Tag Archives: Kennesaw Mountain Landis

“Negro Baseball is Staggering about Grotesquely on its Last Legs”

15 Feb

Lucius “Melancholy” Jones, after a college football and basketball career at Clark College—now Clark Atlanta University—served as sports editor for several black newspapers, wrote for The Pittsburgh Courier and the Southern Newspaper Syndicate which served many black newspapers across the country.

Jones

In 1941, he enumerated the “frailties of Negro baseball,” which were:

“1. Selfish, dishonest, and insecure owners and higher ups;

  2. Absence of records, lack of publicity, failure to give the fans their money’s worth; and

  3. Trampish tendencies, jumping of clubs, moral indecency, and respect of a baseball contract as more than a piece of paper.”

Satchel Paige, “rated by the immortal Grover Cleveland Alexander as one of the five greatest pitchers of all time, regardless of race, creed, or color and declare by Joe DiMaggio to be the best pitcher he ever batted against…should be the idol of his race; the pride of colored kids everywhere,” he said

But, instead, “(T)he average Negro boy knows 10 times as much about Joe DiMaggio as he does about Oscar Charleston or Turkey Stearns; 10 times as much about Bob Feller as he does Paige or Hilton Smith; 10 times as much about Lou Gehrig as he ever knew about Buck Leonard or Red Moore; and the average colored fan knows the standings of every club in the white major leagues but hasn’t the faintest idea as to just which of the Negro clubs is in first place. Published standings, game-to-game box scores, and official scoring are more or less mythical.”

Paige

Paige had in 1941, appeared with four teams, including organizations “in both of the Negro major leagues,” and as a result “of his trampish tendency of playing with so many clubs.” And, despite the fact the was “a surprisingly clean liver…his utter lack of respect for a baseball contract,” resulted in him lacking the type of following enjoyed by white players.

Jones said:

“But what is more remarkable than Paige’s pitching for four different clubs in a season is just three months old at this writing is the fact that this strange thing has been done with approval of officials of both leagues—or so it would seem, because instead of handling him severally for his trampish practices which automatically amount to ineligibility went to the other extreme, removing the bar against his participation in the annual East-West Classic.”

Both leagues required “overhauling,” because each stood “for little more than personal gain, and even in this selfish motive are not together. There is continuous bickering between” the two leagues’ officials.

Negro League baseball was, according to Jones, in such precarious shape because of its lack of organization that if steps were not taken to shore up the “tottering empire,” it would be “doomed to oblivion.” Jones cited a popular vaudeville comedian and actor’s signature bit as an analogy:

“Negro baseball is staggering about grotesquely on its last legs like a Leon Errol. Most of us fear for the worst.”

Leon Errol

Jones’ regular rancor directed at the magnates of black baseball was continuous and based on his conclusion that:

“White major league baseball is good. The white baseball loops are better organized and better patronized than the colored leagues. But the brand of ball played in those white circuits is not superior to that played by the best Negro teams.”

Jones, like Wendell Smith, his colleague at The Pittsburgh Courier continued calling for an “overhauling” of the Negro Leagues while at the same time pushing for integration in baseball. Jones outlined the “three important steps” to successfully integrate the game:

“1. Crystallization of a favorable public sentiment; 2. Numerous experimental contests between white and Negro stars of major league caliber in the larger cities where mass reaction will be greatest; and 3. attainment of total endorsement from Commissioner Kennesaw M. Landis and organized baseball as an institution.”

Jones went on to become the New Orleans editor for The Courier and  the first black host of a radio sportscast on a white station in the deep south when he hosted a show for 16 weeks on WDSU-AM in New Orleans in 1949—he also helped bring the first sports telecast in the deep south featuring two black teams to WDSU-TV on April 30, 1950 when the station aired a game between the Kansas City Monarchs and the New York Cubans with Jones presenting “between inning highlights.”

He also was a co-founder—along with his former Clark College teammate and fellow Courier writer Ric Roberts—of Atlanta’s “the 100% Wrong Club” which was established for the purpose of recognizing black collegiate athletes.

Jones was just 47 years old when he died in 1952.

“I mentioned Satchel and Josh and Cool Papa, I told Him he was Missing the boat”

18 May

After Heywood Broun’s remarks at the 1933 Baseball Writers Association dinner about integrating the game, The Pittsburgh Courier initiated a campaign to push the issue.  Despite some support inside baseball and from well-known newspapermen, the effort fell flat by opening day.

That summer, after the first East-West Game—won by the West All-Stars 11 to 7—at Comiskey Park, Henry L. Farrell of The Chicago Daily News suggested several “(M)ajor league club owners who are now on their knees might have their prayers answered,” by signing some the Negro League stars.

In the fall, The Chicago Defender briefly picked up the mantle from The Courier.  The paper asked their readers:

“How would you like to see the great baseball players of the Race performing in the major leagues? Wouldn’t you like to see Willie Foster, Satchel Paige and (Sam) Streeter pitch to Babe Ruth?”

If so:

“Sit down and write K.M. Landis commissioner of baseball, 333 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago.”

The following week, the paper reported that Landis’ office had refused to comment.  When baseball’s winter meetings commenced in Chicago in December, The Defender promised readers that the letters they had sent:

“(A)re not being passed on lightly as many suggested would be the case.  On the contrary, the club owners are downright concerned and from the inside word leaked out that some action would be taken.”

The optimism was tempered later that week when their reporter was barred from covering a meeting where he was told “vital points were discussed.”  The Defender reporter was told no newspapermen would be admitted, but:

“That sinister moves were being made against your author’s admission became a certainty when a well-known writer from one of the downtown papers came along, gave the high sign and was admitted.”

When 1933 came to a close, integration was no closer to being a reality than it was 11 months earlier as Broun stood to deliver his remarks to the baseball writers.

Four years later, Sam Lacy from The Baltimore Afro-American met with Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith in an attempt to revive the subject:

“I mentioned Satchel and Josh and Cool Papa, I told him he was missing the boat.”

Sam Lacy

Sam Lacy

Griffith, he said, told him the timing was wrong, and that Southern-born players would not accept integration.

The next major effort came in 1939.

Political support had generally been limited to socialist and communist organizations—the Young Communist League spent the summer of ’39 gathering signatures to present to Commissioner Landis.  But, in July of that year, the Illinois House of Representatives adopted a resolution which read in part:

“Resolved, by the House of Representatives of the Sixty-first General Assembly.  That the owners of all professional baseball teams in the United States, both in the major and minor leagues be strongly urged to give baseball players of the colored race the same opportunity of becoming players on their respective teams as is accorded to such players of the white race.”

Another push came from Pittsburgh as well.

Wendell Smith, who was playing baseball at West Virginia State College when Broun made his speech in 1933, was now a reporter for The Courier. In July, he promised readers:

“The most exclusive, startling and revealing expose, of the attitude of the major league players and managers themselves, ever written.”

Wendell Smith

Wendell Smith

Over the course of several weeks Smith asked 40 players and eight managers as they passed through Pittsburgh, “Are Negro ballplayers good enough to ‘crash’ the majors?”

The Courier’s Chester Washington said in a column to introduce the series of articles:

“One of the major reasons why Mr. Smith’s discovery is so revolutionary is that the club owners, in trying to pass the buck, have blamed the ban on the players themselves.  They claimed that the injection of colored stars into the clubs would bring about friction and dissention… (Smith) practically disproves this contention.

“Fearlessly buttonholing the managers and outstanding players of all the National League clubs, Mr. Smith received scores of testimonials which should be a revelation to the owners.”

A sampling of the statements collected by Smith:

Ernie Lombardi, Cincinnati Reds:  “(Satchel) Paige is as good as (Dizzy) Dean.”

Johnny Vander Meer, Cincinnati Reds:  “I wouldn’t object.”

James “Doc” Prothro, Philadelphia Phillies: “If given permission I would jump at the opportunity to sign up a good Negro ballplayer.”

Leo Durocher, Brooklyn Dodgers:  “(Satchel) Paige, (Bill “Cy”) Perkins, (Mule) Suttles and (Josh) Gibson are good enough to be in the majors right now…I certainly would use a Negro ballplayer if the bosses said it was all right.”

Gabby Hartnett, Chicago Cubs:  “I am sure that if we were given permission to use them, there would be a mad scramble between managers to sign them.”

Gabby Hartnett

Gabby Hartnett

Dizzy Dean, Chicago Cubs: “If some of the colored players I’ve played against were given a chance to play in the majors they’d be stars as soon as they joined up.”

Pepper Martin, St. Louis Cardinals: “Some of the big league players would object, but on the whole I think they would be accepted.”

Pie Traynor, Pittsburgh Pirates: “believe me when I say I have seen countless numbers of Negro ball players who could have made the grade in the majors.  Only their color kept them out.  If given permission, I would certainly use a Negro player who had the ability.”

Honus Wagner, Pittsburgh Pirates:  “Yes, down through the years I have seen any number of Negro players who should have been in big league baseball.”

Over the next five years, Smith would interview more than 150 additional major leaguers, who would echo the sentiments of his original 40, keeping the pressure on professional baseball to desegregate.

“If Baseball is really the National Game let the Club Owners go out and prove it”

4 May

Haywood Broun, columnist for The New York World-Telegram, shook up the annual Baseball Writers Association dinner in February of 1933.  The Pittsburgh Courier said Broun “struck out boldly in advocacy of admitting Negroes to the charmed circle of big leagues.”

Heywood Campbell Broun

Heywood Broun

Broun said (and later wrote in The World-Telegram):

“I can see no reason why Negroes should not come into the National and American Leagues.

“Why in the name of fair play and gate receipts should professional baseball be so exclusive?”

[…]

“The introduction of a few star Negro ball players would do a great deal to revivify interest in the big leagues.  It would attract a number of colored rooters. And it would be a fair and square thing.  If baseball is really the national game let the club owners go out and prove it.”

Jimmy Powers of The New York Daily News said he polled the dinner guests after Broun’s remarks:

“I made an informal tour around the tables asking club owners and players their reactions to Broun’s little talk.  I was amazed at the sentiment in favor of the idea.”

Powers claimed that Yankees owner Jacob Rupert, St. Louis Cardinals General Manager Branch Rickey, and Babe Ruth were all in support of Broun’s statement.   John McGraw the dinner’s guest of honor—he had resigned as manager of the New Giants the previous summer due to his failing health—was, according to Powers, “The only prominent man present vetoing” the idea.

John McGraw

John McGraw vetoed the idea

 

Salem Tutt Whitney, a prominent star of the black vaudeville circuit, commented on McGraw in the pages of The Chicago Defender:

“John McGraw and his Giants have been the idols of the Colored baseball fans.  Whenever and wherever there had been talk about the color line in major league baseball, the Colored fans were a unit that declared that if John McGraw could have his way there would be no color line.  ‘Didn’t he play (Charlie) Grant at second base on the Giants!’  ‘Look how long he employed a Colored trainer (Ed Mackall)!’”

[…]

 “It is my opinion that if the Colored baseball fans of Harlem are not convinced that Mr. McGraw has nothing more to do with the Giants, there will be a lack of personal color in bleachers and stands at the Giants’ stadium this summer.”

Salem Tutt Whitney

Salem Tutt Whitney

Not content to simply report on Broun’s pitch for integration, Powers made his own:

“I would like to make a case for the colored baseball player.  In football, Duke Slater, Fritz Pollard and Paul Robeson and stars of similar complexion played with and against the cream of Nordic colleges.  Eddie Tolan, Ralph Metcalfe and Phil Edwards have conducted themselves in a gentlemanly—not to mention championship—fashion.  Boxing has known Joe Gans, Sam Langford, Joe Walcott and Tiger Flowers.  There are only three popular sports in which the dark-skinned athletes are snubbed—tennis, golf and baseball.”

The New York Age approved:

“Here’s hoping all the other big white sportswriters have the courage of Jimmy Powers.”

Chester Washington, a sports writer at The Pittsburgh Courier announced that the paper was launching “A symposium of opinion, coming from outstanding figures in baseball circles,” designed to demonstrate a broad coalition of support for integration.

The Courier reported “The first of these statements,” in response to Washington’s outreach the following week—and it was a rather incredible one from John Heydler, president of the National League, who said:

“Beyond the fundamental requirement that a major league player must have unique ability and good character and habits, I do not recall one instance where baseball has allowed either race, creed or color enter into the selection of its players.”

Gerald Nugent “aggressive young owner of the Phillies,” was next to respond to The Courier:

“Nugent calls attention to the fact that no ‘color line’ is drawn on the dollars which are spent by colored and white fans for admissions in the various big-league parks…He further declares that the average colored semi-pro league player is better than his white brother in the same category.”

Support continued to come.  Chicago White Sox President J. Louis Comiskey:

“You can bet your last dime that I’ll never refuse to hire a great athlete simply because he isn’t the same color of some other player on my team if the alleged bar is lifted.”

While Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis did not respond to The Courier, his right-hand man, Leslie O’Connor said “(T)here isn’t any rule which keeps colored players out.”  But, like Heydler, he made the incredible claim that “the subject of Negro ball players had never been brought up,” among the Major League Advisory Council.

Based on the initial responses, William Goldwyn Nunn, The Courier’s managing editor, expressed great, if premature, optimism:

“And the color will be black!

“As sure as the Ides of March are approaching, there’s going to be some added color in the Major Leagues.  AND, THAT COLOR WILL BE BLACK!”

Meanwhile Jimmy Powers quoted Lou Gehrig and Herb Pennock of the Yankees and Frankie Frisch of the Cardinals in The Daily News, all said they were “open-minded,” about the possibility integration.

pennock

Pennock “Open-minded”

 

Two more prominent sportswriters came out in support:  Dan Parker of The New York Daily Mirror, and Gordon Mackay, who had been sports editor of three Philadelphia papers—The Enquirer, The Press and The Public Ledger.

And then, as abruptly as it began, the movement died.

Despite the brief groundswell of support, by the time the major league season opened Alvin J. Moses, another writer for The Courier admonished the papers readers:

“Aren’t you somewhat ashamed of yourselves that you haven’t seen fit to spare the time to flood (the paper) with letters that cry out against these NEGROPHOBES who for more than half a century have kept Negro ballplayers out of league competition?

“The cry of ‘Play Ball, Play Ball, Play Ball?’ is heard today in hundreds of parks the county over, and baseball statisticians have figured to show more than 40,000,000 fans walk past the turnstiles.  But what does that cry mean to you, and you, and you? Well, I’ll tell you—absolutely nothing.”