A look at the desegregation of the PCL

Amy Essington’s new book

Founded in 1903, the Pacific Coast League is one of the country’s oldest, most venerated and most tradition-laden professional baseball circuits. Because of its historical existence “out West,” far from many other pro leagues, the now-Triple-A PCL has arguably the richest, most distinctive and most idiosyncratic histories of all the high-level leagues.

Regionally revered and geographically molded, the tale of the PCL involves its own unique, and until now unheralded stories of racial integration. In a region that, throughout the early and mid-20th century, featured a racially and culturally diverse population — and, therefore, a similarly diverse baseball scene — that made the desegregation of the PCL, from the time John Ritchey debuted with the San Diego Padres in 1948 to Artie Wilson and Bob Boyd joined the Seattle Rainers in 1952, a fascinating tale.

That story has just been illuminated and fleshed out by Amy Essington, a lecturer at California State University at Fullerton and Cal Poly Pomona and the executive director of Historical Society of Southern California (among other roles), whose book, “The Integration of the Pacific Coast League: Race and Baseball in the West,” was published last June by the University of Nebraska Press.

In the volume, Essington does a fantastic job of portraying what made the PCL and its desegregation story so compelling, so complex and so unheralded. With a focused but also breezy and approachable tone and style, the book looks at the integration experiences of each of the existing PCL teams at the time (eight in total) with a light touch that emphasis personalities and the human experience over number-crunching.

In other words, the book is an excellent buy and highly recommended by this blogger. Below is a lightly-edited email interview conducted with Essington earlier this month …

Ryan Whirty: How did you get interested in the subject of the integration of the PCL? What about it drew you to it?

Amy Essington: I have always been interested in generations which create change. Why that generation decides to act differently from generations before and how their actions change society. I came to study integration through [National Baseball Hall of Famer] Effa Manley. She was someone who broke barriers and challenged norms for people of her race and gender. She also played a key role in the transition of Negro League players to major league teams. Major league teams wanted to sign several players under contract with the Newark Eagles, the team she co-owned with her husband, Abe Manley. The Brooklyn Dodgers did not compensate the Kansas City Monarchs for the contract of Jackie Robinson. Effa Manley knew that was a terrible precedent and demanded money for the contract of [NBHOFer and American League integrator] Larry Doby.

As I began to research integration, I realized it is much more than Jackie Robinson. While he and [Brooklyn Dodgers owner] Branch Rickey played leading roles, I believe the success of integration came when other players joined other teams across the major and minor leagues.

RW: Why do you think that there had been so little interest in the topic before you approached it?

AE: Within baseball history, fewer historians focus on the West and fewer focus on the minor leagues. There is a very active interest in the history of the Pacific Coast League on the West Coast. I think there is bias in baseball history toward teams from East Coast and on the major leagues. A story I tell frequently is about the summer I worked as an intern in the library of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a wonderful experience, but I found that a lot of the folks were more interested in the teams in the east of the Mississippi and teams and players from the major leagues. Even the files at the Hall of Fame did not have much about the West or from West Coast newspapers. Out of that summer, my interest in the baseball in the West and integration beyond the National and American leagues joined together and became a project on the integration of the Pacific Coast League.

Amy Essington at the National Baseball Hall of Fame during an earlier summer internship

RW: How good were the PCL teams of the area in question, and how good were John Ritchey and the other men who integrated the league?

AE: I am a social historian, so I don’t focus on stats as much as others do, but individuals who integrated the PCL included major-league quality players. Fifteen of the players had time in the major leagues, averaging just over three seasons. Players like Frank Barnes, Bob Boyd, Luke Easter, Minnie Miñoso, Harry Simpson and Bob Thurman. They spent between a cup of coffee and 12 seasons in the major leagues. Many of these players had already passed the peak of their playing days, otherwise more might gone to the majors.

RW: What kind of treatment did these trailblazers face? What challenges did they face along the way?

AE: The treatment players experienced was mixed. It varied by player, by team and by city. The integration of the PCL was not covered by the press in the same way that the players in the majors were covered, and certainly not to the extent that Jackie Robinson was scrutinized. They did face challenges on the field with spikes and bean balls from opposing teams, but they also faced segregation off the field. The West did not have the formal Jim Crow segregation of the South, but it did have discrimination. Non-white players might have to sit in a segregated balcony at the movie theater or discover which restaurants would refuse to serve them. During his first spring training, John Ritchey did not stay in the hotel with his teammates. He was newly married, but even in Ontario, Calif., he was set apart.

RW: What interesting or surprising little nuggets of information did you come across while working on this book?

AE: When I began researching, I knew about Jimmy Claxton playing for Oakland in 1916, but I thought I would be focusing on the period of 1948-1952. What surprised me was the diversity of players who played on PCL teams before 1948. Teams included Native Hawaiian, Asian, Asian-American and Latinos players. The players who faced discrimination were the players defined by others as black. As I argue in my book, the color line was about excluding blackness.

RW: What has been the reaction to the book since it was published? Are you encouraged about the possibility that it might help lead the way for further scholarship about African-American and other people of color throughout the history of the PCL?

AE: The reaction has been generally positive. One of my goals was to document the events of integration across the PCL. The list of players who integrated was not new, but the process of how the league integrated had not been explored. I hope that the book will help remind folks that baseball was played across the country and that the West played an important role in integration. The stories of the people of color who played in the PCL need to be told in greater detail. The West has such an interesting and diverse racial history that our story is different than in other parts of the country.

RW: Where do you go from here? What are you working on now?

AE: I would like to look more closely at the seasons of integration and the experiences of the players day-to-day. In my book, I brought the story up to the first player who integrated, or really desegregated, each team. I would like to investigate more about what the players experienced during the seasons. I am writing an article about Jackie Robinson growing up in Pasadena. I am also working on a project of Effa Manley living in Southern California. She came to Los Angeles in 1956. She died there and is buried in Culver City.

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Negro League bobbleheads, and how you can help

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The already produced Satchel Paige bobblehead (all images courtesy Phil Sklar/The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum)

In one of the most unlikely but thoroughly delightful developments within the sports memorabilia culture over the last two or three decades has been the emergence and evolution of the bobblehead. As the calendar turns to 2019, players and other sports personalities know they’ve hit the big time when they receive one of the little keepsakes with the bobbing, oversize noggins.

Couple that with the upcoming celebration the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first Negro National League in 1920, and the time has arrived — well deserved and overdue — for the creation of an officially licensed series of bobbleheads honoring the greats of the Negro Leagues.

As the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City works with the Dreams Fulfilled organization to plan for a celebration of that centennial moment, the two entities have joined with the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum — itself in the final stages of construction and development — located in Milwaukee to produce a line of bobbleheads memorializing the 30 legendary players, one manager and one team owner named the the NLBM’s Negro League Centennial Team, the roster of which was unveiled last year.

To that end, a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation and production of the bobblehead series was launched Dec. 12 and runs through Jan.7, which gives folks several more days to contribute. A Satchel Paige bobblehead has already been produced, and one for Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley has been designed.

The following is a lightly edited email interview about the bobblehead Kickstarter effort with Phil Sklar, the founder of the bobblehead museum:

Ryan Whirty: What inspired you to launch the series of Negro Leagues bobbleheads?

Phil Sklar: We were approached by Jay Caldwell, the founder of NegroLeaguesHistory.com, about collaborating on a series of Negro Leagues bobbleheads. He is leading the effort related to the special exhibit at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum for the Negro Leagues centennial in 2020 and wanted bobbleheads to play a prominent role. We really liked the idea, and I’ve always been interested in learning more about the Negro Leagues since going to Kansas City as a teenager and having an opportunity to go to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

RW: Why do you think there’s been an extreme dearth so far of Negro Leagues bobbleheads? Are you hoping to fill a much-needed niche with this project?

PS: I think there are a few reasons. The first is that bobbleheads weren’t being produced back when the Negro Leaguers were playing. However, there weren’t bobbleheads when Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and other legends were playing, and many of those Hall of Famers have a dozen bobbleheads or more. Just under half of the players in the Centennial Series have had a bobblehead before, but many of those bobbleheads weren’t readily available. A few teams have honored Negro Leaguers with bobbleheads and the NLBM has produced several, but in general, a very small number of Negro Leagues players have had bobbleheads.  

Effa Manley Bobblehead

The design for the Effa Manley bobblehead

RW: How has the Kickstarter campaign gone so far? Are you optimistic that you’ll reach your goal?

PS: The campaign has been excellent so far! We hit our initial $10,000 goal within 24 hours of launching the campaign and are now approaching $60,000, which is our second stretch goal. Although we were thrilled to reach the goal so soon, the full cost of producing 500 of each legend featured in the Centennial Series is over $100,000, and a production run of at least 500 enables us to offer the bobbleheads at a reasonable retail price so more people can afford them.

The organizers agreed to take on this risk if the Kickstarter reached the $10,000 goal, but going over the goal will help alleviate this burden, enable us to produce additional bobbleheads featuring other teams and players, and promote the series more broadly. Our first stretch goal was $40,000, and since we hit that goal, we’ll be producing the first bobblehead of [Newark Eagles owner] Effa Manley, who is the only female member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

RW: How are the players and managers to be represented in the bobblehead series going to be chosen? How can readers and the rest of the public participate in the selection process?

PS: The Negro League Centennial Team (1920 – 2020) will be comprised of 30 of the greatest African-American and Cuban players from 1895-1947 plus a manager and a team owner. Each individual will be depicted on a baseball-shaped base with replica of Kansas City’s Paseo YMCA, the site where the Negro National League was organized on Feb. 13, 1920. Satchel Paige was the first player selected to the Centennial team, and his bobblehead has been completed. Paige will be joined by 10 additional pitchers, three catchers, five outside infielders (1B, 3B), three inside infielders (2B, SS), seven outfielders, one utility player, a manager and an owner. The selected players were voted on through an on-line poll and supplemented by a selection of five additional, deserving players.

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The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum is preparing to open to the public

RW: What is the status of the Bobblehead Museum? How close are you to opening, and what still needs to be done?

PS: The Hall of Fame and Museum has been set up for several months, and we’re just putting some finishing touches on it while we wait for the final city permits. We were delayed by the need to install a sprinkler system, and that process should be done next week! We have a preview event for members Jan. 5 and 6, and we’ll be opening to the public in January and will have a grand opening in the spring. The collection is approaching 10,000 unique bobbleheads and growing daily. We have about 6,500 of those on display with the ability to rotate and have special exhibits.

RW: Why do you think bobbleheads in general have become so popular in America and across the world? What about them appeals to fans and collectors?

PS: I think bobbleheads have become so popular because they’re affordable, fun, and they appeal to virtually everyone. They often appreciate in value, which makes collecting them an even more attractive hobby. We see all age groups collecting and enjoying bobbleheads, and that’s likely due to the affordability — a majority of bobbleheads are “free” since fans receive them when going to a game.

For more information on or to contribute to the Negro League bobblehead Kickstarter effort, go here. To check out the The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum, use this link. The Negro League Baseball Museum Facebook page is here. Finally, check out the Dreams Fulfilled effort here.

Read an article about the Negro League bobbleheads in the Kansas City Star here and one written by the Associated Press posted on ESPN.com as well.

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