Neil Lanctot, author of Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution

June 6th, 2004

 

JJM Some of the Negro League player statistics are pretty amazing. For example, Josh Gibson is reputed to have hit .542 one season. How reliable are the Negro League statistics?

NL Unfortunately, the statistics are not reliable. After the games, League statisticians were dependent on the owners or managers to submit their box scores to a central office, where the numbers would be compiled. Often, the statistics were not even submitted, which would skew the results. There are currently ongoing attempts to compile the statistics in a more systematic fashion in hopes of coming up with something more accurate. The difficulty with this, of course, is that we don’t have a box score for every game played, and the box scores we do have may not have all necessary information. As a consequence, I don’t believe we will ever have one hundred percent accurate Negro League statistics, but we do have a better sense of them today than we did in the past.

The inaccuracy of the statistics is extremely frustrating. While I was doing the research for the book, I would often wonder how in the world they could mess up something as essential as statistics? It is such a basic thing in baseball. A major appeal of baseball is statistical comparisons, but because the administration of the Negro Leagues was so weak they never could quite get their act together around this issue. They could never get all League owners on the same page regarding it. By the late forties they were getting a little better, and they made some administrative changes after integration that they should have made much earlier, but the statistics were never really an asset to the League.

In general, the League publicity was never very good. They depended on the black newspapers for publicity but they were often not cooperative with them as far as getting information out to the fans. Many of the black newspapers were frustrated with the Negro Leagues, complaining that they couldn’t get the information they needed. The black sports writer Sam Lacy said at one point that his newspaper offered to pay for the results of the game, and even then they didn’t receive cooperation.

JJM  Regarding the issue of publicity, Gus Greenlee’s publicity agent John Clark said, “The majority (of owners) will not pay 60 cents or one dollar for a scorebook. Nor will they pay to have records kept and transmitted of the game played. Their general conduct is more like first-year sandlot promoters than big league owners.”

NL Yes, and I think that demonstrates how Negro League baseball was in this “in between stage.” The caliber of play was major league, but the administration of the League was almost semiprofessional. Everything was very casual — the scheduling, the compilation of statistics — and very unstructured. Granted, sometimes they were in the semiprofessional baseball world because they would play white semipro teams, but they were a professional league that straddled these two worlds.

JJM This lack of structure really contributed to the demise of the League. The social changes taking place likely would have eliminated the League anyway, but what kept money out of the owners’ pockets and seemed to expedite their demise was that they rarely signed players to contracts. This left them vulnerable to major league teams who could sign players without the need of paying out compensation.

NL  Yes, not signing players was a big mistake. The issue of contracts had been around in the thirties and forties, particularly when some of the foreign teams from the Dominican Republic and Mexico were taking players. While some teams did have contracts, they weren’t even notarized, which meant they didn’t have much legal force. Other teams didn’t use contracts at all, including the Kansas City Monarchs, for whom Jackie Robinson played before Branch Rickey signed him.

I think the reason behind not using contracts was that they felt if they had contracts, other players would find out their value and would likely ask for more money. Also, it was easier to release an unsigned player because they had no legal obligation to him.

JJM  Or if they got hurt……

NL  That’s right, and I think they preferred that kind of non-existent obligation. Of course, as you mentioned, the consequence of this is that when major league teams came calling, Negro League teams took quite a hit. The Monarchs didn’t get a penny for Robinson, nor did the Newark Eagles for Don Newcombe or the Baltimore Elite Giants for Roy Campanella. So, while these players became a cornerstone in the success of the Brooklyn Dodgers during the late forties and fifties, Negro League teams didn’t get a penny for them.

On the other hand, major league baseball did recognize contracts that were in force, although they didn’t pay very much for players under contract. The largest sum paid out for a Negro League player may have been fifteen or twenty thousand dollars — the Newark Eagles got approximately fifteen thousand for Larry Doby, which is about the same the Birmingham Black Barons got for Willie Mays and the Indianapolis Clowns got for Hank Aaron. But that was about what these teams were going to get in that period, and most player sales were considerably less. The Negro Leagues tried to survive on player sales in the late forties and early fifties, and the Kansas City Monarchs were most successful at that. They sold a number of players and were able to keep afloat by developing players for the majors, but it was a difficult battle.

JJM  And any hope the Negro Leagues could have become part of the minor leagues seemed to dwindle with the developing media and how it diminished financial opportunity at that level. There was very little money in it for the owners to pursue the idea of becoming minor league franchises.

NL  Yes, their inclusion in the minor leagues had been the hope at one point during the thirties. In 1937, Negro League Commissioner Ferdinand Morton had actually been in contact with major league baseball about the Negro League being assimilated into the minors as a sort of pathway to integration, but nothing came of it. After integration had occurred, there was a more formal attempt by the Negro Leagues to affiliate with Organized Baseball as a minor league, but they were rejected. If they had been accepted, I doubt that it would have spared them from the problems the white minors were currently facing, but it would probably have put the Negro League in a better position. Being a part of Organized Baseball would have provided them with a little better opportunity for success.

JJM  When was the last Negro League baseball game?

NL  I don’t know that for sure. The last mention of the League that I was able to find during my research was in Jet magazine during the fall of 1963. The Indianapolis Clowns, an all black team that eventually became like the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball, actually continued to tour the country as late as 1984.

JJM  I was pretty astounded by that. After all, the Clowns were known for painting their faces and wearing grass skirts. It is hard to believe this would be accepted as recently as 1984.

NL  I was shocked by that also. In fact, my editor thought it was a typographical error and actually crossed it out. While I guess you could compare the Clowns to the Globetrotters in some ways, they were actually more outlandish. As you say, many of the players were painting their faces and didn’t project themselves in a positive fashion the way the Globetrotters seem to.

JJM  As you mentioned earlier, Hank Aaron played with the Clowns…

NL Yes, that is right. When the Clowns were in the League, some of their players would do comedy routines for the fans before the game or in between innings, but Aaron was not a part of that. He only played with them for a few months but he was tearing the League apart, and the Boston Braves eventually signed him.

JJM Sportswriter Dan Burley wrote, “Negro baseball was so poorly organized and managed that it was an open target for any situation that might produce a threat.” Realistically, given the momentum for integration, would anything have saved Negro League Baseball?

NL  It is possible that they would have been a little stronger had they been better organized, but even a strong, well organized league would have been butting up against all the forces within American society, and it is hard to imagine a segregated league succeeding. Beyond that, they would have fallen victim to the advancing technology, which really made it difficult to compete with major league baseball.

With the advent of integration, many black institutions failed as they outlived their purpose. The black institutions that survived and flourished after World War II were those that had some larger purpose, that were not just standing as a segregated version of a white institution. Black newspapers, for example, did very well in the post-war era because they still had a viewpoint to express. I don’t sense that black fans felt connected to the Negro Leagues once integration of major league baseball occurred. They had served their purpose and society had grown beyond what they could offer.

JJM  Sportswriter Randy Dixon wrote, “I see no reason why anyone should patronize anything just because it is a Negro proposition unless the proposition has enough merit to stand on its own feet.”

NL Yes, and I think what Dixon was referring to in particular was this notion that blacks should support their own enterprises. At one time that was a very powerful ideal — that blacks should support their own businesses even if they have flaws — and the flaws should be ignored. In his statement, Dixon was communicating the viewpoint that blacks shouldn’t support black enterprise forever unless they are valuable to the community. By the late forties, the Negro Leagues had done what they set out to do. Somewhere in the book I quote another sportswriter who comments about how nobody has really looked at the Negro Leagues as anything other than being a vehicle to integration, and we should not hold up progress because this vehicle may be faltering and having problems now.

JJM   Yes, in a pretty harsh account, the Pittsburgh Courier reporter Wendell Smith wrote, “Few, if any, of the owners are sincerely interested in the advancement of the Negro player, or what it means with respect to the Negro race as a whole. They are only concerned with the preservation of their shaky, littered, infested segregated baseball domicile.”

NL  Very harsh, yes. Wendell Smith was very tough on the Leagues, and at the same time he was a powerful advocate for major league integration. He was often right on target, but that quote indeed was a bit harsh. I think some of the owners were quite sincere and did want to benefit black players. And it is important to mention that some of these owners were white, which made it quite difficult for them, particularly when issues of integration were being raised.  The Kansas City Monarchs owners were white, and they were sort of put behind the eight ball when it came to integration with Jackie Robinson.

But I do think some of the owners were sincere, and they had to balance that with their need to make money. I don’t think I would paint them in such a sinister way as Smith did, but his attitude reflects how attitudes were changing as integration was on the horizon. While integration was still largely token in American society at the time, it was on the national radar screen and people were no longer going to accept segregated facilities and segregated institutions as they had in the past.

JJM  One final Wendell Smith comment may capsulize this. He said of Newark Eagles co-owner Effa Manley, “She blamed every one for the demise of her dream world and refused to recognize that nothing was killing Negro baseball but Democracy.”

NL  Yes, Smith said it perfectly. Because America was finally living up to its ideal of democracy, it would result in sacrifices for some people, but in the long run, the integration of baseball would benefit the greater number of people and recast our entire society.

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

“…the remarkable survival of professional black baseball provided an institutional basis for fostering the skills of black athletes and to a lesser extent, black entrepreneurs.  Because of this institution-building in the black community, a pool of talented African American athletes developed who were able to take full advantage of the greater opportunities that became available with desegregation.  As (Philadelphia Stars pitcher) Tom Johnson later observed, ‘in the absence of the opportunity, the blacks created that opportunity, created…a baseball world for themselves, so they could demonstrate their abilities.  And so many of them were ready when the doors were opened, so from that vantage point I felt that we were winners.'”

– Neil Lanctot

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About Neil Lanctot

JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

NL  I grew up in New England so I followed the Red Sox and admired whoever their star player was at the time, although in retrospect it seems as if they were always failing. I can’t say I followed one particular player, and none could be considered my childhood hero.

 

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Neil Lanctot teaches history at the University of Delaware. He is the author of Fair Dealing and Clean Playing: The Hilldale Club and The Development of Black Professional Baseball, 1910-1932.

 

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Photo Gallery

Featuring the photographs of Charles “Teenie” Harris, published with the permission of the Carnegie Museum

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Negro League legend Josh Gibson of the Homestead Grays, Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, 1942

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“…racial superiority in the field of athletics has contributed more to race pride than any other single factor in recent years.”  

– Black sociologist Charles S. Johnson, circa 1938

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Unidentified Pittsburgh Crawfords players, Forbes Field, 1944

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“…the caliber of black professional baseball was generally very high, at least for meaningful official league games.  Most observers assessed the level of play as comparable to the high minor leagues, not quite matching the majors because of the widely varying quality of competition encountered on a day-to-day basis.”

– Neil Lanctot

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Ted Page of the Pittsburgh Crawfords

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“I think that we have as many good players in our league as they have in the big leagues.  The one big advantage they have is that they have more men on their teams…As a result, our pitchers are overworked and if our men get hurt they still have to play.”  

– Manager Jim Taylor

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Bobby Williams, Manager, Pittsburgh Crawfords

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“If a youngster was able to withstand the occasionally hostile reception to his presence, he then had to adapt to an exceptionally competitive league.  Struggling young players, however, often had no place to turn for additional instruction or assistance.  Nonplaying coaches simply did not fit into the budget of most teams, forcing most rookies to fend for themselves or seek assistance from an already overburdened manager.  As Wilmer Harris explained, ‘managers at that time had a tough time,’ as ‘they were the hitting instructors, they had the job to see if we did something wrong,’ while also handling financial matters.”

– Neil Lanctot

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Josh Gibson

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“Dozens of us would make the majors if given the opportunity to play under the same circumstances as the white.regular schedules, modernized traveling facilities, with none of these 500 – 800 miles overnight bus hops, and board and lodging at the better spots.”

– Josh Gibson

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Unidentified catcher and batter

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Robert Gaston of the Homestead Grays, 1942

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“…the less conventional and sometimes more exciting style of play simultaneously enhanced the appeal of black baseball.  Moreover, the personality or ‘color’ perceived as an important player attribute by both white and black fans was more evident in the Negro Leagues than in white baseball.”

– Neil Lanctot

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Unidentified pitcher

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“The stylistic flourishes [of the players]…contributed to a perception among some observers that black baseball players were somehow less ‘serious’ than their white counterparts.  The attitude was hardly surprising, as [Black Metropolis authors] St. Claire Drake and Horace Cayton similarly cited white Americans’ ‘tendency to view the separate Negro institutional life with a certain amount of amused condescension and patronizing curiosity.'”

– Neil Lanctot

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Cuban baseball player

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“Although unfamiliar with the Negro National League, many individuals were readily aware of the supposedly ‘comical actions’ of blacks on the playing field, confirming [journalist] Sam Lacy’s belief that ‘public opinion has the black ball player labeled as a clown.’  Yet occasional sloppiness on the field and the absence of the ‘stronger disciplinary presence’ present in the major leagues also resulted in a downgrading of baseball talent.”  

–  Neil Lanctot

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Unidentified batters

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“Many black teams and newspapers…received unsolicited correspondence from youngsters eager to display their abilities in professional baseball.  A 1951 letter from an eighteen-year-old Jacksonville youth offers a typical example of the genre and includes the common assertion that “I am a very good ballplayer and I would like for you to see me.”  Lacking the financial resources to investigate the skills of every potential player, particularly those residing in distant parts of the south, league teams realistically had only two options:  either offer the player a tryout at his own expense or ignore the letters entirely.  In some cases, however, teams willingly gambled on youngsters based on somewhat questionable evaluations.”  

– Neil Lanctot

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

George Walter “Tubby” Scales, Baltimore Elite Giants, Forbes Field

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“…with the possibilities of better pay as a baseball player than he could earn in the present set-up in the industrial and professional world, it is no wonder that the young colored athlete strives to be a star player.  He knows that there may be a chance for him to sign up with one of the big teams and at least not have to carry baggage, bell-hop, wait table or fill such positions as are not in hard keeping with the education for which he has worked so hard.”

– Negro League umpire Bert Gholston

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Unknown catcher, Forbes Field, 1942

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Samuel Howard Bankhead of the Homestead Grays, Forbes Field, 1942

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“Financial limitations…prevented black players from enjoying the luxury of extensive pre-season preparation.  While many clubs followed the major league example of journeying south for spring training, black teams almost immediately began scheduling games to help defray costs, and as the Grays’ Buck Leonard later explained, ‘no sooner did you pull on your uniform and crack a sweat than you were in a game before paying customers.'”  

– Neil Lanctot

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Vic Harris and Cuban player, Forbes Field, 1941

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“Although progress appeared frustratingly limited, the lifestyle in black baseball had clearly changed in one important respect:  the introduction of more generous pay during the war years that allowed black players, like the African American population as a whole, to better themselves economically.  Once employed by an industry unable to pay regular salaries at times, a number of black players received wages comparable to top minor leaguers by 1946, an unthinkable development only a decade earlier.  Few realized, however, that the higher salaries would prove a short-lived aberration, as earnings and living conditions in black baseball would deteriorate in the 1950s, ultimately reverting to Depression-era quality.”

– Neil Lanctot

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Unidentified pitcher

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Negro League baseball fans at Forbes Field, 1945

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“…baseball remained a major source of entertainment for blacks and by far the most popular sport, although boxing’s appeal had dramatically increased following the rise of Joe Louis.  Commenting on the modest allure of other sports, Dan Burley observed in 1941 that ‘segments, much, much smaller, follow football, tennis, basketball, track, golf, etc., but to the great colored public, these sports are Greek.’  Cleveland sportswriter Bill Finger agreed, contending that ‘we have among us still a majority to whom sports is baseball.’  To Finger, the phenomenon was attributable to African Americans’ strong roots in the South, an area ‘where baseball was the one sport universally entered into by athletes and followers alike.'”

– Neil Lanctot

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Satchel Paige, surrounded by fans.  Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh establishment, 1944

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“I might be wrong, but I believe Satchel Paige is the biggest colored drawing card we have…By that I mean Satchel draws more Negroes to his games than any other individual we have today…Yep, even more than Joe Louis…any of our orchestra leaders; our singers, etc.”

– Sportswriter Dan Burley

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee

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“Gus Greenlee is one of my staunchest baseball friends.  If some of his policies were carried out in the Negro National League baseball business would be better for everyone concerned.”

– Philadelphia Stars owner Ed Bolden

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Negro League crowd, Forbes Field, 1945

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“With interest and knowledge of baseball unusually high among African Americans, black professional teams continued to be able to draw upon a broad cross-section of the population for their attendance.  Weekly baseball games traditionally functioned as a social event, a place where one could meet with family and friends in a communal setting.  Not surprisingly, many fans arrived at the games dressed in their best outfits, often donned earlier in the day for Sunday services.  As Stanley Glenn recalled, women typically wore ‘high-heeled shoes and silk stockings.  Hats on their heads and long-sleeved gloves.  And the men came to the ballpark dressed in suits and shirts and ties.’  Thus, the baseball park, like church, fulfilled a secondary function:  a chance to be seen in public looking one’s best.”

– Neil Lanctot

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Sandlot baseball team

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“Teenie” Harris photo © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Jackie Robinson, Forbes Field, 1947

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“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”

– Jackie Robinson

 

 

 

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Neil Lanctot products at Amazon.com

Negro League baseball products at Amazon.com

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This interview took place on June 7, 2004

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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interviews with Negro League baseball player Buck O’Neil and Jackie Robinson biographer Scott Simon.

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# Text from publisher.

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