Posts Tagged ‘J.L. Wilkinson’

El Diamante Negro

February 23, 2017
Jose Mendez

Jose Mendez

Recently there’s been a real rash of Caribbean players making their mark in the Major Leagues. With the political troubles the US and Cuba have been through in the last 50 years, few Cubans have made their mark. Back 75 years ago if you were a “white” Cuban you could make your mark in the Majors. If you were a “black” Cuban you couldn’t. Dolf Luque, a pretty fair pitcher managed to pitch in a World Series. For El Diamante Negro (the Black Diamond) there was no chance. So Jose Mendez made his mark in the Negro Leagues.

Mendez was born in Cardenas, Cuba (about 100 miles from Havana) in 1887. By 1907 he was a pitcher for the Almendares team. Seamheads shows him 8-0 in 13 games as his team won the Cuban League pennant. He remained in Cuba through 1916 pitching winter ball there while moving to the US to pitch during the summers. Between 1909 and 1911 he pitched for the Cuban Stars going 15-2 in documented games with an ERA under 1.50.

By 1913 he’d found the team with which he was destined to make his greatest mark. The All Nations was a barnstorming team that traveled around the upper Midwest playing pretty much all comers. It had initially been one of the few integrated teams in the country, but as the long arm of Jim Crow tightened on the US it became more and more a black team. By 1913 it was completely segregated. Well, not completely. The owner, Hall of Famer J.L. Wilkinson, was white. He’d founded the All Nations to show that integrated baseball was possible. He also had contacts in the Major League community, particularly a minor outfielder named Casey Stengel. Guys like Stengel led white barnstorming teams across the US and frequently played black teams. Wilkinson’s contacts with teams like Stengel’s gave him an insight into the best black teams and best black players available. One of those was Mendez, and the All Nations picked him up.

He had a decent year with Wilkinson’s club but developed arm trouble in 1914. He moved to shortstop and continued playing. By 1919 his arm was well and he returned to the mound. The formation of the Negro National League in 1920 gave him a new place to play and he signed with Wilkinson’s team, now renamed the Kansas City Monarchs.

Along with the American Giants, the Monarchs were one of the dominant teams of the NNL. With Mendez and “Bullet Joe” Rogan pitching, Newt Allen and Dobie Moore on the infield Oscar (“Heavy”) Johnson patrolling the outfield they won pennants in 1923, 1924, and 1925. In the latter two years, the team played in the first two Colored World Series (both against Hilldale). With Mendez picking up two wins, including the clincher, they won the first of the two in 1924, dropping the ’25 struggle. Mid-1923 saw Mendez take over the managerial reins for the team. He held the job through the final pennant year of 1925.

Mendez retired after the 1926 season and died in Cuba in 1928 of bronchopneumonia. He still holds the Cuban League record for winning percentage among pitchers. In 2006 he was elected to the Hall of Fame. The Cuban Hall of Fame called him in 1939.

As with other Negro League players of the era, his statistics are all over the place. Baseball Reference.com shows him with 27 wins and 13 loses, all with the Monarchs. Seamheads gives him a 135-58 record over a career from 1907 through 1925. The BR.com ERA is 3.52, while Seamheads has it at 2.16. Either set of numbers shows Mendez as a superior pitcher who was a star in both Cuba and the US Negro Leagues.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sad Story of Dobie Moore

February 23, 2016
Dobie Moore with Kansas City

Dobie Moore with Kansas City

Baseball is full of those kinds of stories that soar with victory and with perseverance in the face of adversity. Unfortunately there are also stories of foolishness and of just plain bad luck. Then there are tragic stories. The tale of Dobie Moore falls somewhere in the latter set.

Walter Moore was born in Georgia. That’s about all we know for sure about it. Dates of his birth range from 1893 to 1897 with a consensus building around 1896. The location is also obscure, although Atlanta seems to be the best guess. He was illiterate but a good ball player. In 1916 he joined the 25th Infantry Wreckers in Hawaii, the premier black military service team of the era. They were good, winning the island championship several times. By the end of World War I, the Wreckers were in Arizona and played a series of games against a barnstorming team of big leaguers that was led by Casey Stengel. Impressed with the Wreckers, Stengel got in touch with J.L. Wilkinson, owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, and touted several of the Wreckers, including Moore, for Wilkinson’s team.

In 1920 Moore, by now called Dobie (and I’ve been utterly unable to find the origin of the nickname), left the US Army and became the primary shortstop for the Monarchs, one of the founding teams of the Negro National League. He was good from the beginning. Between 1920 and 1925 he never hit below .308. All of Moore’s statistics are from BBREF’s BR Bullpen which seems to get its stats from the information compiled in Shades of Glory, the book written to accompany the 2006 Hall of Fame election of Negro Leaguers.

In 1924, the first Negro World Series was held. The Monarchs represented the Negro National League against Hilldale of the Eastern Colored League. Moore hit .300 with 12 hits in 40 at bats (these stats from SABR) and Kansas City won the Series. They repeated as NNL winners in 1925 but lost a rematch with Hilldale. Moore hit .364 with eight hits, including a double and a triple.

In 1926 he began the season with Kansas City, hitting over .400 in 15 games. Then tragedy struck. There are conflicting stories about exactly what happened, but Moore was shot in the leg by a woman. There is no consensus as to her relationship with Moore. Some say she was his girlfriend, others a hooker, some state she was both. Some indicate he was shot in the leg, then tried to jump off a balcony (to escape another shot) and did further damage to his wounded leg. Whatever happened exactly, he suffered multiple fractures (one source says six) in his leg. It healed poorly and his Negro League career was over. He played a little semi-pro ball, but could never get back to the highest level.

He seems to have disappeared at that point. Some sources indicate he died as early as 1943 in Detroit, but I found a reference to him being held up in an armed robbery in 1948. After that there is no firm date for his death (although the latest date I saw speculated was in the 1960s).

So how good was Dobie Moore? To begin to answer that we have to recognize he was done by at most age 33 (and probably closer to age 30) so he has a shortened career. BBREF stats are available for 1920-1926. They show him with career numbers of a .348 average, .520 slugging percentage, 363 runs, 657 hits, 35 home runs, 308 RBIs, 56 stolen bases, and 114 walks in 470 documented games. The chart gives stats averaged for a 162 game season that gives him 125 runs, 226 hits, 41 doubles, 18 triples, 12 home runs, 106 RBIs, 19 stolen bases, and 39 walks a season. The stats are, as usual, incomplete so it is impossible to judge the totality of his career.

Moore was one of the players included in the 2006 Hall of Fame special election list. He failed to receive enough votes for enshrinement in Cooperstown. His career, along with other Negro Leaguers, is ultimately tragic because of the prevailing segregation of the era, but for Moore there is the further tragedy of losing his career to a shooting.

 

The Wreckers

May 14, 2015
The 1916 25th Infantry Wreckers

The 1916 25th Infantry Wreckers

There are a lot of reasons people join the Army. Some are drafted, some patriotic. Some enjoy the lifestyle, some understand they need the self-discipline the military provides. Some are just looking for an assured three hots and a cot. If you could play baseball, you could also practice your craft for the unit team. Between 1914 and 1920 one of the best unit teams ever played for the US Army. They were the segregated 25th Infantry Wreckers.

In 1914 the US Army was anticipating expansion in case of American entry into World War I. The 25th Infantry was a segregated unit stationed in Hawaii (Schofield Barracks). It had been around for a while and used the prospects of its baseball team as a recruiting tool. That worked well. By the late 19-teens they’d established a first-rate team that was dominate on the islands and could also dominate barnstorming teams and Minor League outfits.

In 1914 they began play in the Post League, a military league for the various Hawaiian armed forces bases. There were four teams, one Asian, one Portuguese, one Chinese, and the Wreckers. The 25th finished first easily. Between 1914 and 1918 they finished first by more than 10 games every year. They also dominated Pacific Coast League teams who barnstormed through the islands. In 1918 the 25th was transferred to Arizona (Camp Little) where they continued their winning ways, this time dominating Southwest teams.

The team got its big chance in 1919 when later Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel led a team of barnstorming Major Leaguers through the West. They took on the Wreckers and Stengel was impressed (there seems to be no exact records of the games played between the two teams, but apparently the Wreckers won at least some). Stengel approached J.L. Wilkinson the white owner of the All Nations team, a segregated ball team playing in the Midwest, with a recommendation he look at several of the players on the Wreckers. Wilkinson, who was about to make his All Nations into the kernel of the Kansas City Monarchs and join the Negro National League did so. He was impressed enough to sign six Wreckers to contracts with the Monarchs upon their discharge. A number of other Negro League teams followed suit and by 1921 16 Wreckers were now playing in the Negro Leagues. It finished the Wreckers as a force to be reckoned with in military and amateur baseball.

Who, you ask, were these guys? The list is a litany of great players in the early Negro Leagues. Bullet Joe Rogan and Andy Cooper are in the Hall of Fame. A case can be made that Heavy Johnson and Dobie Moore should be. Other notable Negro Leaguers who played for the Wreckers include Bob Fagan, Hurley McNair, Moses Herring, William Johnson, Lemuel Hawkins, and Dayton Marcus. Rogan, McNair, Fagan, Moore, and Hawkins became stalwarts on the Monarchs teams that dominated the earliest years of the Negro National League.

It was a formidable roster and a formidable team. Arguably, it is the greatest amateur team ever assembled. I’ve been searching for info on them for a long time now and finally found it. I normally wait for things like this for Black History month in February, but I wanted to get it to you as soon as I could.

 

The Old Perfessor

May 4, 2015
Ole Case

Ole Case

Baseball is full of men who made a difference. There are heroes. There are villains. There are men who rose to the occasion and men who failed to rise to the occasion. All of them are interesting in some way or other. But to me the most fascinating man to ever appear in a baseball uniform is, with suitable apologies to Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel.

Ask most people what they know about Casey Stengel and you’ll draw a blank. It’s been a while, after all. But to a baseball fan you’ll generally get a nod of recognition. Usually they know about his stint managing the Yankees, sometimes they know he was the first manager of the Mets. At that point most baseball fans come up short.

They don’t know that Stengel was a pretty fair player long before he became a manager. He played from 1912 through 1925 with Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, all in the National League. That’s a little surprising since he rose to his greatest fame in the American League. He played the outfield (mostly in right) and was pretty good at it. He led the NL in a couple of fielding categories a few times. He was also a good hitter with a career triple slash line of .284/.356/.410/.766 (OPS+ of 120). He played more than 135 games once (1917), led the NL in OBP once (1914), and settled in for much of his career as the fourth outfielder. He hit 60 home runs (peaking at 9), 535 RBIs (peak of 73), stole some bases (he had 19 twice), and ended up with a BBREF WAR of 20.1 (hitting 3.0 twice).

He was better in the World Series. He played in three: 1916, 1922, and 1923. His team won the middle one. He hit .393 with and OBP of ..469, a slugging percentage of .607, and an OPS of 1.076. He scored five runs, had two home runs (both in 1923), the more famous of the two an inside the park job. There were four RBIs and he did so well in 1923 that one writer summed up the Series as “Yankees 4, Stengel 2 (He’d had the key hit in both Giants wins).

After retirement he coached and managed. His stints at Brooklyn (1934-36) and Boston (1938-43) were less than stellar (he never finished higher than fifth), but he gained a reputation as a knowledgeable baseball man who, if given a good team, could win. He got the chance in 1949. The New York Yankees finished third in 1948 (two games back and 2.5 because of a playoff game) and dumped manager Bucky Harris who’d won it all in 1947 (don’t ask).
Stengel was manager of the Oakland AAA team which won three consecutive pennants. He was picked to take over from Harris. Of course you know he proceeded to lead the Yanks to five consecutive pennants and five World Series championships. Then, after taking a year off to let Cleveland win a pennant (and hash a World Series), he led the Yanks to four more consecutive pennants and two World Series championships. In 1959 he let Chicago win the AL (and again blow the Series), then had one last pennant winner in 1960. It was an astounding record. In 12 years he’d won seven World Series’, three more pennants, finished second once, and third the other time.

After the 1960 Series the Yankees “retired” him. They said he was too old at 70. He responded that he’d “never make that mistake again.” He took 1961 off, then hooked up with the fledgling Mets in 1962. They were an expansion team and absolutely awful. He stayed with them into 1965, never finishing anywhere but last. After retirement he made the Hall of Fame in 1966 and died in 1975 as one of the most acclaimed men in baseball history.

Stengel was very quotable. There are a couple dozen quotes from him that have become famous, at least to baseball fans. He was also known for his mangled use of the English language. Sometimes it was known simply as “Stengelese” and a number of writers and players had trouble figuring out what he’d said.

Lesser known is the fact that he played in the Cuban-American Major League Series in 1913. This was a series of games between an American Major League team and some Cuban League teams. It’s important because the Cuban League was integrated. While managing the Yankees, Stengel presided over the integration of the team. He’d already been familiar with Negro League baseball when he was in Kansas City (where he grew up and the origin of the “Casey” nickname) and had recommended Bullet Joe Rogan (a Hall of Fame pitcher) to J.L. Wilkinson, head of the Kansas City Monarchs. All this made the transition to integrated baseball easier for New York than it did for some other teams (although Stengel apparently didn’t particularly like Elston Howard, the man who integrated the Yanks).

All in all I find Stengel absolutely fascinating. He’s a very good player, a less than successful manager, and then the consummate team leader whose record is stunning. That’s quite a combination.

A handful of my favorite Stengel quotes.

“Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player. It’s staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in.”

“When you are younger you get blamed for crimes you never committed and when you’re older you begin to get credit for virtues you never possessed. It evens itself out.”

” Never make predictions, especially about the future.”

“You have to have a catcher because if you don’t you’re likely to have a lot of passed balls.”

“You have to go broke three times to learn how to make a living.”

And my favorite: “Without losers, where would winners be?”

God love that man.

 

The First Negro League World Series

February 13, 2012

The concept of a championship game, or series of games, isn’t new. It goes back in baseball into the 1880s when the National League and American Association squared off in a series of games that were as much exhibition as serious. The modern World Series comes out of this same desire to see the best two teams face off one last time (or for a first time as the case may be). Black baseball had its own segregated versions of the same thing dating back to around 1910. But with the establishment of, first, the Negro National League, and then the Eastern Colored League in the early 1920s, something like a black version of the World Series could be contested. The first of those was 1924. Some baseball scholars maintain it was also the best of the lot.

Winners of the Negro National League, the Kansas City Monarchs featured decent hitting to go along with great pitching. Future Hall of Fame inductees Joe Rogan and Jose Mendez were on the mound. The infield included Nate Allen, who would still be around for the 1942 Negro League World Series, and Dobie Moore. Heavy Johnson, all 250 pounds of him, was in left field. Mendez did double duty as the manager and the team was owned by J.L. Wilkinson.

The Hilldale Daisies were winners of the new Eastern Colored League (formed in 1923). The owner was Ed Bolden with second baseman Frank Warfield managing. The team included Hall of Fame catchers Louis Santop and Biz Mackey, infielders Judy Johnson (also a Hall of Fame player) and Tank Carr, with Clint Thomas in left field. Nip Winters was their star pitcher. It was to be a best of nine series.

Opening game, 1924 Negro League World Series

Above is a photo of the opening ceremonies of the 1924 Negro League World Series. It’s a wonderful photo of some truly great players. The Monarchs are the team to the right of the photo. The fifth person from the left (fourth in Monarchs uniform) is Heavy Johnson, Rogan is beside him, Newt Allen next, and Mendez beside Allen. Of the men in the middle in the suits, Wilkinson is the man on the left, Bolden on the right. Rube Foster is to Bolden’s right and Alex Pompez is to Foster’s right. Next to Bolden is Louis Santop, the first of the Daisies. Winters is in uniform beside Santop. Carr is three to the left of Winters, and Judy Johnson second from Carr’s left. Biz Mackey is second from Johnson’s left Manager Warfield is the next to last man in uniform on the left side of the photo. You can click on the photo to get a bit better picture.

Games one through three were to be held in Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. However, game three was held on a Sunday. Because of Pennsylvania blue laws the game was played in Baltimore. Games four through six were to be in Kansas City, with the final three games played in Chicago, a neutral site and Rube Foster’s current home town (he was born in Texas but lived in Chicago).

 Game one was a 6-1 affair won by Kansas City. In the sixth inning, Warfield booted a ball allowing two runs to score. Three more errors by pitcher Phil Cockrell brought the damage to five runs. The Monarchs tacked on another run in the top of the ninth. Then with two out, Rogan gave up a pair of runs to reach the final score. Game two saw Hilldale even the series with an 11-0 explosion. Winters gave up four singles, none bunched, and the Daisies scored five runs in the first, and two each in the second and third innings  to blow the game open. Game three was a 6-6 tie. With the score tied going into the ninth, both teams put up one run, then both scored one in the twelfth. The Monarchs committed five errors, two leading to runs, Mackey was intentionally walked three times (wonder how often that happens?), and the game was called because of darkness after 13 innings. The next day the game was replayed with Hilldale winning 4-3. With the score tied in the bottom of the ninth, Kansas City pitcher Cliff Bell walked consecutive batters, then back-to-back errors brought in the winning run. 

Game four shifted to Kansas City. Hilldale went ahead in the series at 3-1 with a 5-2 win. The Monarchs got two runs in the first. Joe Rogan went into the top of the ninth ahead 2-1. With two on Judy Johnson slammed a three-run inside-the-park home run to put the Daisies ahead. Winters shut down 25 of the last 26 hitters he faced to dominate after the first inning. Game five saw Kansas City score four runs in the first, lose the lead in the third, retake the lead in the fourth, then see Hilldale tie it up again in the sixth. In the bottom of the eighth with one on, outfielder George Sweatt tripled in the winning run.  The final game in Kansas City went 12 innings. Rogan, playing second rather than pitching, had three singles, the last of which drove in the winning run. Winters pitched the entire 12 innings for Hilldale. 

Game seven (the eighth played because of the tie) moved to Chicago with the teams tied 3-3. It became one of the most famous of all Negro League games. For five innings the game was a scoreless pitchers duel with Rogan pitching against Rube Currie. Hilldale broke through for a single run in both the sixth and seventh innings.  The bottom of the ninth became famous. With one out and a run in, Rogan beat out a slow roller to short that Mackey, playing third because of an injury, failed to break on (Mackey had played a lot of short when Santop was behind the plate so it wasn’t like he’d never been out there before.). Moore singled off Judy Johnson’s glove (Johnson was at short), putting runners at the corner. Frank Duncan raised a foul pop which Santop proceeded to drop. Given new life, Duncan hit a single through Mackey’s legs that scored both Rogan and Moore giving the Monarchs a 3-2 win. After the game Manager Warfield publicly called out Santop blaming him for the loss (like Santop had put Rogan and Moore on base). Game eight was the next day, with Winters winning his third game for Hilldale as the Daisies evened the Series at 4 games apiece. Winters gave up two early runs, then Hilldale tied it in the fifth, went ahead in the top of the eighth, then saw the Monarchs tie it again in the bottom of the eighth. In the top of the ninth, the Daisies picked up two more runs, including a big hit by previous day’s goat, Santop. Winters shut down Kansas City in the bottom of the ninth to set up a decisive game nine (10 counting the tie). The final game was played Monday, October 20th. For seven and a half innings the pitchers, Jose Mendez and Scrip Lee, were close to unhittable. In the bottom of the eighth, Hilldale pitcher Lee tired and Kansas City pushed across five runs, Mendez scoring a key one, to take a 5-0 lead. Mendez shut out the Daisies in the ninth and Kansas City claimed the first Negro League World Series title. 

It was a heck of a series and deserves a few comments. 1.) Santop was made the goat of the Series because of his error. Of course the loss put Hilldale down one with two to play. Had they won the game they would have been up one with two to play. Who knows what would have happened in game eight if the Monarchs were down. Besides, it’s not like Santop cost the Daisies any of their other four losses. It could be argued that Warfield was the goat because he didn’t pull Lee when he tired in game nine. 2.) Because there was concern that the umpires in the Series might be biased, the leagues agreed to used four white umpires from the Minor Leagues during the Series. There were no complaints (beyond a standard “What? Are you blind?” kind of gripe) about the umpiring. 3.) The winner’s share worked out to $307.96 per player and the loser’s share was $193.22. I checked and the 1924 white World Series winning players (Washington) received $5,959.64 and the losers (New York) got $3, 820.29. 4.) Statistically, Winters was 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA and 21 strikeouts. Rogan was 2-1 with a 2.57 ERA and hit .325 for the Series. Mendez was 2-0 with an ERA of just 1.42. Among hitters, Judy Johnson managed .365 with a Series leading seven RBIs. There were 38 total errors over the 10 games. 

The NNL and ECL continued to play a season ending World Series through 1927. None of the others lived up to the hype or the play of the first. There was, however, a measure of justice, or at least revenge, in the 1925 Series. The same two teams squared off again. This time Hilldale beat the Monarchs five games to one. It was the only Series the ECL team won (In case you’re curious, the Chicago American Giants won the other two 1920s Series’ over the Bacharach Giants).

The White Guy

February 7, 2012

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.

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.