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History of the Negro Leagues in KC, Part One

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Our first World Champions.

1934 Kansas City Monarchs

2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the Negro National League beginning play. To mark the anniversary, Max asked me to write a series about the Kansas City Monarch’s reign in Kansas City. It sounded like a great idea. Once I started to do some research, I realized how little I knew about the Negro Leagues and their history in Kansas City. And that is kind of a shame. Even in 2020, the story of the men of the Negro Leagues is just not out there like it should be.

I always felt like I knew a lot about the history of baseball and even thought I had a fair amount of knowledge about the Negro Leagues. I knew all the key figures, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Turkey Stearnes, Mule Suttles, Ray Dandridge, Oscar Charleston. I knew about most of the teams, the Homestead Grays, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and of course the Monarchs. I met Buck O’Neil once, in what was one of the genuinely great baseball memories of my life. I heard Don Motley give a talk about the Negro League Baseball Museum one year and briefly chatted with him afterwards. I took my family to the museum not long after it opened and gave them a narrated tour of what they were seeing. Heck, if I’d ever been on Jeopardy and the question had been “Name the first African American to play Major League Baseball”, I probably would have said, “who was Moses Fleetwood Walker”.

Yes, going into this project, I thought I had a pretty solid background. It only took about a day of research to shatter that idea. I soon realized that I really did not know much about the Negro Leagues. In fact, do any of us? Unfortunately, a lot of that history has been lost. Statistics on Negro League games are hard to find, and the compilation of data is spotty. Nearly all the men (and women) who played in the Negro Leagues are now gone.

That said, there is a growing pool of information as interest in the Negro Leagues has been kept alive by a cadre of dedicated individuals. There are many excellent books about the Negro Leagues. Filmmaker Ken Burns did a great piece on the Negro Leagues. Joe Posnanski, with an assist from Buck O’Neil, has produced fine work. The Museum is a must see for all baseball fans and Bob Kendrick has done a spectacular job in keeping the story alive. I hope you enjoy this series as much as I did in researching it.

Intro

Even though this series is about the Kansas City Monarchs and the men who played for them, I feel it is necessary to go back as close as we can to the beginning to understand the context of the Negro Leagues.

There is some belief that William Edward White, a biracial man from Milner, Georgia, was the first man of color to play in a professional baseball game. White, who passed himself off as a white man, played for the Providence Grays of the National League on June 21, 1879. In 1884, the previously mentioned Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played collegiately at Oberlin College and the University of Michigan, appeared in 42 games for the then-major league Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association. Walker was open about his racial heritage and faced racial bigotry, including a threatened walkout by a visiting team coached by baseball Hall of Famer Cap Anson.

Portrait Of The Oberlin College Baseball Team
Moses Fleetwood Walker
Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

In 1876, team owners from the National League adopted a “gentleman’s agreement” to keep black ballplayers out of the league. By 1890, black players found themselves locked out of nearly all viable baseball leagues in the United States. It was a shameful time in our nation’s history. In 1885, the Cuban Giants were formed and billed as a team of dark-skinned Latin Americans. They traveled the country by private rail car and played local town teams. Bud Fowler, one of the top black players of the day, founded the Page Fence Giants, a traveling squad that had great success against black and white opponents, winning 118 of 154 games they played in 1895.

Black players continued to play, primarily in the North and Northeast United States. The first “Colored Championship of the World” was held in 1903. Rube Foster, who was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981, was the winning pitcher, leading the Cuban X-Giants to victory over the Philadelphia Giants. There were several attempts to form a black league, but none had staying power. On February 20, 1920, Foster and several associates met at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City and founded the Negro National League with eight teams: the Chicago American Giants, Chicago Giants, Cuban Stars, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis ABC’s, St. Louis Giants and the Kansas City Monarchs. The early success of the Negro National League prompted the formation of the Eastern Colored League in 1923. The two leagues converged to play the World’s Colored Championship from 1924 to 1927.

Stability was tough to come by as players often jumped from team to team when offered more money. The league took a hit when Foster was institutionalized in 1926. The league took another hit when the Eastern Colored League folded in 1928. It reformulated as the American Negro League in 1929, but the Great Depression came along and nearly dealt a death blow to the Negro Leagues.

The Negro Southern League and a few independent teams survived the depression and in 1933, Pittsburgh Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee restarted the Negro National League. He introduced the East-West All-Star game that year, which became the leagues biggest event. The annual game was played at Comiskey Park in Chicago and at its peak drew more than 50,000 fans.

By 1937, the league’s health was stronger than ever, and the Negro American League was formed from teams in the South and Midwest as a rival to the Negro National League. More than 3 million fans turned out in 1942 to watch teams play and the two leagues revived the Negro World series that September.

A series of events over the next three years changed the Negro leagues forever. In 1944, Major League Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis died. Landis had been a strict segregationist and his death provided an opening for black ballplayers. At the same time, World War II was heating up and many black ballplayers were drafted or volunteered for service, trimming the talent pool of their teams. In 1945, sportswriters goaded two teams, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox, into giving tryouts to several Negro League players, including Jackie Robinson. The tryouts were essentially a sham but Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey was an innovator and always looking for ways to make his ball club better Rickey, as you well know, then signed Robinson and assigned him to their Montreal farm club for the 1946 season.

Robinson officially broke the baseball color line on April 15, 1947. On July 5, he was joined by former Newark Eagle star, Larry Doby, who had been signed by the Cleveland Indians.

The success of Robinson, Doby and other former Negro League stars such as Monte Irvin and Roy Campanella drained the Negro Leagues of their talent and their fan base as more African-Americans began to follow Major League teams. The Negro National League disbanded in 1948 while the Negro American League continued to operate into the 1950s. By 1959, the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate when they signed Elijah “Pumpsie” Green. The Negro American League folded once and for all in 1960, as young stars like Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron, all former Negro League players, made their way to the majors.

Negro League History of Kansas City – Part One

The earliest mention of a black baseball team in Kansas City was the Kansas City Kansas Giants, who played as an independent team from 1909 to 1911. The Kansas Giants were managed by a man named “Topeka” Jack Johnson, the “Topeka” being an important distinction separating the Kansas City manager from the World Champion heavyweight Jack Johnson. The boxer Jack Johnson fought the “fight of the century” on July 4, 1910 against James Jeffries, a colossal black vs. white match up, which Johnson won in a 15-round TKO. Johnson’s victory triggered race riots in New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Orleans, St. Louis, Little Rock, Houston and Atlanta. More than 20 people died and hundreds more were injured.

In 1910, the Kansas City Royal Giants were founded and played from 1910 to 1912. They were also managed by Topeka Jack Johnson. The team played their games at Shelley Park, a ball field built on the site of a cemetery. Shelley Park was located at Independence Avenue and Oak Street, now known as the River Market neighborhood, just north of downtown and I-70. They were part of an association known as the Western Independent Clubs and records indicate that they posted a 10 and 13 won-loss record for those three seasons.

The Kansas City Monarchs were formed in 1920. The owner was a white man named J.L. Wilkinson. Wilkinson, an Algona, Iowa native, began dabbling in ownership after an arm injury derailed his baseball career. In 1909, he put together a women’s baseball team, which possibly included some men in drag, and toured the Midwest. In 1912 he founded a multi-racial team called All Nations, which was based in Des Moines, Iowa. He moved the team to Kansas City in 1915 and continued to barnstorm the Midwest.

When the Negro National League was formed, Wilkinson built the team with the best players from All-Nations and from another team, the 25th Infantry Wreckers, an all-black team that featured stars such as Bullet Rogan, “Heavy” Johnson, Lem Hawkins and Dobie Moore. Wilkinson, known affectionately as “Wilkie”, was the only white team owner trusted by Rube Foster. During his stint as owner, the Monarchs won 10 league titles and participated in four Negro League World Series, winning in 1924 and 1942.

In 1930, Wilkinson hocked everything he owned and purchased portable lights and the Monarchs became the first professional team to play night baseball. Buck O’Neil said, “the lights made a hideous sound. Moths were everywhere. The lights sat so low that fly balls often soared above them. Opposing teams had a difficult time. Fly balls rained down everywhere! We knew the secret though. We followed the ball until it disappeared then ran to the spot where the ball would come down.” Buck also said Wilkie was one of two men he knew who was devoid of prejudice, the other being his father.

The Roaring ‘20’s

Following the end of World War I, the general mood in the United States was one of euphoria. The economy was in an upswing kick started by industrialization. Men returning from the war were anxious to start families. Alcohol was illegal in the United States thanks to prohibition, but black-market bootlegging filled the niche. The nightclub jazz culture was the rage and Kansas City and Harlem were at the epicenter. The area surrounding 18th and Vine and another on 12th Street could be described as the jazz capital of the United States. At its peak, Kansas City had more than a hundred night clubs and speakeasies, engaged in a variety of activities: live music, gambling and prostitution. Mayor Tom Pendergast bribed local police to allow gambling and drinking and Kansas City became known as Paris of the Plains.

It’s against this background that Monarch baseball kicked off at the beginning of the decade and what a decade it was. Kansas City recorded a 561-295 won-loss mark in the 1920s which included four Negro League titles (1923, 1924, 1925 and 1929) and a Negro League World Series Championship in 1924. The 1929 season was especially significant as the team posted an impressive 66 and 17 record (.795-win percentage).

The team’s first manager was Jose Mendez. Mendez was a sprite of a man, standing 5’10’’ and about 150 pounds and was known as El Diamante Negro. “The Black Diamond.” In his playing days, the Cuban-born Mendez had been a devastating pitcher, in the mold of Pedro Martinez. Mendez threw with an easy motion which produced a deceptive fastball and a knee-buckling curve. In 1908 he threw 43 consecutive scoreless innings against the Cincinnati Reds and another U.S. minor league all-star team. Ira Thomas, a catcher with the Philadelphia Athletics, said of Mendez: “I do not think he is Walter Johnson’s equal, but he is not far behind.”

Jose Mendez Portrait
Jose Mendez

Mendez played for Wilkie’s All Nations team in the years before the Negro National League was formed. The All Nations team traveled with an orchestra and a wrestling team. Mendez, in addition to his pitching duties, played cornet in the orchestra. In late 1914, Mendez developed arm trouble which effectively ended his pitching career. He moved to shortstop and joined the Monarchs in 1920 as a player/manager. Eventually his arm recovered enough to allow him to pitch again. Over the next four seasons, he complied a 21-5 record and starred in the first Negro League World series, appearing in four games. He recorded a shutout victory for the Monarchs in the deciding game. Mendez managed the Monarchs on two separate occasions, the inaugural 1920 season and a second stint from 1923 to 1925. The Monarchs complied a 222-118 record under Mendez’s leadership. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

Another early manager of the Monarchs was Sam Crawford. Crawford, a native of Dallas, was a pitcher for the Chicago American Giants from 1914 to 1917, before joining Kansas City as a player-manager. Crawford managed the Monarchs from 1921 to 1923 and compiled a 168-114 record. He and Mendez co-managed the team during the 1923 season.

Bullet Rogan took the helm in 1926 and managed the squad through the 1934 season. His nine seasons was the longest of any Monarchs manager. Rogan’s team compiled a sparkling 232 wins versus 100 losses from 1926 to 1929.

Rogan was another in a line of player-managers for Kansas City. His Monarch career started in 1920 and his final season came in 1937. Rogan is known primarily as a pitcher, in which he compiled a 119-50 mark. But he could also handle the bat. In almost 2,300 career plate appearances, Rogan slashed a brisk .338/.390/.515. Rogan, who played in the outfield when he wasn’t pitching, came to Kansas City from the 25th Infantry squad. His batting average was the fourth-highest in Negro League history.

Rogan was arguably the Negro Leagues earliest star. In 1922, Rogan hit .390 with 13 home runs, second-best in the league. Rogan and Mendez teamed up to throw a no-hitter in 1923 against the Milwaukee Bears. In 1923, Rogan hit .364 and led the NNL with 16 wins and 151 strikeouts. In 1924, Rogan hit .395 while compiling an 18-6 record on the mound while leading the Monarchs to the Negro League World Series Championship. 1925 may have been his best season, as Rogan hit .381 and put together a 17 and 2 pitching record. Said Buck O’Neil, “If you saw Ernie Banks in his prime, then you saw Rogan.”

Casey Stengel called Rogan “one of the best, if not the best, pitcher that ever lived.” Rogan attended Sumner High School in Kansas City. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998. Rogan, like all Negro League stars, never lived to get the call from Cooperstown. He died on March 4, 1967 at the age of 73 and is buried in Blue Ridge Lawn Memorial Gardens in Kansas City, Missouri.

Some of the other early stars for the Monarchs were shortstop Dobie Moore, third baseman Bartolo Portuondo, third baseman Newt Joseph and outfielders Hurley McNair and Heavy Johnson. Johnson put together three spectacular seasons in a row from 1922 to 1924. In 1922 he slashed .406/.450/.715. He followed that up in 1923 with an almost identical line of .406/.471/.722. He “dropped off” a little in 1923 to a more pedestrian .374/.429/.553.

From 1920 to 1923, the team played in Association Park, which was bracketed between 19th Street and 21st Street (north and south) and Olive Street and Prospect Avenue to the west and east. That location sits a couple of blocks northeast of Municipal Stadium. Today a park, Blues Park, sits on the site. Association Park was owned by beer baron George Muehlebach. Muehlebach owned the Kansas City Blues, a AAA team that played in the American Association. The railroad owned an option on the land that Association sat on and when they exercised that option to run track through the property, Muehlebach opted to build a new stadium at 22nd and Brooklyn. The Monarchs spent the remaining years of the ‘20’s playing at what was then called Muehlebach Field.

1924 World Series Champions

The first Negro League World Series, then called the Colored World Series, kicked off on Friday October 3. The series matched the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League and the Hilldale Athletic Club of the Eastern Colored League. Hilldale, based in Darby, Pennsylvania was informally known as the Darby Daisies. The Series was a gauntlet, a best of nine affair to be played out over the next 17 days.

Game One was played at the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia, home of the National League Phillies. That matchup featured Bullet Rogan for the Monarchs and Phil Cockrell for Hilldale. In the top of the first, home plate umpire John McBride stopped the game and called a ball on a spitball thrown by Cockrell. McBride had umped primarily in the International League, which did not allow the spitter. The spitter, however, was still a legal pitch in the Negro Leagues. After a brief conference with both managers, the ruling was overturned. Rogan pitched an eight-hitter and kept the Hilldale team off the board until the ninth inning. Kansas City was aided by six Daisy errors as they claimed Game one by a score of 6-2.

Game Two was all Hilldale as pitcher Jess “Nip” Winters held the high scoring Monarchs to four harmless singles in a 11-0 Daisy romp. Game Three was scheduled for Sunday, October 5. Due to Pennsylvania’s blue laws, which prohibited professional baseball games on Sunday, the game was shifted to the Maryland Baseball Park, home park of the Baltimore Black Sox. Kansas City jumped to an early 4-1 lead but were unable to close out Hilldale. The Monarchs had a one run lead going into the bottom of the ninth and again going into the bottom of the twelfth but were unable to hold on. Newt Joseph hit the first home run of the series for Kansas City. The game was called on account of darkness after 13 innings of play with the score knotted at 6.

The teams stayed in Maryland for Monday’s game Four. Once again, the Monarchs held an early lead and once again, Hilldale refused to buckle. Rube Currie of the Daisy’s pitched six and two thirds innings of shutout relief and teammate Otto Briggs stole home to send the game into the bottom of the ninth tied at three. Two walks and two Monarch errors gave the Hillsdale team a walk-off victory.

The series shifted to Kansas City and Muehlebach Field for Game Five on Saturday October 11. The game nearly had a late start, as a high school football game being played at Muehlebach ended only 30 minutes before first pitch. Imagine that in today’s world, having a high school football game precede a World Series game! Once the game started, it was a classic pitcher’s duel between Bullet Rogan and Nip Winters for the first eight innings. Kansas City held a slim 2-1 lead going into the top of the ninth, only three outs away from evening the series when disaster struck. A controversial call by one of the umpires and three Monarch errors set the table for Judy Johnson, who made the Monarchs pay by stroking a three-run inside the park home run, which stunned the home crowd. Winters retired 25 of the last 26 men he faced in a 5-2 Hilldale victory.

Game Six was played Sunday October 12 at Muehlebach. Phil Cockrell took the mound for Hilldale but never made it out of the first inning, as the Monarchs pounded him for four runs. Hilldale chipped away at Kansas City starter William Bell, finally tying the game at five in the sixth inning. Kansas City pushed across a single run in the bottom of the eighth on George Sweatt’s triple and Bell made it stand up in a 6-5 win.

Game Seven was also a Kansas City affair Nip Winters made the start for Hilldale. Winters had been excellent thus far, winning both of his appearances. Jose Mendez came on in relief for the Monarchs and was brilliant. Hilldale jumped to an early 2-0 lead before Newt Joseph stole home in the bottom of the fourth to ignite the Kansas City offense. Hilldale pushed across a single run in the top of the ninth to send the game to extra innings. Bullet Rogan collected three hits, including the game winner in the bottom of the twelfth, despite not hitting the ball out of the infield. The 4-3 Monarch win tied the series at three games apiece, with one tie.

The Series moved to Schorling Park in Chicago for Game Eight. Schorling, also known as South Side Park, was located about three blocks south of old Comiskey Park. It was named after Rube Foster’s white business partner, John Schorling, who also happened to be Charles Comiskey’s son-in-law.

In one of the legendary games in Negro League history, Hilldale pitcher Rube Currie held the Monarch’s scoreless for eight innings. Kansas City was the home team in this game and went into the bottom of the ninth trailing 2-0. Hilldale must have felt the pressure, as Judy Johnson and Biz Mackey misplayed balls and backup catcher Louis Santop dropped Frank Duncan’s foul pop for a crucial error. Given new life, Duncan ripped a single which scored the tying and wining runs for the jubilant Monarchs, moving them within one win of the championship.

Nip Winters took the mound for Hilldale, his fourth start of the series. Kansas City countered with William Bell. Kansas City took an early 2-0 lead but could not knock out Winters. Hilldale pushed across two runs in the top of the ninth and Winters closed the door for a 5-3 Daisy win, setting up a decisive Game Ten.

The teams met once more on Monday October 20 at Schorling. Jose Mendez named himself starter for Kansas City. He was opposed by Hilldale starter Hosley “Scrip” Lee. The game was scoreless going into the bottom of the eighth when Lee tired. Going from his usual submarine delivery to an overhand delivery, the Monarchs erupted for five runs. Hilldale had no answer for Mendez, who threw a brilliant three hitter, giving Kansas City the championship. In an interesting side note, Lee, the losing pitcher, later umpired the opening game of the 1942 Negro League World Series.

Thus, the Monarchs became Kansas City’s first championship team. Ticket prices for the series were $1.00 for general admission and $1.65 for box seats. The winning players share came to $307.96 each. Players on the losing Hilldale squad took home $193.22 per player.

There was no MVP award given but stars of the series were Nip Winters, who won three games. Winters struck out 21 Monarchs and ended with a 1.16 ERA. Bullet Rogan and Jose Mendez also played well with Rogan winning two games while hitting .325, while Mendez went 2-0 with a 1.42 ERA. Judy Johnson swung a big stick for Hilldale, hitting .365 with 7 RBI. Five future Hall of Famers played in this series: Biz Mackey, Judy Johnson and Louis Santop for Hilldale, Bullet Rogan and Jose Mendez for Kansas City.

Hilldale would get their revenge in 1925, thumping Kansas City in six games to take the 1925 title.

Next: The 1930’s