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Branch Rickey as Anti-Hero

In response to our item about Major League Baseball’s hypocritical “homage” to the Negro Leagues, John Woodford – an AVA reader whose resume includes Times correspondent and editor of Muhammad Speaks – sent along an essay called “Negro League Baseball, Black Community, and the Socio-Economic Impact of Integration.” It ran in the Spring 2016 issue of Baseball Research Journal. 

The author, a University of Missouri history teacher named Japheth Knopp, described the Negro League teams as “prime examples of Black-owned businesses that were expansive in size, profitable, publicly visible, and culturally relevant to the community.” He questions “whether the manner in which desegregation occurred did in fact provide for increased economic and political freedoms for African Americans,” and the “social, fiscal, and communal assets … lost in the exchange.”

Millions of US Americans hailed the signing of Jackie Robinson, the star shortstop of the Kansas City Monarchs, as a great advance for “the Negro people” and the nation as a whole. It was late August, 1945 –World War Two had just ended. Few gave a thought to the impact it would have on the Monarchs’ franchise or the thriving black-owned businesses around 18th and Vine in KC. Ditto the impact on Newark when Larry Doby signed with Cleveland and Monty Irvin signed with the Giants, or the impact on Baltimore when Roy Campanella signed with the Dodgers. The players would make more money and get the national recognition they deserved. Their triumphs would be a source of pride for every person of color. 

But the Negro League, abandoned by their star attractions, soon went out of business.

“The story of Black enterprise in America follows a close parallel to what happened to the Negro Leagues,” Knopp generalizes. Kansas City was typical in its “struggle with the ramifications of ‘White flight,’ decapitalization of urban areas, prejudicial hiring and housing policies, and increased economic competition.”

Most of the Black-owned businesses in KC were small-scale service sector operations like barber shops and tailors, Knopp notes, “but there were also banks, insurance agencies, doctors’ offices, and law firms. More than 200 local Black-owned businesses provided hundreds of jobs and an average weekly salary of $23.81, which was still below the national median, but much improved from just a few years prior. Returning veterans were taking advantage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 and other benefits to open new businesses and purchase their own homes. [Knopp, BTW, is active in Vietnam Veterans of America.] Employment opportunities for African American women had improved in this area to such an extent that there was a shortage of domestic workers available to work for wealthy White households,”

Knopp describes the consistently excellent Kansas City Monarchs as a “community touchstone” and quotes their great player-manager Buck O’Neil: “Playing for the Monarchs in the late thirties and early forties, staying in the Streets Hotel at 18th and Paseo, and coming down to the dining room where Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday and Bojangles Robinson often ate. ‘Course, some of them were having supper while we were having breakfast and vice-versa. ‘Good morning, Count,’ I’d say. ‘Good evening, Buck,’ Mr. Basie would say. As somebody once put it, ‘People are afraid to go to sleep in Kansas City because they might miss something’.”

So why, Knopp asks, are economic conditions “practically unchanged, if not worse” for African Americans today, after the ostensible triumphs of the Civil Rights era? The answer, he contends, “lies in how integration occurred, with White-owned businesses able to expand their market share at the expense of Black-owned businesses, while at the same time cherry-picking the best-educated and most-qualified Black workers and controlling the methods, timing, and public perception of desegregation.”

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The Remarkable Mrs. Manley

The impact of integration on the Negro League team in Newark, New Jersey, is recounted in “The Most Famous Woman in Baseball,” a biography of the team’s co-owner, Effa Manley. Author Bob Luke reminds us that Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers who many consider heroic for signing Robinson, did not remunerate the Monarchs one red copper penny. Nor would he pay Effa Manley and her husband Abe when he signed Don Newcombe. Effa was not inclined to go to court to insist on the validity of contracts that players had signed with the Newark Eagles because Abe and other Negro League owners made their money in the gambling industry before it was legal. (Now gambling is even respectable. Buy a lottery ticket and you’re supporting “Education” in California. But in the 1940s, African Americans “playing the numbers” were taking part in a criminal “racket.”)

Luke quotes Branch Rickey expressing contempt for the Negro Leagues: “They are not leagues and have no right to expect organized baseball to respect them. They have the semblance of a racket.” And on another occasion Rickey said, ”I’ve felt the both American and Negro National League clubs were in the control of racketeers –men exploiting the colored players for their own purposes. [The implication being fixed outcomes and scores]. Rickey also cited “No league schedules and no constitution and, almost without exception, no written contract with the players.”

The Negro League owners were in a double bind because they didn’t want to impede the advance of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby and all the brothers to come. Effa Manley tried in vain to get commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler to insist that major league owners remunerate their Negro league counterparts. He happily ignored her.

Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, was not a scoundrel. According to Luke “When Veeck telephoned on July 1 to say he wanted to sign Doby, Effa asked him ‘What do we plan to give me for him, Mr. Veeck?” Veeck said $10,000. Effa said, “I know very well that if he was a white boy and a free agent you’d give me $100,000. But if you feel you’re being fair offering me $10, I guess I’ll have to take it.” Veeck promised $5,000 more if Doby stayed on the roster, Doby soon became a star and Veeck made good on his promise. Effa told him he should come take a look at the Eagles’ left fielder, Monte Irvin. Veeck said thanks, but he was going to face all the backlash he could handle playing one Negro. Big mistake.

The last word goes to Professor Knopp:

“The reality is that much of the African American community was largely unaffected economically by the successes of the Civil Rights Era. Black workers lacking higher education and job skills, mostly due to an inadequate and unequal education system, remained trapped in low-paying jobs and neighborhoods with increasingly few amenities. While there was growth in this period among the Black middle class, these new jobs were almost exclusively in White-owned firms. Large-scale Black-owned businesses, unable to find new clients, sources of revenue, and at a competitive disadvantage for the patronage of their traditional customers, failed.

“This is not to imply that segregation, economic or otherwise, was in any way beneficial to the African American community. The current face of American society would have been almost unimaginable at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. The fact remains, however, that in spite of discrimination and disadvantage, many Black entrepreneurs were able to find a niche market and achieve financial success. In the end desegregation happened on what were essentially the terms of the White majority, which in many ways benefited economically from the new arrangement, rather than honest assimilation combining the best qualities of both communities and building a more just and equal society.”

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P.S,  Robert Altman's movie ‘Kansas City’ is excruciatingly great —with the emphasis on the adverb.

One Comment

  1. Lynne Barnes August 6, 2023

    Wow, Fred… thanks for doing this deep dive (with the help of Japheth Knopp) into the complexities of civil rights history and sharing with us! Good to meet all these characters as we struggle on today.

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