The black press: A complex past, a pivotal future

Dan Burley

PRELUDE

“Today, more than ever, the Black Press remains the trusted and audacious voice of black America. Today, the NNPA continues this irrepressible tradition of publishing truth to power. Our freedom fighting publishers are all united as we reaffirm the vital importance and relevance of the Black Press now and into the future.”

— NNPA President and CEO Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., to NNPA reporter Stacy M. Brown, March 22017

As the current administration in D.C. continues its completely rational and not-at-all-paranoid-and-unhinged feud/temper tantrum with the media, it’s forcing many of us in the journalism business to reevaluate and assess our purpose in society and American culture, what our role should be, where we’re headed and what we could be capable of if we actually focused on the right things and jettisoned our obsession with, well, stupid stuff.

It’s a reflective process that is absolutely necessary, and many observers feel the current political situation is spurring some American media members to “get their groove back,” so to speak.

Sports journalists, on the surface, might seem to be undergoing self-evaluation to a lesser extent, because so far, athletics — aside from the occasional volley of criticism or satire from prominent sports figures like Gregg Popovich or even teams like the Erie SeaWolves — have largely remained outside the fray. The sports media and the consumers of that sports media have traditionally often been able to keep the sports world separate from society as a whole, a place of refuge and tranquility, an escape from the madness of everyday life and all its deflating trappings.

But sooner or later, sports journalists will be sucked into the swirling cyclone that continues to rip our country apart. Maybe it’ll come when a championship team, as is tradition, to be invited to the White House to be honored and one or more members of the team refuse to go on political grounds. Or maybe it’ll come when, however terrifying the prospect is, a high-profile black or Latino athlete is assaulted by law enforcement authorities.

Whatever triggers the entrance of the sports media into the national debate, it will undoubtedly come at some point, and history has shown that over and over and over again. The sporting world and the complexities of society at large have intersected when boxing championships have dated white women or taken a stand against the draft. It’s happened when ex-football stars have been charged with murdering their ex-wives, and when Olympic sprinters have raised their gloved fists on the medal stand to protest the long-standing oppression of black Americans.

And, yeah, there’s a theme that emerges here — race. Most of the time, when sports and society do collide, it’s over racial or ethnic issues that expose the deep rifts that have severed our culture for centuries, issues that will continue to haunt our nation long, long after we are dead and gone. Racial oppression and bigotry will forever be the albatross around our collective neck, and no more apparent will it be than in the world of sports — whether sports scribes and fans like it or not.

White sportswriters weren’t thrilled …

Aside from boxing and track, ground zero for the clashing of sports journalism and society has been — or at least throughout the sport’s history — baseball. We need look no further than the film, “42,” which depicts the role African-American writer Wendell Smith played in Jackie Robinson’s entry into and first season in the major leagues.

In fact, as Negro League historians, we know that it was often members of the African-American media, particularly newspapers, who pressed for the integration of Organized Baseball and the end of Jim Crowism in the national pastime. Popular sports columnists arranged tryouts for black players with white teams, and scribes dogged MLB owners by consistent peppering them with question about whether the time for integration was upon the baseball business.

While it was usually black journalists who instigated the discussion, sympathetic white writers gradually took up arms with their African-American brethren and crusaded for equality and justice in the American pastime by vocalizing their beliefs in their own work, as well, as standing up for black writers in press boxes across the country.

The book, “Black Writers/Black Baseball,” is a compilation of columns by the greats of the African-American press. Wrote editor Jim Reisler:

“They were extraordinary men. … Indeed, their most lasting collective contribution may have been an eloquent, persistent and occasionally bitter demonstration of words designed to urge to urge the white baseball establishment to integrate. It was that same group who actively accompanied black players to tryouts with major league teams, making their case face-to-face with the white owners. Arguably, their campaign was what finally pushed big league owners to question and finally end the color ban.”

Of course, there’s a bit of hagiography there, because black writers absolutely possessed their own foibles and weaknesses; in particular, their constant, necessary efforts to straddle the blurry line between objective chroniclers and overt cheerleaders and PR tools wasn’t always successful.

But, regardless, they did their jobs and helped foment social revolution. One of those men who helped stir the pot, so to speak, was one of my heroes, Baltimore Afro-American sports editor and columnist Sam Lacy, whom I profiled in this earlier post and whose role in Robinson’s achievements was sadly excised out of “42.”

But there were others in the “Negro” papers aside from Smith and Lacy who addressed the need for and then the impact of integration in baseball, and they frequently did it with a prescience and insight that is very often lacking in our modern sports media. These journalists displayed the sagacity and canniness necessary to peel back the layers of matters at hand and force readers to absorb, interpret and ponder those matters for themselves.

In fact, here’s a passage from Sam’s autobiography that aptly describes some of the truisms of journalism:

“Some people believe sportswriting is a sop. It’s not. Often a writer must assess the talent and conduct of major stars, some of them close friends, and at times, that conduct involves sensitive matters or questions that affect a person’s ability to make a living. To do it honestly, the writer must be as straightforward when dealing with the players as when challenging the personalities and institutions that refused for so long to open doors and opportunities for all talented athletes without regard to color.”

To the point … While doing research for an article about blackball history in Chicago, I came across a few examples of such contemplation, in both the years preceding and following the integration of the sport. The handful of articles I turned up caught my eye and my interest as examples of the type of journalism that’s often quite lacking in today’s sports media.

(I’ll note that because I was research blackball in the Windy City, I mostly looked at the archives of the Chicago Defender, but from past research I can state that the themes I explore here were common to just about every African-American publication.)

In September 1942, Fay Young of the Chicago Defender produced a lengthy treatise that pointed out what most black Americans already knew and what a growing number of white citizens were realizing — that African Americans could be recruited and drafted into a war for freedom, justice and equality, but they were rigidly blocked from playing in Organized Baseball, the flagship of American sporting image and culture.

Young bluntly called out the owners, managers and other powers-that-be in baseball by raising the names of the dictators the U.S. military servicemen and women were giving their lives to fight. Integration, he said, would seem to just make sense.

“But such is not the case — at least not so far — and it may be some time before the owners and powers that govern organized baseball come to the full realization that they themselves are playing into the hands of Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese emperor, Hirohito. The leaders are the Axis powers are the enemies of our nation — likewise and man or set of men who deny American citizens the right to earn a decent livelihood because of color must be jotted down in this day and time as enemies of fullfledged [sic] loyal American citizens.”

Damn.

Young also dropped some logic up in there — he noted that integration would increase team attendance and revenue; he disputed the “hotels and restaurants won’t serve integrated teams” malarky but pointing out that college football and track teams already did so just fine; and put the kibosh on the theory that race riots simply wouldn’t happen anymore, and Joe Louis’ reign as heavyweight champ proved that.

Plus, he essentially called MLB owners wusses — many of these guys claimed they want to hire Negroes, but they had so little backbone that they were skeered to make the first move.

Oh, and Young called strident segregationists “dyed-in-the-wool crackers.” Which, I’m sorry, is pretty freakin’ funny.

You want blunt and incisive? Move ahead 23 years and read a column Doc Young (no relation) wrote for the Defender in 1965 under the headline, “How Negro Players Saved Organized Baseball.” Eighteen years after MLB integration, Young ran down — with his characteristic soaring-yet-searing style — what happened in the 1940s, including the usual dumbarse and illogical reasons Organized Baseball and its enablers refused to integrate. Terms like “lilywhite as the driven snow,” “private preserve of segregationists,” and “cozy in their closed shop” were used.

But Young then drove to what many historians and sociologists believe was the heart of the psychology of segregation — white men, fueled by insecurity, jealousy, sexist and testosterone, were freaked about the possibility of black men getting close to white women. Wrote Young:

“A prominent, and frank, major league executive told a Negro club that integration would work because women were attracted to home run hitters and, he indicated, the idea of white women applauding muscular Negro home run hitters was no less than frightening.”

Mic drop.

That wasn’t the only bold assertion Young made in the column. Citing evidence that, by 1965, MLB’s best, most well paid players were largely African-American. Also noting that most competitive and potential pennant-winning teams had black stars, Young laid it all out there, with a juicy dollop of sarcasm:

“In this, the twentieth year of baseball’s equal opportunity employment program, no one gets upset because Caucasian females applaud a Willie Mays, not when Negro females cheer a Mickey Mantle. And, happily, contrary to the dire predictions of certain bigots on learning that Robinson had been signed to play organized ball, the country hasn’t gone to pot and Rickey hasn’t become a minister in a Father Divine Temple in Harlem.

“One needs not approach the boundaries of hyperbole to say that Negro players, and the Latin ‘coloreds’ who followed them, actually have been the saviors of major league baseball. For, without them, what is now known as major league ball would hardly measure up to Triple-A, minor league standards.”

In other words, baseball would suck without integration.

However, one prognostication about the impact integration would have — that it would kill the Negro Leagues — did, in fact, come true. Some pundits pointed it out matter-of-factly, some asserted it would be a painful but necessary sep toward a better American, and others flouted it as a phony baloney excuse to retain Jim Crow in the national pastime.

Regardless of how one views the decline of the Negro Leagues, it did happen, and naturally, journalists in the black press both documented and lamented it. Without a doubt, the very existence and greatness of the Negro Leagues was a shining example of African-American perseverance, pride and ingenuity, but it was also a gloomy symbol of the virulent fear that gripped American society for centuries.

The effect the disintegration of blackball had on the country’s African-American press is a subject that’s always intrigued me. Did the elimination of one of their bread-and-butter beats destroy Negro sports pages or cause catastrophic drops in circulation and ad revenue? Or were newspapers and reporters able to transition from the the subject of segregation to the topic of integration?

What would Ida do?

The answer to those queries are probably out there, but what’s true is that dozens of African-American newspapers and broadcast outlets are still alive and thriving. In fact, the Chicago Defender is in its 112th year of publication at a time when mainstream papers have been circling the drain for decades. In fact, the Defender expanded to a daily in 1956, a decade after baseball integration, suggesting the country’s flagship black paper progress in baseball. (It went back to weekly status in 2003.)

Of course, baseball hasn’t really been the only thing going on in the United States for 150 years. There’s been a few other things popping up now and then — wars, lynchings, economic downturns, and fire hoses and attack dogs and bombed churches — so it would be absolutely ridiculous to think baseball (as well as other sports) were what predicted the health of a black media outlet.

In fact, the greatest impact the Defender has had on American politics, society and economics was its strident, persistent, fearless messages to Southern African-Americans, urging them to abandon the life-threatening and humiliating fear and oppression of Jim Crow and move north for more economic opportunity and sociopolitical equality.

Such missives factored heavily into the Great Migration that completely transformed American on myriad levels. That recruitment was also despised and even feared by the Southern white establishment, who not only lost the ability to boost their own pathetic self-esteem by psychologically and physically attacking people not like them, but also the lifeblood of the agricultural, plantation economy that had fed and propped up all of Dixie society for centuries. In other words, Southern whites were scared witless of going broke and facing their own depressing psychologies.

Mr. Lacy

But, back to the original point … African-American newspapers of the late 1940s and ’50s were forced to cover and comment on the decline of the Negro Leagues. They knew they had to, for better or for worse, and they did so with impressive prescience and self-reflection that many modern-day media meatheads painfully lack.

In September 1950, the Associated Negro Press’ Luix Virgil Overbea (that’s a mouthful) penned a column that analyzed the decline of the Negro Leagues and asserted that rejuvenated support from black baseball fans (and, I suppose, fans of other ethnicities) was desperately needed to keep blackball alive.

The overall tone of Overebea’s piece was melancholic and rueful, but it was also laced with appeals to tradition and cultural pride. A few (lengthy) excerpts:

“Negro baseball is one the ropes facing a knockout blow unless Negro fans will rally to its support and save it until next year.

“Unfortunately, I must write this story of what appears to me a decaying enterprise, Negro baseball. Unless something is done constructively, by both the owners and the fans, I fear that next year at this time I may be forced to write an obituary for organized Negro baseball. …

“Racial pride tells me that in the main the NAL is a Negro enterprise employing Negroes and making money for the race. As a Negro I should support it.

“This, however, is not reason enough. As long as there is Jim Crow in the South on the basis of performance as well as in observance, Negro baseball as such is needed. If the Southern Negro wants to play baseball there, he will have to set up the game for himself.”

Overbea cited several examples of lousy attendance throughout the Negro Leagues world as evidence — less than 5,000 folks at an American Giants game despite a huge Elks convention in Chi-town; a continued sleep slide in turnout at the prestigious East-West game; and the Cleveland Buckeyes went belly up and the Baltimore Elites (the previous year’s league champs) were rumored to be on the brink of folding up their tents (they made it through the 1950 campaign before giving up).

Whose fault is that? Not just Negro League teams and owners, Overbea charged:

“What is wrong with Negro baseball to bring on all these troubles? The teams play a very good brand of baseball, better than most minor league clubs. Umpires keep the game moving and prevent those old-time player fist fights. A number of the players are very colorful.

“Some of the things wrong are not the fault of the clubs themselves. These include schedules, parks, booking games, and high costs. An example of park and schedule troubles is the case of the Indianapolis Clowns who did not play a single home games this season because no park was available to them.

“The great bugaboo in Negro baseball that clubs can do something about is the lack of fan support. People just do not go out to the parks to see the teams play.

“Artificial stimulants are not enough; clubs must build up fan loyalty. The American Giants had a ladies day on opening day and still did not draw 5,000 people to two games. The Giants also hired some white players, but they have not pulled in any crowds either here in Chicago. …

“A large percentage [of fans] still come just to raise the bottle and trouble. In talking to them I have learned that nobody seems to know the players. Some girls come out to see and meet the players. A youngster or two asks for an autograph. Otherwise the players and the games are often ignored.”

Plus he took a shot at the beat reporters who covered black baseball. In brief: Reporters are lazy dumbnuts.

There’s a lot to unpack in that column. One, in this day and age, having endured the steroid era/panic/witch hunt, the term “artificial stimulants” takes on a whole new spin, as it were. But we know what Overbea meant, and he was right — pretty much any goofy thing Negro League teams threw at fans made nary a difference. As the 1950s wore on, for example, the Clowns produced loonier and loonier stunts, but when the Majors snapped up their prime players — Mr. Aaron, for example — fans preferred to see the future clout king instead of zaniness.

Two, when he bemoans the fact that many fans come to Negro games simply to get plastered, cause a ruckus and completely ignores what’s happening on the field sounds like every Dodgers game currently.

But delving into deeper, serious matters raised by Overbea, I can’t address the issue because I’m neither black nor a mid-century baseball fan, so it wouldn’t be right for me to really do some opinionation on that topic.

But I would simply comment that, from research and discussions, it seems like the black baseball enthusiasts at that time might have had more racial pride in the guys who had broken through to the Majors and were excelling, like Robinson, Doby, Irvin, Satch and others. My sense was that the entire country knew that they were witnessing the dawn of an exciting new epoch and were adjusting to it in corresponding fashion (even the bigots who were still botherating had to grudgingly admit that their brand of segregated hardball was in the past).

The issue of black baseball in the South … Having undertaken a fair amount of research into that subject (especially here in NOLA), Overbea does have somewhat of a point, but he misses the fact that African-American talent in the South often signed up with squads elsewhere in the country, both integrated and segregated, such as several prospects here in the Crescent City like my late friend Herb Simpson. There was no reason the aspiring hardball stars would have to stay below the Mason-Dixon.

However, it is true that some leagues in Dixie did steadfastly and stubbornly refuse to accept the inevitable — like the Southern Association (including the New Orleans Pelicans), arguably most the recalcitrant circuit in the country, which, for all intents and purposes never integrated until its dying day in 1960. But other loops like the celebrated Evangeline League eventually did accept black players, albeit somewhat reluctantly. Southern teams knew the writing was on the wall, both socially and financially, and they welcomed African Americans when they realized they had to do so just to survive.

Then there’s Overbea’s most prickly point, at least for journalists — that beat writers of the day were slackers (maybe not as extensively as Spicoli, of course, but still occupying their time having pizza delivered to the newsroom).

That charge, I surmise, was completely bogus, because black media, especially newspapers, in the 1950s — aside from personally being thrilled to cover the exhilarating rides of Jackie and other pioneers — needed to survive financially, which meant giving their readers what the readers wanted to see, which was detailed coverage of said pioneers.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a brutal fact that still exists today, and not just for African-American media outlets. Media folks now are churning out what they believe their readers want, a process made even more thorny over the 30-plus years, thanks to online and social media and 24-7 TV outlets. The curse of the 24-hour news cycle — and I do believe it’s a curse, both for journalists and consumers — has led to the spewing out of just plain crappy news product.

Thanks for ruining things

That phony urgency has led media types to completely misread, so to speak, what many viewers and readers truly want — in depth, quality, complex journalism, not trashy tweets and garbage coverage of missing airliners and whatever dumb stuff was barfed out by InfoWars or Breitbart or Judge Pirro this time.

That also applies to modern sports media, which have made such amorphous mularky as bracketology and NFL draft boards staples of sports journalists’ own never-ending news cycles. Instead of posting up-to-the-minute updates about the status of Colin Kaepernick’s afro (“he’s 6-foot-5, with the afro 6-foot-9!”), sports jocks should delve deeply into the issues his actions have raised.

OK, now, back to the original theme of this ridiculously blathering post — the articles I found during my Chicago research — particularly the final one in the pile.

In October 1943, Defender columnist Lucius Harper penned one of his “Dustin’ of the News,” one that should serve as a model for serious journalists even seven-odd decades after it hit the streets. The lengthy commentary cuts to the bone regarding a phenomenon that has routinely shown up over the last century of American — the appropriation and outright theft of African-American culture and enterprise.

It’s an ugly trend that perhaps was/is most prevalent in the music business — white record company execs and concert producers swiping songwriting credit and profit from black artists. That’s not to mention the complete whitewashing of African-American music by white musicians, from Paul Whiteman to Pat Boone to Vanilla Ice.

But in October 1943, Harper’s concern was white businessmen taking advantage of the ever-evolving financial, geographic and structural nature of the Negro Leagues and its teams to slide in and usurp control, either upfront or behind the scenes, of blackball operations and enterprise. He asserted:

“Now that Negro baseball has become a paying proposition, it is on the threshold of danger for those few Negro business men who own and control colored clubs. When and Negro attraction begins to pile up enormous profits … and exhibition games can command the attention of some twenty-thousands persons in mid-season, there is a tendency on the part of white vested interests to gain the commanding reins of such a proposition, and with cunning and somewhat polite procedure relegate to the background, or to unimportant positions, the Negroes who control and share in the profits of such enterprises.

“So for racial cooperation from the standpoint of ownership and management of organized Negro baseball has been fruitful of great results, and has thus far demonstrated that racial unity in big business can be conducted along the lines of the most cordial and courteous relations. Upon this arrangement alone rests the hope and future of organized Negro baseball. To corrupt it would be fatal.”

Yeah that was a single long paragraph as originally published, so I broke it up into two of them. Even with that, Harper’s message can be a bit tough to discern through the complex sentence structure and florid language. At first, it seems like he’s lamenting the backdoor involvement of white entrepreneurs in black baseball, but then his prose takes a slight curve and he appears to approve, albeit reluctantly, the cautiously symbiotic arrangement produced by white intervention.

Such dense language and layered commentary was one of the constants of not just African-American journalism of the time, but all media outlets of the 1940s. But Harper offers measured qualifying of his first statements later in the column:

“Comes the report, however, that a corruption is in view. It will be known as the ‘October Plan’ in which organized Negro baseball may bury its interracial harmony and thereby transfer its profits and sole guidance to the interest of a group in which Negro owners of ball clubs will be merely the paid servants instead of the masters of the situation in the only sport now available for their stellar appearance in the nation’s athletic program. …”

Harper points to the music, boxing and horse-racing businesses in which it “seems an unwritten law that whenever a Negro becomes ‘a card or an ace’ he must not entrust his destiny in the hands and guidance of his own folk. Seeping into Negro baseball, now at its peak, is this odium.

“[The October Plan], we are told, is to break up the two leagues, combine them into one, mostly representing the East and West, couple Kansas City and Chicago, two of the best Negro League baseball centers, under one team (robbing Chicago fans of their hometown interest in an exclusive club) and transferring the master control of the league from colored to white.

“Such a plan if carried out in the October meeting will dwindle the interest of the public in organized Negro baseball, and it is the Negro fans in the final analysis who support the game and pile up the profits, not a few greedy, power-seeking owners of the clubs. The ‘October Plan’ has its ‘death sentence’ to the Negro owner in organized baseball that we hope it will not pronounce.”

Right off, I’ve never heard of any such backdoor “October Plan” that would have essentially been a massive coup on the part of white business interests with existing black team owners in full collusion. If anyone out there has heard of anything along those lines brewing during the 1943 Negro Leagues season, let me know.

(As a sidenote, Harper doesn’t name names in terms of exactly which white power brokers he had in mind, but it’s absolutely true that over the years, for better and for worse, white power brokers like Eddie Gottlieb, Abe Saperstein, Syd Pollock and the inimitable Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson, who arguably was the best white executive in blackball history and who has a plaque in Cooperstown to prove it.)

It should be noted that when discussing Gottlieb and Saperstein, two points are worth noting: one, both are more known for their basketball exploits (hence the links to the Naismith Museum); and two, both undoubtedly had to face and navigate anti-Semitism throughout their careers, which factors into the larger Negro Leagues picture.

Defender founder Robert Abbott

However, the organization, stability and profitability of blackball (at least in general) was certainly on the minds of other African-American journalists at the time; scribes such as Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier and Dan Burley of the New York Amsterdam News proffered a keen awareness that black baseball was at a crucial junction in its existence mid-war. (Burley was also a talented musician, music writer and booking agent.)

Coming off an extremely successful season in ’43 — economic prosperity from the war effort provided fans with enough money to spend on games, a development reflected, for example, by the tens of thousands who turned out for the East-West game — these media hawkeyes pushed Negro League owners to get their stuff together to be ready if and when Organized Baseball finally broke down and signed black talent.

Wrote Smith in December 1943:

“I am firmly convinced that the time has come for owners of Negro teams to settle down and start operating as a sound business basis. If there was ever a time for these men to start figuring and planning for the future, its is now. … No one knows when the majors will drop the color barrier and decide to admit Negro players. … Consequently, it seems to me, it would be wise for owners of teams in the Negro American and Negro National leagues to stabilize themselves to the extent that they will be able to realize a financial profit if they are forced to give up some of their players.”

Burley, meanwhile, eviscerated Negro League execs for the bumbling and fumbling that led to blackball’s failure to help the war effort:

“Another non-beautiful chapter in the do-nothing history of organized Negro Baseball seems to have been written … It can safely be said that a blow to racial prestige has come about in the failure of the bigwigs of Negro baseball to make a representation to the War Department for colored players to go abroad, either as teams, or mixed with the white clubs that are under consideration.

“All along, Negro Baseball hasn’t shown too much get up in demanding its proper place in the national morale equation.

“It has yet to take a clearcut, unequivocal viewpoint of Negro players in the Big League. …

“A loose organization of teams that can kick over the traces [of organization] on a moment’s notice; play where they want to and when they want to against whom they please, so to speak, isn’t a healthy indication that Negro Baseball is on its way. Neither does it augur well for the supporting fans to not see anything at all about what colored club owners and demanding not alone for the players, but for the good of all organized Negro baseball.”

Burley, who was always a bit more pointed and fearless in his critiques than other black writers, also targets the personal qualities of each team owner and how it affects the status quo — Ed Bolden of the Philly Stars (smart but to quiet and unassertive), James Semler of the NY Black Yankees (puts forward good ideas but too burdened by financial challenges and the lure of his Long Island retreat), Tom Wilson of the Baltimore Elite Giants (affable and happy-go-lucky, but to the extreme, resulting in a troubling nonchalance), Alex Pompez of the NY Cubans (a dreamer with big visions but no capital to make them happen) and Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays (extremely knowledgeable and capable but too accustomed to working behind closed doors).

Burley rips the Negro Leagues for never hiring a commissioner, failing to send advocates and lobbyists to Washington, relying too heavily on the once-a-year blockbuster East-West Game and a handful of premium exhibition contests for revenue, and just being insular and myopic in the big picture. He states:

“There is no doubting the ability of the boys in question to set up a table overnight, load it down with everything fine and nice and score a sellout with the tickets. But that’s overnight; the stuff is where it can be watched; where individual investors can run back and see if it still there during the course of the night, week or month the money is on the table. But when it comes to long-range vision in which what a guy does today won’t have effect or result until five years or so from now, our boys are on the wrong side of the fence.”

In the end, all of those factors, failures or fudge-ups absolutely could have contributed to blackball’s downfall, and exactly why those conditions existed — basically, why the powers-that-be in the Negro Leagues just couldn’t get on the ball internally and organizationally — has been oft discussed, always will be discussed, and stands as too big a topic for here and now.

However, the assertions of Smith and Burley do require reflection in one regard — the role of the great Effa Manley. Over the last couple of decades — and especially with her Hall of Fame induction in 2006 — Effa’s involvement in and impact on Negro Leagues history have received the attention and research they deserve, because Mrs. Manley was, quite simply, a titan, often the only Negro Leagues owner that had, well, any balls whatsoever.

But in his column, Smith advances bunch of ideas like commandments from Moses even though Effa had been advocating for several of those same proposals for years. Smith makes no mention of her whatsoever, and he steadfastly refers to all the owners and executives solely in the masculine.

But Burley does mention Manley in his critique of each owner, and he matter-of-factly asserts that she gets casually dismissed by her colleagues:

“Effa Manley of the Newark Eagles, a stormy petrel of idealism who has advanced many forward and constructive ideas about the investment of her husband, Abe, owner of the club, but who is handicapped by her sex and by lack of co-operation.”

But, digression aside, back to the analysis of the columns by the three scribes — Burley, Smith and Harper — because within them lies the fundamental difference between the urgent positivity of Smith and Burley, and the morose pessimism of Harper. It also, perhaps, fleshes out overall African-American society and all of American society at the time.

In 1943, Smith and Burley, for all their inspiring foresight, might not have fully realized what integration of the sport would eventually entail — as that process, initiated by Branch Rickey and joined by Bill Veeck and other MLB owners, gradually developed beginning in late 1945, at least a few of those MLB execs didn’t think anything of simply raiding Negro teams for talent, pilfering blackball stars with no compensation or even regard for Negro League teams of owners.

For all of Rickey’s visionary altruism and push for social equality, he was also had dollar signs in his eyes when he signed Jackie, a move that triggered slow, painful decline and disintegration of the Negro Leagues.

So, in a way, white businessmen did end up causing blackball’s demise not just as an athletic enterprise, but as a profitable, African-American financial juggernaut. It might not have gone in the exact way Harper foretold, but it did take place.

In that regard, as a journalist, Harper was on the cutting edge of prognostication and commentary, and he was able to cut through the misty-eyed halcyon days of the era with what proved to be a stinging truism — the destruction of the once-proud Negro Leagues by outside forces.

And that, ladles and gentlemints, is what a good journalist does. He or she needs to walk the tightrope between sensational bluster and revolutionary prescience when analyzing not just what’s going down now, but what the future may hold.

The best African-American journalists of the 20th century were able to do that, just like white pundits in the mainstream of society did. But in addition to contributing to the zeitgeist, black writers brought a distinctive, often ignored point of view — that of a minority that was boldly shedding centuries of bigotry and ignorance and clawing away, slowly, tenaciously, unflaggingly, toward a new day.

They were pissed, they were proud, they were relentless, and they were judicious. And they still are today. (One need only check out April Ryan sparring with Sean Spicer.) They are our brothers and sisters in arms, and they, like us, will not stop.

POSTSCRIPT

 

“Yet, while these developments contributed to the African-American community’s decreasing interest in the Negro Leagues, the black press’ treatment of and relationship with the Negro Leagues played an important role as well. African-American newspapers’ attitudes towards the Negro Leagues shifted dramatically from the cooperative spirit between the two institutions in the 1920s and 1930s, to a fractured, contentious relationship during the 1940s and 1950s. This change influenced African-Americans’ perception of the league. More importantly, the deteriorating relationship between these two black institutions illustrates the struggles African-Americans encountered as they transitioned into an integrated environment.”

— Samuel Edward Gale, The International Journal of the History of Sport, July 2016

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One thought on “The black press: A complex past, a pivotal future

  1. Pingback: Wright, Welch and the Black Diamond | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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