations to join with team owners to sponsor similar fund raising promotions. In fact, Negro baseball became the primary fund raising vehicle for New York's Police Athletic League, a group that supported youth athletic programs throughout New York's neighborhoods, both black and white.
The Elks' promotions were not unique. Benefit games neither began nor ended with Cumberland Posey. Since the 1920s when Rube Foster's American Giants ruled the Chicago diamonds, black community groups and civic organizations found willing support from Chicago's baseball enterprises. The situation was no different in St. Louis, Nashville, Birmingham or any city that hosted a Negro Leagues franchise.
The Negro Leagues arose in response to the segregation policies of the major leagues. Implicit in the existence of the leagues were the beliefs that the black community produced athletic talent worthy of true, professional status and that, in spite of discrimination, this talent must be developed and displayed. The enterprising spirit and determination of the captains of black baseball presented a symbolic challenge to the flawed foundations of segregation. More concretely, by presenting the talent of black players to the public, the Negro Leagues made possible a comparison of their talents against those of professional, white players - a comparison which showed the black player to be the equal of any.
Because the Negro Leagues existed, black newspapers were enabled to champion the achievements of the black athlete and challenge the policies of baseball's segregationists. Though focused on the relative merits of white and black athletes, this challenge naturally flowed to provoke public discussion of the achievements of Afro-Americans in all areas of American life. Through such discussions, significant change was ultimately realized.
Many Negro Leagues figures used their positions of visibility in the community to promote social justice. Effa Manley, controversial wife of Newark Eagles owner, Abe Manley, was especially active in the movement for civil rights during the 1940s. An active member of the NAACP, Mrs. Manley frequently sponsored events to benefit that organization's operations. Eagles games raised thousands of dollars for the struggle to bring before the public the horror of lynchings in the South and to support the educational and political efforts of the NAACP.
In the South, the Martins of Memphis and the Birmingham Black Barons management sponsored fund raising events to support the efforts of the NAACP. In Atlanta, Black Crackers co-owner, Rev. John Harden, was a vocal advocate of civil rights.
In Nashville, black baseball won the support of the National Baptist Publishing Board, publisher of Nashville's only black newspaper during the 1930s and 1940s, the Nashville Globe. Through the sports pages of the Globe, the NBPB lobbied long and hard against the segregated seating policies at Sulphur Dell, the white owned ballpark that hosted the majority of Negro Leagues games in the Southern city.
Everywhere the Negro National and Negro American leagues operated, the financial resources and public visibility of black baseball were utilized for the advancement of the black image and promotion of racial justice in America.
During World War II, like their white counterparts, Negro teams made their contributions to the national war effort. The sale of war bonds was promoted through special events at league games. Monies were raised for the Army and Navy relief funds through special ballpark promotions. In 1942, the two Negro leagues staged a successful All-Star game in Cleveland, donating all proceeds to the USO. Team owners admitted military personnel to league games either free, or at reduced prices, and several Negro leagues players teamed with other celebrities from the black sports and entertainment industries to entertain troops abroad with touring USO troupes. And, of course, the Negro leagues were represented on the battlefield by numerous players who replaced their baseball flannels with military uniforms, several of whom lost their lives in the conflict.
The extraordinary personal contributions of black soldiers and the collective contributions of the Negro baseball leagues to the war effort provided the Afro-American community with powerful ammunition for the fight for civil rights at home. It would forever be difficult for America to argue with Senator A. B. "Happy" Chandler's position: "I'm for the Four Freedoms. If a black boy can make it on Okinawa or Guadalcanal, hell, he can make it in baseball."
Viewed against the standard of major league baseball, the Negro Leagues were neither well organized nor financially stable. Viewed in the context of the Afro-American community, the Negro Leagues represented a major success. During the 1940s, Negro Leagues baseball represented the single largest black owned commercial enterprise in America. The existence of the leagues, forged in the face of extreme adversity, stood as a monument to black enterprise and determination. Black baseball served as a source of pride and inspiration for personal achievement.
From its inception, organized Negro baseball took an active role in promoting ethnic pride. From the strict rules of dress and conduct imposed upon Monarchs players by owner, J. L. Wilkinson, to the professionalism and integrity personified by NNL founder, Rube Foster, black baseball strived to establish a standard for all black professionals - a standard to be emulated by aspiring black youth.
Through sponsorship of black beauty contests, the Kansas City Monarchs and Memphis Red Sox brought together the communities they served in celebrations of cultural pride. In the early 1940s, the beauty contests sponsored by the Monarchs achieved the status of major social events, bringing together the fans and the elite of black society. Young, black women from across the United States took part in the contests, and the streets of black Kansas City were abuzz with enthusiasm. In Tennessee, the Miss Memphis Red Sox competitions sparked similar community interest and participation.
In Chicago, Newark, New York and Memphis the accomplishments of Afro-Americans in music and entertainment, sports, and politics were celebrated with special events honoring celebrities like Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Jesse Owens. Conceived, funded and promoted by Negro Leagues owners, these events significantly contributed to awareness in the black community of the accomplishments of black men and women.
From its beginning in 1920 to its height in the early, post-war years, Negro Leagues baseball rose to the stature of an American institution. For all its shortcomings, it represented a remarkable achievement for black America. At the 1942 sports writer's banquet in New York, former mayor, Jimmy Walker, praised Joe Louis saying, "You have ennobled the highest ideals of American patriotism, achievement and sportsmanship...You have laid a red rose on the grave of Lincoln." No less can be said of the men and women whose labors tore down the walls of racial segregation in the national pastime and dealt significant blows to discrimination in America.