The White Guy

It’s with a certain sadness that I write this. Adding another post will consign Mrs. Posada to the second page of this blog and that’s a shame. Well, I’ll manfully carry on anyway. With the return of February, it’s time for my month-long sojourn into black baseball. In honor of Black History Month, I want to look at some of the ins and outs of the Negro Leagues and other aspects of black baseball prior to about 1960. Having said all that, I’m going to start off with a white guy.

James Leslie Wilkinson (J. L. to most people) was born in 1878 in Iowa. He was something of a budding pitcher, hurt his arm, and decided to remain with the game by being a manager and owner. He started with a women’s team in 1909. There were allegations that some of the players were guys in drag (the “five o’clock shadow” was a dead give away), but the team did well. In 1912, he moved on to form the All Nation’s Team. It was one of the first barnstorming multi-racial teams. At various times there were white Europeans, Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders, American Indians, and Africans on the team. They were good, usually winning their games with big scores. The stars were Jose Mendez, and John Donaldson. In 1915 Wilkinson moved the team to Kansas City, but still barnstormed around the country. Over time, the “All Nations” aspect was disappearing as the team became increasingly black in composition.

By this point Wilkinson had met Rube Foster. The two men got along and when Foster formed the Negro National League in 1920, he wanted Wilkinson to take over one of the teams, the only white owner in the new league. Wilkinson took the best players from his All-Nations team, added a group of players from other teams, including Joe Rogan from the 25th Infantry Wreckers, an all-black Army team in Hawaii (there’s a post waiting to be written, but the info is sketchy, so maybe next year). Rogan was recommended to Wilkinson by Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel. With the new team in place, Wilkinson named them the Kansas City Monarchs.

1922 NNL leadership

 
Above is a picture of the movers and shakers of the Negro National League in 1922. Wilkinson is seated on the left of the front row. Foster is third from the left on the same row. It’s a rare  and wonderful look at the men who made the Negro National League, the first of the famous Negro Leagues (there were other all-black leagues prior to 1920).
 
The Monarchs were good from the beginning. They won their first pennant in 1923,  repeating in 1924. With the creation of the Eastern Colored League, there were now two major Negro Leagues. In 1924 they got together for the first Negro League World Series. The Monarchs defeated the Hilldale Daisies (of Philadelphia) over a nine game series. The Monarchs repeated in 1925, but lost the rematch with the Hilldale five games to one. The Monarchs never again won the NNL pennant, but were contenders most years. As an owner, Wilkinson pioneered the use of black umpires (the NNL used white umpires at the beginning) in the league and pushed for a unified umpiring system that would increase the professionalism of the umps.
 
With the failure of the NNL in 1931 and the loss of Foster to mental problems, Wilkinson led the Monarchs back to the barnstorming days. That lasted until 1937 when new Negro Leagues began to form. The Monarchs joined the new Negro American League, winning the first pennant. They lost in 1938, then came back to win consecutive pennants in 1939-1942. In 1942, the Negro League World Series was renewed between the NAL and a new version of the Negro National League. The Monarchs won the first Series in four straight games. They fell back in 1943 through 1945, winning again in 1946. This time they dropped the Series to the Newark Eagles in seven games. While the Monarchs weren’t winning, they managed to find a pretty good shortstop in 1945 named Jackie Robinson. It was his only year with the team or in the Negro Leagues.
 
Robinson’s signing by the Brooklyn Dodgers hurt the Negro Leagues badly, eventually leading to their collapse. Wilkinson saw the end coming and in 1948 sold the Monarchs. Already ailing and almost blind, Wilkinson retired. He lingered to 1964, dying in a Kansas City nursing home. When the Hall of Fame made their big push to add Negro League players and executives in 2006, Wilkinson was one of the people elected to the Hall. It was, in my opinion, overdue.
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