Review of J.L. Wilkinson and the Kansas City Monarchs

William A. Young. J.L. Wilkinson and the Kansas City Monarchs: Trailblazers in Black Baseball. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017. $35.00 paperback.

Reviewed by Josh Howard.

This book began, like so many other projects, with a trip to a museum. William Young was inspired by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City and the story presented there not just of baseball, but of democracy, equality, and human dignity. Young also cites a specific picture in museums exhibits that caught his eye: the team photos from the first Negro Leagues World Series in 1924. In this photo, the players are all lined up ready to ball, and all the faces are black except for one. That would be J.L. Wilkinson. As Young continued through the museum, he began to wonder more about this white man. How did he come to own the best Negro leagues ballclub? How was he perceived by the black ballplayers? And what was Wilkinson’s perception of them?

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Part of the team photo from the inaugural Colored World Series, 1924. 

Wilkinson was highly respected, with the iconic Buck O’Neal often speaking highly of the man, but he had not been remembered well throughout the late-twentieth century. In 2006, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, reformed their long defunct Special Committee on the Negro Leagues to revisit the question of enshrining former Negro league players who had been overlooked by others. This committee had been active for most of the 1970s and did their job well, but had only elected nine former players before electing to disband. The responsibility of enshrining African Americans from baseball’s segregated past then fell to the Veteran’s Committee, who were mandated by Commissioner Bug Selig to elect one former Negro leaguer a year from 1995 to 2001. After this, Selig provided the NBHOF with a grant to conduct “an extensive study of black baseball before 1960” which was used to reform the Special Committee as a one-off affair in 2006. This Special Committee placed importance in electing executives as well as players. Among them were Alex Pompez, Cum Posey, Sol White, and the first (and only) female inductee, Effa Manley.

The Special Committee also elected J.L. Wilkinson, best known as the founder and owner of the Kansas City Monarchs for the majority of the club’s existence. Wilkinson was responsible for several baseball innovations, primarily night baseball as his clubs played night games as early as 1930, five years before the MLB did so. He also required his players present “a positive image to the public,” which included dressing well, acting nicely, never smoking or drinking (in public), and not cussing during games, so as to provide the club and league with legitimacy (5). Wilkinson also hustled – Young compares him to Bill Veeck – with original promotions like kid’s days and new labor practices, like hiring female ushers to both make female fans more comfortable and to hopefully reduce rowdiness in male clientele.

With this biographical work, William Young’s primary goal was to tell as full a biographical record as possible so as to expand on the story of the Negro leagues, the Kansas City Monarchs, and – perhaps most importantly – the lesser told stories of black baseball owners. One of the more important components of this work is Young’s work in documenting Wilkinson’s All-Nations Team, a precursor to the Monarchs that operated from 1912 to 1919, that provides depth to the “invisible” forerunners to organized Negro leagues. This all-nations club functioned like many other successful barnstorming clubs of the era organized around racial, ethnic, or national groups, except for Wilkinson explicitly recruited men from diverse backgrounds (supposedly including Cuban, Filipino, Hawaiian, Japanese, Native American, and a variety of European backgrounds) and played them all on the same club. Young also answers some important questions about Wilkinson’s involvement in the Negro National League, primarily “Why did Wilkinson get involved?” Another important question is why did other owners, who were all black, all agree to do business with Wilkinson when the goal of the Negro National League was to “keep Colored baseball from the control of the whites” (25). These questions are answered in bits and pieces throughout this work, but generally the answers lie in Wilkinson’s personal friendship and business relations with Rube Foster alongside Wilkinson’s personal drive “to have the best” baseball club as a club owner (29).

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All-Nations Club, c. 1915

Another key aspect of this biography is Wilkinson’s role in the debut of Jackie Robinson with the Dodgers. Rightfully so, Young deeply investigates the role of journalists, namely Wendell Smith and Sam Lacy, in pressuring white major league teams to consider black ballplayers in the late-1930s and 1940s before investigating Wilkinson’s role. The role of Wilkinson seems a bit light in this chapter, but Young does an ample job using primary sources to display Wilkinson’s initial reticence at Robinson’s departure. The Monarchs were famously not compensated by the Dodgers, which was certainly bad for business, but Wilkinson made efforts to speak publicly in favor of the signing because of its greater meaning. Young does go on to investigate what Wilkinson’s true feelings were beyond public statements and found some evidence that Wilkinson long held ill will toward Branch Rickey for refusing to compensate the Monarchs. Wilkinson’s son is quoted as holding a bit of a grudge as well: “…few thought to remember the man who had made it possible – J.L. Wilkinson. Dad never got paid for Jackie. Rickey Never paid anybody for anything. Nothing could be done about it in those days” (151).

To tell this story, Young drew on a range of resources. He used the most common historical sources extensively, such as the NBHOF archives, university-held archival collections, black newspaper the Kansas City Call, and secondary sources written by preeminent sport historians. The most important of these came from Janet Bruce Vaughn, author of the 1985 work The Kansas City Monarchs. Family also served as a huge resource for Young. He was able to contact Wilkinson’s grandchildren and cousins, and Vaughn shared oral history interviews she had conducted with Wilkinson’s son and daughter.

If any criticism could be levied, some extra context and historiography was needed in some points to better contextualize this complex history that involves a white owner operating in the African-American part of a segregated world. For instance, Young only briefly mentions the Red Summer of 1919 and does not explain the deep impact these riots had on race relations and public consciousness. Young mentions how Wilkinson approach the great future Yankees manager Casey Stengel, then a player for the Pirates, with the idea to play a white versus black all-star game “as the rioting raged,” but there is no indication why Wilkinson did this, the socio-economic purpose of such a game, or even how the game played out (25). Further, this work is organized chronologically, which makes sense, but some extra structure could have helped to highlight some of Wilkinson’s work outside of the Negro leagues, such as early all-women teams or his connection to the Harlem Globetrotters.

Overall, this is a fine work of biography for anyone interested in the inner workings of the Negro leagues, especially the earlier formative days. Young goes into incredible detail, and this work can serve as a primary resource as much as a work of analysis. A multitude of works have been focused on early leaders like Rube Foster and Cum Posey, and now Young’s biographical work of Wilkinson can stand proudly on a bookshelf alongside biographical works of this understated early executive.

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