Revised book reveals more about life, legacy of Effa Manley

Abe and Effa Manley (photo courtesy of NoirTech Research)

Editor’s note: The following is an email interview with author and researcher extraordinaire Jim Overmyer about the recent release of a revised version of his landmark 1998 book, “Queen of the Negro Leagues: Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles.” The new version includes rich new details about Manley’s intriguing, trailblazing, influential life and legacy.

As the only woman in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and one who proudly, boldly and doggedly promoted and strengthened both the Newark Eagles, as well as black baseball in general, Manley’s historical impact is virtually incalculable. Take a read of Jim’s thoughts below! …

Ryan Whirty: What are some of the additions, edits and updates in the new version of the book?

Jim Overmyer: There are two major updates. 

Chapter One now includes a substantial amount of new information on Effa’s early life, and also some additional information on her husband Abe. Since she began giving interviews to black baseball historians in the 1970s, she maintained that her mother had revealed to her when she was a young girl that she was a white person, that her mother was Caucasian and her birth father was a white businessman. Even though Effa had been deeply involved in the African-American communities in which she had lived, folks accepted her statements, because, well, there was really no way 40-some years ago to prove or disprove them.

Now, we have the Internet and the millions of genealogical records available through it. Some other researchers and I, including two of Effa’s grand nieces, Cynthia Moore and Michele Welch of Fort Myers, Fla., have been on the trail of Effa’s early life, and we can say that MAYBE she was Caucasian, although quite possibly not entirely.

Jim Overmyer’s book cover

Certainty is not easily achievable in this matter. We have established that her maternal grandmother, Agnes Staley, was white, making Effa’s mother, Bertha, at least partly so. The exact identity of Bertha’s father, Robert Ford, of Washington, D.C., is still a mystery. Filling in his blank on the family tree will answer several important questions, if we can ever do it.

Bertha was married at the time of Effa’s birth to John R. Brooks but told her daughter that her real father was a Philadelphian named John M. Bishop, with whom Bertha had an affair. My research has found a businessman of nearly the same name who could have been Bertha’s lover. But, as in the case of Robert Ford, this will be hard to pin down. However, John Brooks turns out to have led a life of white-collar crime, at which he wasn’t particularly skilled. He went to jail or prison three different times, and there is a strong possibility that he was in jail at the time in 1896 that Effa would have been conceived. We are frustratingly close to pinning that down. 

You might wonder why we are spending so much time on the details of her birth. The answer is that she brought it up first in her interviews and seems to have completely believed what her mother told her. So, we have to try to confirm it, or what kind of historians would we be?

The second major change is at the end of Chapter Ten, the last one, which now concludes with her election in 2006 to the Baseball Hall of Fame. She was one of 17 black baseball figures who were inducted that year based on the work of a special Hall committee.

There are other lesser changes throughout, updating the Hall of Fame status of others mentioned in the book, for example, and adding player statistics from the Seamheads.com Negro League Database, which I see as the most comprehensive and reliable source of black ball stats at this time. 

I was frankly surprised (and pleased) that the rest of the book held up so well since its publication in the 1990s, considering all the Negro League research that has taken place since then.

RW: Much has been written about Effa before this, but with baseball history, there’s always something new to discover. What spurred you to update her story?

JO: I had been going back to her origins whenever a new Internet genealogical information source was available, looking for our missing pieces to the puzzle of her early life. Her grandnieces were doing the same, and Amy Essington, a writer and researcher in Southern California, where Effa spent her last years, was coming up with interesting things from local records. Effa’s election to the Hall was public knowledge, of course, but I had been a member of the election committee, so I was well versed in that.

I had finished a manuscript on a contemporary Negro League owner, Cumberland Posey, and was waiting for it to through the usual publication process when, out of the blue, I got a call from Christen Karniski, the sports acquisitions editor at Rowman & Littlefield, publisher of the 1998 edition of Queen of the Negro Leagues. She wanted to know if I would like to do an updated edition in time for the 2020 centennial of the founding of the first Negro League. Naturally, I did, even in the face of a very short deadline to have the book revised.

Jim Overmyer

R&L was very supportive, and we overcame some hurdles (the original digitized photo files from more than 20 years ago had become lost, for one thing) to bring the finished product in on time. Meanwhile, the Posey book was moving along, and I am in the unusual, but enjoyable, situation of having two books out at the same time.

RW: What do you think made Effa Manley such a captivating figure? Why has her story resonated so much with so many people?

JO: She did not allow the prevailing attitudes of her time regarding gender and race to define her life. Her public persona included being well dressed and getting mentioned in the newspaper society pages, and she liked that.

But even before getting involved in Negro League baseball with her husband Abe in 1935, she was prominent in Harlem as an equal-rights activist. In 1934, she was one of the organizers of the Citizen’s League for Fair Play, a committee campaigning for increased hiring of African-American clerks in Harlem’s white-owned department stores, that instituted picketing and a boycott to make its point. Typically for Effa, she was at a meeting with one store’s executives, where the negotiating wasn’t getting the League anywhere. So, she dived right in:

“We think as much of our colored girls as you do your young white girls, but there’s no work for them except to work as someone’s maid or become prostitutes.”

The department store executives hit the roof, but her response was, “I’m only telling the truth.” After several weeks of picketing, when Effa could sometimes be found walking the line with a sign, the stores gave in and hired black salesclerks.

She was no different as a co-owner of the Newark Eagles. She had distinct ideas of how the black leagues could be run better, and made no bones about her disagreement with the bad business practices that plagued the Negro Leagues, such as the “raiding” of teams’ rosters by other teams and the lack of consistency in keeping to league schedules when potentially lucrative barnstorming opportunities were available.

At one Negro National League winter meeting, when she and Abe protested the hiring of a white booking agent to run the very profitable league games at Yankee Stadium, she called the owners on the other side of the issue “handkerchief heads.” That’s a term you never hear these days, but it was meant to describe household slaves on Southern plantations, who characteristically wore head coverings. Just envision the original Aunt Jemima of syrup fame. Casting Effa’s statement in more modern terms, she was calling these successful black businessmen “Uncle Toms,” and they were madder than hell.

Although the points of comparison are limited, you can draw some connecting lines to a famous contemporary of Effa’s, Eleanor Roosevelt. There had never been a First Lady like her before. She used her access to what her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, had called the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to advocate for many progressive causes (included equal rights). There had been some female owners of sports teams before Effa Manley, but none with her successful track record and outspokenness. 

RW: How was Effa able to stand toe-to-toe with such powerful forces as Cum Posey, Branch Rickey and J.L. Wilkinson, especially at a time when sexism was such a prevailing attitude?

JO: Effa had an enormous amount of self-confidence, and it really didn’t matter who she was talking to, if she thought she was in the right. After Rickey began signing Negro League players for the Dodger system without compensating their former teams (including the Eagles, who lost Don Newcombe that way), she confronted him over the issue in the aisle at a Negro Leagues doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. 

She was certain that she cramped the style of the other Negro League owners at their periodic executive meetings, since business was usually done among the men to the accompaniment of lots of swearing and cigar smoking. She unsettled them more by feeling free to express her opinions on how things were being run. But the other owners had to acknowledge her business acumen, even if they didn’t agree with her opinions. The Eagles were a well run team, and over the years Effa was given assignments that fit her abilities, such as organizing Army-Navy Relief Games during World War II and checking up on the distribution of East-West All-Star Game receipts when the NNL owners were suspicious of having been shorted. 

Her husband Abe Manley, the co-owner of the team, was a genial, well-liked fellow, and spent many terms as NNL treasurer, although he had a major aversion to administrative detail. He would travel with the team and scout talent, but balancing the books and writing letters was definitely not what he wanted to spend time doing. So, Effa did all that work, and while she may not have gotten public credit, everyone else in black baseball knew who really had the power of the checkbook.    

Although Effa and Abe had different personalities and approaches to getting things done, he always backed her up, and vice versa. While some teams had multiple ownership, each had only one vote in league meetings. She and Abe always hashed out their differences, if they had any, ahead of the meetings, and presented a solid front. The two of them got into black baseball in 1935 when Abe, an avid baseball fan, remarked to Effa that the Negro Leagues were a fine idea, but they really weren’t run very well. So, their views on baseball management were pretty well aligned from the beginning.

RW: How can modern baseball fans draw inspiration from Effa Manley? What are some of the enduring lessons that her life and achievements can teach us?

JO: The first version of “Queen,” in my opinion, ended on something of an unavoidable downbeat. The Negro Leagues executives had been almost entirely left behind by integration, and their leagues, and eventually their teams, went out of business. One was left with no way to project Effa’s talents into the future other than to imagine how she would rock white male owners back on their heels, as she had done to her Negro League colleagues, if she had been given the chance to be an executive in integrated ball.

But now, the revised edition ends with her election and induction into the Hall of Fame as its only female member. Her niece, Connie Brooks, accepted Effa’s plaque on Induction Day in 2006, and said, “I’m extremely proud of her because, No. 1, she’s a woman and this is a man’s thing here.”

In the end, Effa Manley had bestowed upon her, albeit posthumously, baseball’s highest honor. It took some waiting (25 years after her death and almost 60 after she got out of professional baseball), but it was worth it.

About the Author

Jim Overmyer specializes in the Negro leagues, although he looks forward to seeing his lifelong heroes, the Chicago Cubs, back on the field. His current books are a new edition of Queen of the Negro Leagues, a biography of Effa Manley, the only woman member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays, one of only two people elected to two American professional sports halls of fame. He is also the author of Black Ball and the Boardwalk, a history of the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants of the Negro leagues.

He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, and belongs to its Negro Leagues, Nineteenth Century, Deadball and Business of Baseball committees. He was a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2006 special committee that voted to induct seventeen persons from the Negro leagues and the black baseball period before the leagues were formed as members of the Hall. He lives in Tucson, Ariz.

All of Jim Overmyer’s books mentioned in this can be purchased through Bookshop.org, an online seller which gives a substantial portion of its profits to benefit independent bookstores.

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