Black Diamond

The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues

By Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick McKissack, Jr.

New York: Scholastic Inc. (paperback) 1998

Last winter I was working on a story for the Journal, “Who Was Piper Davis?”. I picked up some books at the Watertown Library and then went across the street to Town Hall Shoe Repair. While I was in there joking with Mr. Sarkisian, another customer noticed the books I was carrying. “What are those for? “ he asked. I explained that I was researching an article about Piper Davis and the Negro Leagues. “I know something about that,” he said. “Here’s my card. Give me a call if you want to talk about it.”

He was Captain Ducksworth of the Salvation Army. To make a long story short, we were never able to hook up. One of us was either not around or on our way out the door. This Fall I sent him a note, along with a donation in the Society’s name for the good work the Salvation Army was doing in New York. Here’s his reply:

Salvation Army
Harbor Light Center
Boston, Massachusetts

November 15, 2001

Greetings:

Please allow me to use this correspondance to thank you for your contribution to the Salvation Army for our work at Ground Zero. I had the privilege along with several other Salvation Army Officers from the Massachusetts area to spend two weeks at ground zero immediately following the attack of September 11, 2001. Without a doubt, it has changed my life!

Enclosed with the correspondence I am forwarding you several recent editions of Salvation Army publications referencing our work at ground zero. Again, I say thank you for your contribution.

Moving on to a personal note, I clearly recall our meeting last winter. Not long after our brief telephone conversations I visited the city of Kansas City MO. While there, I had the opportunity to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. I picked up the book, “Black Diamond” to give to you (I assumed you had “Only the Ball Was White”), but had lost your address. Therefore, please accept this token as an expression of my humanity.

Hopefully we can reopen the lines of communication.

I remain,

A Covenant brother

Captain J. Ducksworth


The book Capt. Ducksworth sent me is a small paperback by the McKissacks, a mother-and-son writing team. It is a thorough account of the rise and fall of black baseball, with interesting portraits of figures both early and late, like Rube Foster, “the Father of Black Baseball.” What we commonly think of as Negro League baseball begins with Foster’s Negro National League in 1920, and ends about 30 years later with the integration of the Major Leagues. But there is a whole other world of black baseball beyond that, and this book gives the wider picture.

One of the most successful black clubs of the late 1800’s was the Cuban Giants of Trenton, N.J. None of its players were really Cuban, but at the time Cubans were more “acceptable” than African-Americans. They played in the Middle States League, then the Connecticut State League. Some leagues would allow entire black teams, but not individual blacks on integrated clubs. After those leagues folded, the Cuban Giants barnstormed and spawned a host of imitators such as the Lincoln Giants and the Cuban X Giants.

You may have heard of a team called the Page Fence Giants. This book contains a startling picture of the team, in front of a fence, standing and sitting on rolls of wire fencing! You get the idea who was sponsoring the club. It was led by Bud Fowler, who grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y. but is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Fowler played in several minor leagues — he led the Western League in triples in 1886, and later pitched for the Lynn Live Oaks in the International League. But no major league club would give him a shot. The Sporting News wrote, “With his splendid abilities he would long ago have been on some good ball club had his skin been white instead of black… Those who know say there is no better second baseman in the country.”

The next team Fowler organized was called the All-American Black Tourists. The McKissacks write, “They arrived wearing full dress suits, top hats, and silk umbrellas. In spite of what they had to do to draw a crowd, the players on these teams were excellent athletes. Contrary to the way they were portrayed in newspapers and journals, black players were no clowns or mediocre competitors. They were as good as any playing the game at the time. What they were doing was making the most of a bad situation.”

This is a sensitive issue which followed black ballplayers and black leagues right down through history. The Indianapolis Clowns were one of the last surviving Negro teams, and they had a comedy act that featured “Goose” Tatum, later famous with the Harlem Globetrotters. But they could also play straight baseball. Henry Aaron was an infielder for the Clowns before the Boston Braves purchased his contract.

The showmanship side of the Negro Leagues was one factor that led to a lack of respect from sanctimonious whites. Other charges were that numbers racketeers controlled many teams; that records weren’t well-kept; and that there was a lot of barnstorming outside of league play.

Of course, one could point out that white baseball has always had its share of clowns, right down to Max Patkin and the San Diego Chicken. Many white teams were owned by race-horse owners, which is just a different form of gambling. If box scores weren’t always kept, it was because white newspapers didn’t cover the games. And everybody — Babe Ruth included — barnstormed in the old days, including whole major league teams (until forbidden by Judge Landis).

We should always keep in mind that in business terms the Negro Leagues were a competitor of Major League Baseball. The flip side of baseball’s integration was the destruction of the Negro Leagues. The Kansas City Monarchs received not a penny for Jackie Robinson’s contract. Effa Manley (left) was the black

woman who ran the Newark Eagles (Financed by her husband Abe, a numbers tycoon.) When Branch Rickey tried to sign a Newark player , he ran into conflict with Effa Manley. “He had taken [Don} Newcombe without saying one word to me,” she said. “Now he was coming back for more. I just wouldn’t take it. I decided to fight back.”

Rickey wouldn’t negotiate with Negro League clubs, claiming they were not legitimate. She threatened to sue. Rickey dropped the player and word got into the press that Mrs. Manley was standing in the way of her players’ progress. She stood firm and demanded compensation. Bill Veeck of the Cleveland Indians finally did negotiate with the Manleys, and paid $15,000 for Larry Doby’s contract. She said, “It would have been $100,000 if we’d been a white team.” Effa and her husband Abe gave up the Newark club after 1948. Without their stars, one by one the Negro League ballclubs went out of business.

By the way, Bill James has included Negro League players in his New Baseball Historical Abstract, and reportedly he now ranks Oscar Charleston as the 4th best player of all time (I haven't seen the book yet.) To bring you up to date, Oscar Charleston was born in Indianapolis in 1896, served in the Army in the Phillipines, and then began his playing career with the Indianapolis ABC's and the Hilldale Club. He played several positions, but was at his best in the outfield. On offense he combined speed with great power. Charleston had a 27-year career in the Negro Leagues, including 10 as a player-manager. It was he who recommended Roy Campanella to the Dodgers. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976.

Black Diamond is packed with photographs, and in the back there is a section with player profiles, a Hall of Fame List, a time line, and a bibliography. It is listed as A Corretta Scott King Honor Book and A Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies. But it is not written in a childish way, and it’s a good starting-off place for adults who are just being introduced to the subject.

-Reviewed by David Nevard