Money's role

October 20, 1994|By Calvin Watkins

KEN BURNS' "Baseball" went further than most such documentaries in examining the strength of the Negro Leagues, however it didn't go far enough.

The public television series typically devoted a great deal of time to the often repeated story of how the major-leagues color barrier was broken. However, less time seemingly was spent on what to me is the more important story that's rarely told: African-American businessmen successfully operated the Negro Leagues for years and managed to wield a great deal of influence despite living in a segregated society that attempted to undermine them at every turn.

Moreover, it was because of these black businessmen's success -- not any humanitarian gesture -- that white, major-league owners decided to integrate.

There were men like Chicago's Andrew "Rube" Foster who started the incredibly successful Negro National League in 1920. Sparked by Rube's success, whites began a competing black league that eventually failed. Owners of the all-white, major-league teams often visited Rube to pick up pointers on managing players.

Men like Rube produced capital that was turned over in the black community several times, helping to create successful black businesses.

With this in mind, Ken Burns didn't examine why we today mostly think of the Negro Leagues as unpaid farm teams for the major leagues, and not successful enterprises on their own.

I'm left pondering how in the rush to integrate the major leagues the black owners didn't demand that they be allowed to purchase at least one major-league team or be given one in exchange for the wealth of talent they brought to the game. In effect, integration killed the Negro Leagues, one of the premier business ventures for black people ever in this country.

According to James A. Riley, author of the "Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues," major-league owners refused to honor contracts between Negro Leagues players and owners. "They said the contracts were not valid," he said.

At least one pair of black owners did get compensation for a player. Abe and Effa Manley, owners of the Newark Eagles, got the New York Giants to pay them for the services of Monte Irvin.

Ironically, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, lauded in many textbooks and documentaries for signing Jackie Robinson, the major league's first black player, had refused to buy out the star outfielder's contract. When the Manleys threatened to sue, Rickey backed off.

If nothing else, that proves the integration of baseball was about money, pure and simple: I didn't learn that from any documentary, but rather from writers who have researched the Negro Leagues.

One chronicler of the Negro Leagues is author and journalist Ralph Wiley who says the black owners should have consolidated several of their franchises and pursued ownership of a major-league franchise. However, he notes that they were discouraged from such pursuits by the black press and black fans who wanted to see the major leagues integrated, even if it was on the white owners' terms.

"They [white owners] didn't make any attempt to negotiate with us," said Dick Powell, a former general manager of the Baltimore Elite Giants, a Negro Leagues team. "I was on the threshold of making a deal with the Dodgers where if they came across a black kid, they would have paid us and the kid to play on our team. We would have been like a farm team to them." However, Mr. Powell said the agreement "never did work out."

Calvin Watkins is an editorial assistant in The Sun's sports department.

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