Power Play

John Tenny Blount

Being head of a league has to be difficult. You have to make sure of scheduling, of player contracts, of all sorts of things. It was also true of the fledgling Negro National League. In 1925 something like a power play occurred that attempted to topple Rube Foster as head of the league.

As mentioned in the post on the Detroit Stars, ownership of the team belonged to John Tenny Blount, which is true, sort of. Blount was born about 1871 in Montgomery, Alabama and migrated north to Detroit. By 1919 he ran a major gambling establishment in Detroit and was heavily involved in the numbers racket. Some sources claim he ran it in the black neighborhoods of the city, others don’t want to go that far. In either case, he was fairly wealthy, a major player in the black community, and knew Rube Foster. Desperate to have a functioning team in Detroit, Foster approached Blount about running the team. He offered a set of his own American Giants (of Chicago) players, albeit older players, to help “seed” the team. Blount accepted and became “owner” of the Detroit Stars.

Here’s where it gets a bit murky and complicated. My wife assures me I can complicate even the simplest things (It’s a gift). It seems that Blount didn’t actually own the team, at least not in its entirety. Foster, having more money than Blount, seems to have held a controlling interest in the team while Blount acted as more of a general manager than owner. He ran the team locally, scheduled games, took care of paying players, looked for talent, but Foster would ultimately call the shots. By 1920, this arrangement was part of the newly formed Negro National League, which had a rule against one man owning two teams (“syndicate baseball”) so it had to remain under the table (or at least be winked at by other owners).

On top of this issue, the Stars played in Mack Park, which wasn’t owned by either Blount or Foster. John Roesink, who happened to be white, owned the stadium and charged rent, thus adding to the influence Foster had on the team (someone had to pay the rent). But that meant also that Foster could control the scheduling of games at Mack Park, not Blount. Further, Foster got, as booking agent, 10% of the gate. The contract also established 20% of the gate as the rent, leaving Blount with only 70% of the revenue for team expenses (like paying players). As something of a quick aside, Mack Park burned in 1930 and the Stars had to find a new stadium. By that point the ownership issue in Detroit had boiled over.

The complicated ownership issue in Detroit was bound to create riffs within the upper management. By 1925 Blount was openly complaining that Foster was slighting the Stars in favor of his (openly owned) Chicago American Giants. They were getting the best venues, the best dates, the best players, and the Stars were suffering. Blount, by now league vice president, complained openly to the other owners that Foster was playing fast and loose with the league money. He argued Foster was drawing more money than his salary allowed and should be forced to resign. Foster responded by offering to open his book for the other owners to look over and further offered to resign. A league meeting in Chicago renominated Foster for NNL president and the vote was unanimous. Then the owners stripped Blount of the vice presidential job. By this point even Blount knew he was beaten. One source calls the episode a power play on Blount’s part. It failed and the upshot was, as you should have guessed by now, that Blount lost any control he had over the Stars.

It was, other than the decline in Foster’s health, the greatest crisis the Negro National League faced prior to the Great Depression. Foster weathered it easily, but it did point out to the other owners the continued risk of any like syndicate baseball in the league. Blount went back to his other businesses and died in 1934.

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5 Responses to “Power Play”

  1. Precious Sanders Says:

    Now and again I think about the folks who create the schedules, especially for the MLB… and it makes my head hurt. I can’t imagine the scheduling gymnastics they have to perform to make that work. So much work goes into running a league.

  2. Steve Myers Says:

    I always held the simplistic view that the Negro Leagues were so unified and well organized, not to mention super successful and therefore a threat to major league baseball. Thanks for complicating things v. (insert smiley face emoticon)

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