Archive for February, 2011

The Kings of Kansas City

February 7, 2011

Monarchs uniform

I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that Negro League baseball has three teams that are truly famous. Oh, there are a lot of good teams and teams with great names like the Daisies, but three teams really stand out as famous: The Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Homestead Grays, and the Kansas City Monarchs. I hit the Crawfords last year and this post is about the Monarchs, so I guess that means I’m stuck with doing the Grays next year.

James Leslie Wilkinson (J.L. to his friends and players) was a former pitcher turned Hall of Fame baseball entrepreneur. In 1912 he formed the Des Moines All Nations team. Unlike most teams of the era it was multi-racial. The team was hugely successful, made Wilkinson a lot of money, and when the Negro National League was formed in 1920, Wilkinson became the only white man granted a franchise. He took the best players from the All Nations, and on a heads up from his friend Casey Stengel (yes, THAT Casey Stengel) combined them with the 25th Infantry Wreckers, an all black Army team (there’s a post waiting to happen), into the Kansas City Monarchs.

The monarchs were an immediate success winning titles in 1923, 1924, 1925, and 1929. In 1924 they participated in the first Negro League World Series against the Eastern Colored League champion Hilldale Daisies. With players like Heavy Johnson, Newt Allen, and Hall of Famers Bullet Joe Rogan and Luis Mendez they won it. The 1925 Series was a rematch. This time Hilldale won. In 1931 the Negro National League collapsed, but the Monarchs survived as a barnstorming team until 1936.

1939 Monarchs

In 1937 they joined the newly established Negro American League. Again they were hugely successful winning pennants in 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, and 1946. In 1942, the Negro League World Series was reestablished with the Monarchs winning the first one against Homestead. Playing for them were Buck O’Neill, Newt Allen (still), and Hall of Famers Willard Brown, Andy Cooper, Hilton Smith, and Satchel Paige. With essentially the same team (OK, Allen was finally gone), they lost the 1946 Series to the Newark Eagles. During the period, they also picked up, for the 1945 season only, a shortstop named Jackie Robinson.

Of course Robinson’s leaving for Brooklyn began the long, slow decline of the Negro Leagues. In 1948, seeing the inevitable collapse, Wilkinson sold the team. It remained in the Negro American League until 1961, when the league finally folded. After 1948, the Monarchs won a couple of league championships, but with much inferior talent.  By the 1950s, Negro League baseball was a shadow of its former glory, but the Monarchs hung on as one of the better teams. They did manage to run Ernie Banks and Elston Howard through their much depleted lineup, but overall quality slipped drastically. In 1955 The Athletics moved to Kansas City from Philadelphia, displacing the Monarchs as the premier team in town. The team headquarters moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan but the team retained the Kansas City name. The Monarchs took to barnstorming and remained alive until 1965, when they finally folded.

There are a number of ways to measure the impact of the Monarchs. They won a lot of games and pennants. They had some of the finest talent of any Negro League team. They continued to produce good talent well after the Negro Leagues were deep into collapse. They last longer than almost any other Negro League team. But maybe most significantly, when the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame was established, it went to Kansas City. They could have chosen a lot of places, but they picked Kansas City, home of the Monarchs.

The Better Angels of our Nature

February 4, 2011

Robinson and Reese

When Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract, the Brooklyn Dodgers split on the issue of having him join the team. A number of players from the North and West accepted his coming, a number of others signed the petition circulating through the clubhouse that demanded he not play. The Southern players, except for one man, all signed the petition. The exception was Harold “Pee Wee” Reese.

Reese joined the Dodgers in 1940, settling in as the regular shortstop. He remained there through 1942, including a trip to the 1941 World Series. In 1943 he left for military service, losing all of 1943, 1944, and 1945 to his country’s  war effort. In 1946, he returned to a much changed Dodgers team. Jackie Robinson had been signed to a contract and was playing in Montreal. Everyone knew that he was destined for Brooklyn in 1947. The problem for Reese was two-fold. Robinson was a shortstop and Reese was from Kentucky, traditionally viewed as a Southern state, at least in terms of race. Reese handled both problems well. When told the Dodgers had signed a black shortstop his response was that if the guy could beat him out for the job, then Robinson was welcome to it. And when a number of Dodgers players petitioned for Brooklyn not to bring Robinson to the big leagues, Reese refused to sign the petition. His exact comment is undisclosed.

With the arrival of Robinson in 1947, Reese remained at shortstop while the newcomer took over first base. The next season Robinson slid over to second base, which became his primary position on the field. The two men became fast friends and worked well together on the field. There are a number of stories of Reese coming to Robinson’s aid during the early days of the latter’s career. The most famous is following a particularly awful series of catcalls and boos aimed at Robinson, Reese is supposed to have walked over, put his arm around Robinson, and told him to forget it. There’s a statue in Brooklyn commemorating the event:

Robinson-Reese Statue in Brooklyn

 The obvious acceptance of a black player by a white one certainly helped ease Robinson’s transition to the Major Leagues. It also cemented their friendship, which lasted until Robinson’s death. Robinson’s widow, Rachel, represented him at Reese’s enshrinement ceremony at Cooperstown. Reese gets a vote from me as a man with true class. There aren’t a lot of those in any field, including baseball. Most of us really don’t listen all that often to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Reese did.

My favorite Robinson-Reese story goes like this (with an acknowledgement that the exact quote takes on a couple of different versions). The Dodgers were on the road when Robinson received a note saying someone was going to shoot him if he showed up to play ball that afternoon. During the team warm ups Robinson stood by Reese as was normal when Reese told him “Want to move a little further away?” Stunned, Robinson replied, “I thought you were my friend.” Reese’s response was, “I am, but that dumb SOB may have lousy aim, miss, and hit me.” Tension broken, Robinson went on to have a fine game. Now there’s a friend for life.

The Crusader

February 2, 2011

Wendell Smith

Crusader is one of those words that’s really out of fashion today. It brings up all the images of religious zealotry and fanaticism that make people shy from it. But there is a place for crusading zeal. Wendell Smith knew where that place needed to be and he worked long and hard, with unquestioned zeal, to help accomplish the integration of American sport.

Born in Detroit in 1914, Wendell Smith graduated from West Virginia State College (a segregated university). He edited the sports page for the college newspaper, majored in journalism, and played baseball. After graduation he joined the Pittsburgh Courier the leading black newspaper in Pennsylvania in 1937. By 1938 he was sports editor. He waged a continuous campaign to integrate American sport, especially baseball.  Although individual sports like track and boxing could produce excellent black athletes like Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, team sport (outside a handful of universities) was a bastion of segregation in the era. Smith argued that if black Americans could excel as individuals, they could do equally well as members of a  professional team, something players like Jackie Robinson had proved in college.

With World War II still going on, Smith hit upon the idea of having a tryout of Negro League players. He reasoned that with many of the Major League stars off at war, the teams would need the best quality talent they could get in order to win. This would be especially true of teams that were not usually in pennant contention and contenders who were losing because their best players were gone. And if they didn’t, then it showed their racism to the world.  He managed to talk Tom Yawkey’s Boston Red Sox into holding a tryout on 16 April 1945 for three black players: Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethro, and Marvin Williams. The Red Sox evaluation was that they weren’t good enough. Robinson, of course went on to win the first Rookie of the Year Award and make the Hall of Fame. Jethro also won a Rookie of the Year Award. Turns out the BoSox were right about Williams (1 out of 3) and Smith was right about racism.

Undeterred, Smith continued to support integrating baseball as the sport that would gain the most instant credibility for black players. There is no evidence that he personally influenced Branch Rickey’s move to integrate the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946-7, but Smith certainly supported the idea. His newspaper paid for Smith to accompany Robinson during both the 1946 minor league year and also during the 1947 season on team road trips. Until the arrival on Dan Bankhead in the 1947 season, Smith served as a sort of unofficial roommate and confidant of Robinson, especially in those towns where Robinson was not allowed to stay in the same hotels as the white players. His articles on the road trips are some of his best work.

In 1938 Smith applied for membership in the Baseball Writers Association of America. He was turned down. It wasn’t because he was black (Of course, it wasn’t. They just wouldn’t do that, would they?) but because his newspaper was not owned by a white person (Say what?). In 1948, the BBWAA changed its mind and Smith became its first black member. That made him the first black man who could vote for the Hall of Fame.

In the late 1940s, Smith moved to Chicago and began covering mostly boxing for a local newspaper. In 1964 he joined WGN and became the television station’s first black sports anchor. He continued to write a newspaper article or two while working on television. He died in 1972. In 1993 he was award the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball writing (thus getting his name in the HofF) and in 1996 his wife donated his papers to the Hall of Fame, where they are available for research.

The above should tell you I really like Wendell Smith. He’s not the greatest writer to win the Spink Award (I think Grantland Rice is), but he wa very good. His style was somewhat folksy, but his ability to cut through the nonsense to get at what he wanted is excellent. He understood the value of confrontation (ala the Red Sox episode), but could also let his prose make his case for him (like the Robinson hotel stories did). I think it took much too long to get him the Spink Award and I think he deserves to move a step beyond that. I’d like to see his full enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, plaque and all. I know a lot of people will disagree with me. After all, the man didn’t play the game. But then neither did Ban Johnson, William Hulbert, Tom Yawkey, and a lot of other members of the Hall. For what he meant to both the sport and the country, I think he should be there.

This post allows me to begin a celebration of black history month in the US with a look at a black American writer. I intend to make a few more looks at the Negro Leagues and other aspects of black baseball off and on during the month. Hope you will enjoy them.