#Shortstops: The business of the Negro Leagues

Written by: Isabelle Minasian

On Oct. 23, 1945, Jackie Robinson signed a contract with the Montreal Royals, one of the Dodgers’ farm teams. A year-and-a-half later he signed his first major league contract, and just a few days after that he made his debut with the Dodgers and broke baseball’s color barrier.

It was one of the most important sequences in baseball history, and opened the door for many of the game’s greats to finally show off their talents at the major league level.

But these players were not simply waiting around on the sidelines prior to 1947. African Americans had been playing baseball since the beginning of the game’s development, through military, college and industrial teams, as well as barnstorming. In 1920, Rube Foster, along with fellow team owners, created the Negro National League, the first organized league of its kind. Shortly thereafter, rival leagues like the Southern Negro League and the Eastern Colored League formed, and black baseball flourished across the country.

One Negro League team that experienced significant success was the Newark Eagles. Abe and Effa Manley co-owned the Eagles from 1936-1948, with Effa handling the vast majority of the baseball business operations. She was a savvy businesswoman and a staunch advocate for her players, and was deeply dedicated to civil rights.

As baseball began to integrate, the breaking of the color barrier proved to be a double-edged sword for many of the Negro League teams who took great pride in seeing their players sign with major league teams, but who subsequently lost many of their stars – often without warning or discussion from those big league teams.

In April of 1946, Effa began correspondences with Branch Rickey Sr., the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Happy Chandler, the Commissioner of Baseball, in response to the Brooklyn farm club signings of Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella.

Her letter to Rickey is quick to first clarify support of baseball’s integration, noting that “We are intensely interested in colored ballplayers being given fair opportunities in ‘Big League’ baseball…We are proud of Newcombe, and we wish for him a most successful career with The Dodger chain.”

She goes on to clarify: “However we would be even more enthusiastic, if in extending this well merited recognition, you had only done the owners of The Newark Eagles the courtesy of negotiating with us for the services of this valuable player.”

The letter concludes with a request for a conference to “attempt to formulate a mutually agreeable policy to cover any situation in the future when you may desire to secure the services of any of our Newark Eagles players.”

A few weeks later, Manley wrote to Chandler, after apparently failing to receive a response from Rickey, reiterating her belief that “it is most important that some plan can be discussed whereby possible litigation and ill-feeling can be avoided and some orderly procedure established for the drafting or purchase of our players by those teams over which you have authority.”

It took some time, but a few months after Robinson debuted with the Dodgers, Bill Veeck, then-owner of the Cleveland Indians, approached the Eagles about purchasing the contract of Larry Doby.

Effa Manley’s continued advocacy paved the way for fair compensation for Negro League teams, and these letters in the Museum’s collection demonstrate the strength and tenacity of the first woman to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Isabelle Minasian was the digital content specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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