When the historic meeting to form the Negro National League took place in Kansas City in February, 1920, seven owners of teams collaborated with sportswriters, legal advisers and other influential community leaders. What they created was the premier league in which blacks would showcase their talents, generate economic opportunity, and eventually earn entrance to the segregated major leagues. At that meeting, every face in the group was black. Except for one.
Of course Negro league player and owner Andrew “Rube” Foster deserves much of the credit for bringing the parties together and rallying support with the power of his personality. Foster touted unity and sacrifice amongst the competing owners and insisted upon excellence both on and off the field. For his role in pre-integration baseball, Foster was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.
But the one white man in the room that day, J.L. “Wilkie” Wilkinson, probably ranks second in influence for the formation and success of the Negro National League. The lone white owner in the league, Wilkinson was not just accepted into the ring. He commanded such respect from his black peers, in fact, that he was voted secretary of the league at its inception. Wilkinson was accorded such a position because he was known not just as a proponent of great baseball, but of the betterment of life for blacks.
And it was Wilkinson who founded and shepherded the legendary Kansas City Monarchs. Buck O’Neil, Satchel Paige, “Cool Papa” Bell… all the greats associated with the Monarchs owe a debt of gratitude to Wilkinson.
Understandably, most who dreamed of creating a Negro league to rival the “white leagues” of the time desired that 100% of league teams be owned by blacks. To preserve unity, promote prosperity of black business owners, and generate pride in the black community, white owners were not to be considered. But Wilkinson would be the exception.
Wilkinson had earned the respect and trust of whites and blacks from day one. As a young pitcher in Des Moines, IA, he was voted by his peers to manage a team that was left in the lurch by a dishonest manager. His desire for racial harmony led him to form the barnstorming All Nations team in 1912, which featured blacks, whites, Cubans, Native Americans, Mexicans, Asians, and even a female player.
The All Nations organization was more than just baseball, it was entertainment. When they rolled into town, often in their own private railroad car, they brought with them an orchestra and a wrestling team, tents, bleachers and fences. The players did everything from setting up, selling tickets and playing the instruments. This team was not just a novelty however – it produced several stars of the soon-to-be-created Negro National League and was purportedly capable of challenging major league teams of the era.
The All Nations moved in Kansas City in 1915 to access the larger black population and transportation center. World War I caused the All Nations, and many other organizations, to disband, and in 1920 Wilkinson was ready to own a new team when the Negro National League came calling.
Foster tried to pull the league together without Wilkinson, but no leader of suitable clout existed in Kansas City, which was viewed as a critical location for the league. A well-entrenched business leader and baseball man, Wilkinson brought instant credibility to his new team, the Kansas City Monarchs, which he pulled together from members of the defunct All Nations team and an army team from Arizona known as the 25th Infantry Wreckers.
“Wilkie gets credit for being the outstanding baseball promoter in the country and a believer in winning teams,” wrote Fay Young, a sportswriter for the Chicago Defender.
Although some disliked that the white owner was earning a profit off the work of black teams, his own players didn’t seem to mind. While management of Negro league teams was often cut-throat and chaotic, Wilkinson modeled generosity. He once mortgaged his home to make the payroll of his team and was known for loaning money or advancing the salary of players during the off-season. The civic-minded owner scheduled numerous benefit events for organizations such as the Negro National Business League, the Red Cross, the NAACP, the Salvation Army, and a host of churches, hospitals and youth organizations.
Wilkinson astutely empowered black assistants to assume key leadership roles and to represent the franchise in public. He remained in the background while Dr. Howard Smith, superintendent of a Kansas City hospital, and the team’s secretary, Quincy J. Gilmore, took more visible roles.
The Monarchs quickly became a model franchise and the pride of Kansas City’s black community. Wilkinson did his best to make sure the team was professional and respectable. Eager to portray a gentlemanly image, Wilkinson bought each new player from small towns and rural areas a new suit of clothes.
Wilkinson was one of the best at developing potential players at semi-pro “farm clubs.” He revived his All Nations team to season promising youngsters, and he traveled with the Monarchs on barnstorming trips to watch for unsigned players. He spotted O’Neil while playing exhibition matches against a team called Winfield Welch’s Acme Giants of Shreveport, LA.
Everyone in Kansas City wanted to be a Monarch, and Wilkinson held open tryouts. The Monarchs also encouraged many of the semi-pro and community teams in Kansas City as a means not only to feed players to the Monarchs, but also to build pride amongst the black community and to give opportunity to aspiring ballplayers. Often barnstorming teams were sent out under the name “Monarchs” with several of these aspiring players as an opportunity for them to gain experience and to showcase their abilities. Wilkinson also trusted his players to recommend prospects they had met in their travels. He signed Jackie Robinson on the recommendation of one of his star players, Hilton Smith.
The Monarchs were not just one of the teams in the Negro National League. In many ways, they symbolize the game as it was played by blacks before integration. Because the league was formed in the city, and because the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is now located there, Kansas City proudly bears the memory of Negro League baseball.
Truly the team for which everyone wanted to play, the Monarchs fielded some of the greatest players in the Negro league era. Seven current Hall of Famers elected as Negro leaguers – Bell, Bill Foster, Paige, Bullet Joe Rogan, Smith, Turkey Stearnes and Willie Wells — played for Wilkinson’s Monarchs, as did Robinson and Ernie Banks who were voted in for their play in the integrated major leagues.
Wilkinson never got rich running the Monarchs, and finally sold the team in 1948, at age 74. He had little to show for his 50 years in baseball and died at age 90. But a 1986 Baseball Hall of Fame panel assigned to recognize key contributors to the Negro leagues made Wilkinson one of 17 special inductees. Thus Wilkinson will never be forgotten – the lone white man who helped create the Negro National League and piloted its most successful team, the Kansas City Monarchs.
Much of the information for this article was taken from Janet Bruce’s 1985 book The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball. I would strongly recommend this book to any KC sports fan.