In baseball history, there has never been anything quite like Effa Manley. She ran a team, ran it well, and became a star in her own right. Other women owned baseball teams, but Effa Manley actually ran hers. She was controversial, brash, beautiful, and understood baseball.
She was born in Philadelphia in 1897 (or 1900, depending on who you believe). There are three stories about her background. One insists she was white, the second that she was black, and the third contends she was of mixed race. In a 1973 interview, she indicated that she was white, but the other stories persist. Whichever was true, Manley identified with black America.
There are as many tales of what happened to her between 1897 and 1935 as there are stories of her racial makeup. Some of them may even be true. What is certain is that she worked in the millinery business in New York becoming a baseball fan in general, and a Yankees fan specifically. In 1935 she married Abe Manley, a black entrepeneur (again, there are conflicting stories about where he got his money). They formed the Brooklyn Eagles that same year. According to Manley the name came from wanting the team to fly high, but it should be pointed out that the major black newspaper in the area was the Brooklyn Eagle.
In 1936 the team moved to New Jersey as the Newark Eagles. From the beginning, Effa Manley ran the team, although Abe was co-owner and at least somewhat responsible for hirings and firings. She made player and contract decisions, was responsible for scheduling and promotions. She worked to improve the quality of play in the Negro National League and insisted that contracts be honored by all teams. On the field she understood the game and could make player and management decisions by simply watching the game. There are stories that she even called plays by crossing and uncrossing her legs to indicate a bunt.
Socially, she was active in the community, serving as treasurer of the local NAACP chapter, organizing a boycott of Harlem stores that refused to hire black clerks (as usual, she won), and holding an anti-lynching day at the ballpark. On a personal level, she became somewhat notorious, being linked publically with a number of her players, especially pitcher Terris McDuffie. One story goes that if she wanted her husband to get rid of a player, she’d start a rumor she was having a fling with the player and within a week he’d be gone. Don’t know if it’s true, but it’s too good a story to not pass along.
In 1946, the Eagles won the Negro League World Series, besting the Kansas City Monarchs. It was a team consisting of Hall of Famers Leon Day, Monte Irvin, and Larry Doby. All were players Manley pushed to aquire. It was the high point in her team’s history.
By 1947, the Negro Leagues were beginning to lose players to the white Major Leagues. Manley’s Eagles suffered the loss of both Irvin and Doby. Within a couple of years, newly found pitcher Don Newcombe was gone also. Eagles attendance suffered badly, dropping from 120,000 in 1946 to 57,000 in 1948, a drop of 52.5%. The team couldn’t sustain that kind of loss.
Manley seems to have realized that integration of white leagues was killing black baseball. She demanded that Major League teams honor Negro League contracts, that raiding stop, and that Negro League teams be compensated for the loss of players to the Majors. She was, by and large, ignored (Bill Veeck of Cleveland being an exception). By 1947 the losses were terminal and the Manley’s sold the Eagles. The team folded after the 1948 season.
In retirement, Manley remained active in the community and continued to promote baseball and agitate for recognition of black baseball. She died in April 1981 (Abe died in 1952). In 2006, a special committee designed to study the Negro Leagues elected her to baseball’s Hall of Fame, the sole woman enshrined. Her plaque in Cooperstown reads in part “tireless crusader in the civil rights movement who earned the respect of her players and fellow owners.” I have a feeling she would have liked that.