New kids’ book spotlights Negro Leagues exec Effa Manley, only woman in Baseball Hall of Fame
The co-owner of the Newark Eagles also lent her influence during the civil rights movement to a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign, calling on businesses to hire Black workers.
In death as in life, Negro Leagues baseball players and the people who made it possible for them to take the field remain locked in a battle for respect.
The names of Negro Leagues luminaries are cemented in baseball lore — the likes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. But why don’t more people know about Effa Manley, too, says Andrea Williams, author of a new book about the Newark Eagles co-owner who remains the only woman who’s been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame?
Not that Williams knew about her, either, until getting a tour for a new job in marketing and development at Kansas City’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
“Honestly, to be real, I didn’t know a ton about the Negro Leagues,” says Williams, author of “Baseball’s Leading Lady: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues” (Roaring Brook Press/ Macmillan Publishers). “I knew of the Negro Leagues. It was a dope job, for sure, but it was also really enlightening because it exposed me to the stories that we just don’t get.”
Manley was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006 as an executive. Abe Manley, her husband and business partner, bought the Eagles in 1935. Among her responsibilites: handling player contracts, scheduling and promotions, and providing assistance to players.
“This is the benefit of having a woman around, right?,” Williams says of Manley’s role. “Men are one-track-minded, and we’re thinking about all the things and not just the present ramifications. She really was about that life.”
One key area that Manley and others, including Chicago American Giants owner-manager Rube Foster took care of, was making sure that player and team statistics were documented, even if, at the time, those stats were reported solely in Black news outlets like the Chicago Defender.
“We only know what we know about the Negro Leagues because of the work of Black papers and Black writers,” Williams says. At the time, there was little other media interest “even when you have the East-West All-Star Game in Chicago, with tens of thousands of Black people. This is the main event on the Black social calendar.”
During the civil rights movement, Manley also lent her voice and influence to a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign, calling on businesses to hire Black workers.
One sign of just how talented those who played in the Negro Leagues were: From 1949 to 1959, the National League’s most valuable player award went to a Negro Leagues alumnus seven straight years and nine times overall.
Williams writes about one contentious result of the exodus of talent to Major League Baseball involving the signing of Jackie Robinson by Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, breaking what till then had been MLB’s color line excluding Black players. The Dodgers never compensated the Monarchs — Robinson’s former team — for signing the iconic figure and future Hall of Famer.
“When we understand Branch Rickey, we also understand what happens to Black baseball,” Williams says.
Williams believes the decision to introduce Manley’s story as a “kids book,” she says, is to provide context on anti-racism.
“How do we get the next generation on board so that we don’t have to have these issues? That’s the goal of writing this book,” said Williams. “And if I’m going to help the next generation, I have to write a book for kids that really tells the truth about our past and how the past has created our present. I wanted to tell the whole truth.”
She writes that Manley’s tombstone reads “She Loved Baseball” but that, despite her accomplishments, there’s still some mystery surrounding her heritage, namely: Was Manley a biracial woman who occasionally passed as white?
“I think she was a Black woman,” Williams says she concluded from her research. “I think she used her complexion to her advantage, which did mean sometimes passing for white.
“This woman, throughout her life, makes decision after decision after decision that is wholly committed to the Black community. I think we need to reconsider why she is [seen as] white automatically until proven otherwise, and then, even when we get the proof, we’re not so sure.”
Williams says she, too, once dreamed of running her own ball club, as Manley did, and adds that though her book is aimed at an audience of young teenagers, everyone can take lessons from Manley’s story, including the fact that there’s more than one way to have a career in sports.
“As a Black mom with Black kids, I know the issues we have with traditional history curricula,” Williams says. “We are either on plantations, or we are getting chased by dogs and hoses during the civil rights movement — there’s no in-between.
“I want us to know that we can be Gus Greenlee” — the Pittsburgh Crawfords owner — “or we can be Effa Manley, or we can be Rube Foster. That should be 100% what we’re striving for.”