George Johnson, the Negro Leagues and labor rights

It seems like George Washington Johnson was never a great ballplayer — maybe a solid, above-average outfielder with a decent bat and quality fielding skills — but in January 1925, he did something that truly caught my attention as I was researching this story on the 1925 Hilldale Club’s Colored World Series championship.

According to the Jan. 10, 1925, Philadelphia Tribune, Johnson issued a statement that, according to the paper, “strikes a new note in an already complicated situation and urges players of the Eastern [Colored] League to organize for the purpose of protecting themselves from exploitation at the hands of owners or managers.”

The article then quoted Johnson thusly:

“It is great to have a winning club. But to have it you must have a bunch of real fighters who can weather a whole season, fight for the lead and hold that lead against all other clubs in the circuit. Such a club Hilldale had last season.”

But, the Trib wrote, Johnson also believed that the 1924 Colored World Series was seriously mismanaged by the powers that be and that, the paper stated, “Johnson declares that in all future series the players should demand the Lion’s share out of the first four games out of seven and that should the series go to nine games the first five out of nine should go to the players.”

The Tribune then again quoted Johnson:

“The money that the players should have received is spent on big parties, automobile rides, sight-seeing tours and expensive cigars. Oh yes, the big fellows have to have the best rooms in the hotels while the players fare like hoboes.

“There is no reason why the players should not come together and stand up for just and equitable treatment.”

Wow.

So what Johnson was essentially advocating was the formation of a Negro League players union, a half-century before the birth of the MLBPA and the first true labor entity advocating for the rights of top-level professional baseball players.

Remember that Johnson said this during the height of the so-called “Red Scare,” when the nation was absolutely freaking out over the rise of communism in Russia and elsewhere and the Klan was routinely parading and railing against the alleged infiltration and subversion of the country by communists who wanted to organize labor unions as a way to destroy the very fibers of American freedom.

Plus the great, early civil rights activist, writer and philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois, always controversial and bold, was moving more and more toward actually becoming a communist and advocating the organization of labor, especially black labor, as a way of lifting up the poverty-stricken masses.

So it was already a heady time in terms of the national sociopolitical backdrop, and George Johnson was dropping himself squarely in the middle of the debate by, of all things, calling for, essentially, a Negro League players union.

But in the Negro Leagues, when it came to labor rights vs. management rights, the picture was much, much cloudier and complex than in Major League Baseball, where there was the iron-clad reserve rule binding players completely and forcefully to their times and completely subjugating them to the whim and whimsy of their teams’ owners and managers, and that was that. Reserve rule. Period. And that last for decades and decades until Curt Flood finally got things moving in terms of cracking the dreaded reserve clause.

That clause in MLB was strictly, almost brutally enforced by the Major Leagues’ first commissioner, and arguably its most powerful in history, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who. it was been asserted countless times, saved “organized baseball” after the Black Sox scandal by, among other actions, severely punishing the perpetrators of said scandal and cracking down harshly on gambling in the game.

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Landis also, as we all know, strictly, infamously and with an iron fist enforced the color line until the very day he died in 1944.

But despite Landis’ virulent racism and stubborn clinging to unwritten segregation, many in management in the Negro Leagues longed for a ruler like him in black baseball to straighten up the loosey-goosey nature of the sport in the African-American community. While leaders like Rube Foster and others did their best to “keep players in line” and prevent player actions like rampant contract-jumping and roster raiding, such “incorrigibility” still ran wild at times, much to the chagrin of rival owners and administrators.

In 1920, for instance, during the winter meetings of the Negro National League, according to the Philadelphia Tribune, “The clubs adopted a working agreement whereby the association is protected from players jumping contracts.”

The league’s bigwigs also established lengthy lists of each team’s “players under contract or held in reserve by managers or owners of clubs operating under the agreement.” Included on that healthy-lengthed roll call was Hilldale’s very own George Johnson, then just two or three years advanced past the scrub leagues of Texas.

There was also the occasional sentiment from fans and the sanctimonious black press that Negro League players were, well, spoiled brats. Wrote Rollo Wilson in July 1924:

“Ball players are something like that king who was old Cardinal Wolsey’s friend. And also — they never appreciate the nice things fans and writers say about them. It’s just like water which fell on the proverbial duck’s back. But pan ’em once and watch the smoke wreathe from their nostrils as they invoke the seven Sutherland sisters or whatever sisters they are who brew the potions which take away rhyme and reason away from the brains of the typists. They take praise as a matter of course; they feel that it is something one gets paid for saying. And they are above criticism. We have at all times taken the part of the men in the ranks, but we have a sneaking suspicion that the guy with the B.R. may be right sometimes after all.”

OK, that quote kind of gets bogged down in its own floridity and references to folk tales that I’m sure were relevant nine decades ago but that I have no idea what they mean today. But the point is clear — players are snotty, prickly, oversensitive, pampered jerks.

Extend Wilson’s logic and line of thinking and it’s not surprising that writers like him groused so much when these spoiled, disloyal men were so willing to jump from team to team — or country to country — so quickly and willingly because they were grossly underpaid by their skinflint owners, who almost always had the support and backing of the black press’ hotshots like Wilson.

It’s also worth noting that reporters and especially columnists who covered the Negro Leagues — and, for that matter, the Major Leagues — were themselves quick to arch their backs and high-mindedly fume at criticism leveled against them.

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But is that really any different than the reality Curt Flood discovered so painfully and tragically a few decades later? And is it so different than today’s media — and, naturally, the fans who read/listen/watch what those media men and women have to say — which for years have decried and bemoaned the mega-salaries paid to modern players without, apparently, comprehending the irony that those athletes are paid largely because such fans and journalists continue to follow, report on, consume and otherwise feed into the system that allows players to sign deals worth hundreds of millions?

Having at times been a standard sports beat writer — as opposed to the eminently learned and trustworthy historian I am now, of course — myself, I can say first-hand that sports beat writers are just as spoiled and pampered as the athletes they cover, and in many respects, it’s always been that way.

Esteemed columnists like Rollo Wilson felt it was their right to have unfettered access to the athletes, managers, coaches, administrators and owners they covered. And they were never, ever above dropping little nuggets of snarky gossip whenever possible.

Just like now, when the clowns on “SportsCenter” spout out tired, lame catchphrases, slogans and cutesy little sayings over and over again like parrots in place of true, incisive commentary and thoughtful dialogue. Superficiality rules the modern media, who gladly gobble up the lavish, free meals in the pressbox and become indignant and/or sanctimonious when athletes like, oh, say, Richard Sherman actually speak their mind — and, quite often, the painful truth.

Wow. Where did that come from? That was one lengthy and probably unnecessary diatribe which itself was probably, quite ironically, holier-than-thou in its own right. So back to the original script — the idea of labor vs. management in the Negro Leagues …

Actions taken by blackball owners and management in the 1920s seemed to establish the precedent of them attempting to create and maintain a labor system much like the one that existed in organized baseball — a system designed to fatten their own wallets under the guise of discipline, law and order, and some players, like George Johnson, were keenly aware of what was actually going on.

In January 1926, just a year after Johnson publicly advocated for the creation of some sort of formalized player labor organization, the magnates of the ECL, at their annual meeting, again attempted to drop the hammer on their employees. Reported the Amsterdam News:

“To that end that the game be elevated, the Commissioners went on record that all fines previously incurred during the 1925 season by the players and had been paid by the club owners were considered unpaid and liable for collection in the event the amount of the fine had not been deducted from the player’s salary.

“Managers, players and subordinate employees who are not financially interested in a League club come under the ban for releasing or publication [sic] matter [sic] considered detrimental to the welfare of the league and heavy penalties will be inflicted for violation of this ruling.”

In other words, a gag order.

Then there was a joint session of the ECL and the NNL. Reported the News:

“From these minutes it developed that several players had been billed for justified indebtedness by clubs that they formerly played with, and with such players who at the present time are employed in either league, it was unanimously decided that the debts must be satisfied, club owners to be held responsible, and July 1, 1926, set as the time limit.

“Realizing that many of the clubs in both leagues have been playing a losing proposition relative to the topheavy salaries that have been paid, and where figures show that it does not come in at the gate, it was decided to set a salary limit to be adhered to by all the clubs, the figure reached being three thousands dollars per month for the payroll of any club.”

In today’s terminology, a salary cap. And again, notice that the action was taken with the owners’ bottom line in mind, not the players’.

The article concludes with the lengthy list of each team’s (except Newark, which was running behind) reserved players. On the list for Hilldale? George Johnson.

But oops! Just two months later, Hilldale owner Ed Bolden unceremoniously shipped Johnson (along with Joe Lewis) to the Lincoln Giants. Was Bolden getting payback on Johnson for — gasp! — speaking his mind about player treatment?

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No, of course not. Bolden traded the two fellows for much needed talent elsewhere on the diamond.

But oops again! That wasn’t the case. Per the Philly Tribune:

“In admitting the change Manager Bolden intimated that a cash consideration had completed the deal as the Lincolns had no players who were needed by the champions this season.”

So it wasn’t a trade at all. Bolden just dumped Johnson (and poor Lewis) for some cash, almost as if … Bolden just wanted to get rid of him. But why in the world would Bolden do that? Because, as the Tribune further stated in the same article:

“Johnson has been one of the best outfielders in organized baseball for a number of years. His handling of fly balls is close to perfection and he is a handy man with a war club.”

Huh, funny, isn’t it? An owner shipping off a quality player for just a fistful of dollars only a year or so after that player complained about the treatment of players in the league. No, there’s absolutely no connection there at all.

Wait, I said it’s totally OK for sportswriters to be sarcastic and snarky, right? I said that, didn’t I? I’m pretty sure I did.

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One thought on “George Johnson, the Negro Leagues and labor rights

  1. Pingback: Another mysterious death, another unmarked grave | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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