In this third in a series of posts on notable folks who have been housed under my ubiquitous name, I hereby pay tribute to a star of the 1946 Newark Eagles, who were one of the great all time teams of the Negro Leagues that existed in the apartheid days of Major League Baseball. They won the “Negro World Series” that year by defeating the Kansas City Monarchs four games to three. I found out about Mr. Davis after purchasing the Negro Leagues Baseball Card Set from APBA Games, who make board game simulations of various sports. (They also succumbed to do computer games in recent years.) My stepfather bought me an APBA baseball game set when I was a kid, because he had loved the game growing up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where the game used to be manufactured and developed. (They’ve since moved.) My stepfather knew his baseball, having pitched against future MLB star Bruce Sutter in high school.
One thing I like about APBA is the way it teaches you about baseball history. Each player has a card with 2 or 3 columns of numbers on it. You roll a pair of dice, coming up with a two digit number rather than combining the two #s to get one. (The dice are color coded for this purpose.) Then you take that number and read a corresponding number off the card. You take that second number and put it into to situational charts that come up with a result that varies depending on the defense, pitching, and game situation. It sounds confusing but it’s not that hard once you get the hang of it. Anyway, after playing the game for awhile, you notice the patterns in the cards, and they start to tell you more about the player. So when I looked at the card below, I raised my eyebrows and said, “wow.”
A zero in the first column means you get to roll again and use a corresponding result from the second column. Those numbers are smaller, and single digit numbers usually mean hits, with 1 being a home run. 11’s mean a single followed by a stolen base, while 13 almost always is a strike out. Mr. Davis’s card has four zeroes in the first column, which is highly unusual. He also has a 1 in the first column at 66, which is rare, and means he hits lots of home runs. At the same time, he has many 11’s, which means that he had a rare combination of power and speed. He also hit for average – he hit .4oo in consecutive seasons, 1944 and 1945, before falling back to earth by hitting .301 in 1946. He has the lowest possible defensive rating for an outfielder – 1 – but you can’t have it all.
Mr. Davis wasn’t the marquee player on his team that year. That distinction belonged to two players who went on to perform in the major leagues, Monty Irvin and Larry Doby, who was the first black player to play in the American League. Most people would look on the fact that Davis never made that jump as a sad story, which it is. But it’s also a more complicated story than current celebrations of the legacy of Jackie Robinson and the breaking of the color line would have you believe.
There was a downside to that rightly celebrated historical transition. It had to do with the demise of the Negro Leagues, which represented much more than just exclusion from the “Majors.” It also stood for black owned and operated businesses. Because once the players moved over to MLB, they were working for white owners, front offices, and managers. While those ranks are more diverse than they used to be, there are no black majority owners in the game today, despite Magic Johnson’s recent purchase of a minority stake in the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In addition, while the star players were able to move over to the majors, the total number of jobs available to black players shrunk as the Negro Leagues began to lose revenue and eventually folded. As time went on, MLB teams were willing to take on people of color as “role players” but that took awhile. Most teams had limits on how many black players they would take on their roster for years, and some did not integrate at all for quite some time.
The Boston Red Sox were the last team to hire a black player in 1959. They didn’t sign a black free agent until 1993, as Howard Bryant chronicles in his book Shut Out, which shatters the mythology around the “Curse of the Bambino” built up by white Boston sportwriters like the insufferable Dan Shaughnessy. The books shows that the 80 odd year title drought in Boston was due in large part to the racism of its ownership group, who turned down opportunities to sign both Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, who Bryant quotes as saying there’s no telling what he could have accomplished playing in the same outfield as Ted Williams.
Bashers of the Red Sox overlook how teams that are remembered as progressive forces for good maintained their own quota system. In the preface to Bryant’s book, Roger Angell writes about that the Brooklyn Dodgers and GM Branch Rickey, who broke the color line by employing Jackie Robinson, also turned down the opportunity to bring the budding superstar Roberto Clemente on board because of an unwritten rule forbidding the team from fielding a starting lineup with a majority of black players. Like a present day Supreme Court nomination, Clemente’s presence on the roster would have titled the balance from 5-4 to 4-5 from the perspective of white owners and fans.
The filmmaker John Sayles has commented on this issue not so much with respect to baseball but the transition that took place as a result of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. In an interview on Democracy Now, Amy Goodman asks Sayles about the following scene, which she plays a clip of on the show. She introduces it by saying, “In this scene, a young African-American man walking on the beach in Florida is invited by an older African-American man to a public meeting about the future of the beach.” The topic that comes up is the demise of a black-owned resort, a subject that is also examined by Toni Morrison’s great novel Love.
DR. LLOYD: Prettiest beach on the Atlantic Coast.
REGGIE PERRY: Yeah. It is pretty.
DR. LLOYD: Well, if you want to help save it, we’re having a protest rally on Monday over at the groundbreaking.
REGGIE PERRY: I’m just visiting.
DR. LLOYD: Believe me, they won’t know the difference.
REGGIE PERRY: So, this is like a ecological thing?
DR. LLOYD: We’re trying to save an endangered species: us.
REGGIE PERRY: Yeah, I heard about this place when I was a kid, but I never —
DR. LLOYD: Forties, ’50s, Lincoln Beach was it. Only oceanfront in three counties we were allowed to step onto. Black folks — I’m talking about the pillars of the community — got together and bought this land, built the houses. You drive through a couple hundred miles of redneck sheriffs, park your ride on the boardwalk, step out and just breathe. Over there was Henry’s Lounge. That place used to jump.
REGGIE PERRY: So what happened?
DR. LLOYD: Civil rights happened. Progress. Used to be you’re black, you buy black. Jim Crow days, you need your shoes shined or wanted to ride in a taxi to the train station, wanted some ribs, fish sandwich, chances are a black man owned the place you got it in. Now the drive-throughs serve anybody. But who owns them? Not us. All our people does is wearing paper hats and dipping out them fries. Only thing we got left are funeral parlors and barbershops.
REGGIE PERRY: Yeah, but now we can do anything.
DR. LLOYD: Yeah. Them that get over do fine. Them that can’t are in a world of trouble.
Recently, scholars have been debating these pros and cons of integration with regards to the legacy of Malcolm X, in light of the current situation in which economic opportunity and conditions for working class people of color are declining as conditions for “those that got over,” as Sunshine State refers to them, improve in the era of Obama. The late Manning Marable’s biography A Life of Reinvention has been criticized by the authors of A Lie of Reinvention for portraying this advocacy as a phase he moved away from later in his life. I haven’t read either book, but I thought of Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus while reading about it. The film presents itself as a progressive artifact while surreptitiously celebrating the preservation of white economic hegemony in the era of integration. I could write a whole other post about the film, but it basically celebrates the fact that the fall of Apartheid left economic power in the same hands that held it before, while admitting a small minority of blacks into that club. In many respects, the film struck as a parable about the Civil Rights movement in the United States.
So once again, here’s to players like Mr. John Davis of the Newark Eagles who made possible a sector of the American economy that was owned and operated by people of color. It would be great if institutions like Major League Baseball, CNN et al. could include a discussion of the economic conditions that lead to the current absence of people of color among the ranks of baseball teams owners during the annual celebrations of Jackie Robinson’s legacy. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.