Monarchs Kept Afloat by Selling Players to Big Leagues
Integration of the white major leagues was a triumph for America, but it sent black baseball teams spinning into a new direction in the late 1940s.
To say integration killed Negro League baseball would be not quite accurate but the signing of Jackie Robinson did come just as the new “league” was still an infant.
A Negro “league” had not really held teams in unity for several years, coming together after The Depression. Barnstorming, players jumping contracts and player raids by owners, made black baseball unorganized throughout most of the 1930s. The Negro National League of the west and the Eastern Colored League had been so fragmented throughout the 1930s that league championships held little meaning. No World Series was held from 1927 to 1942.
All that was changing, however, and in the late 1930s and early 1940s, things were taking shape once again. The Kansas City Monarchs were back on top, winning the 1942 World Series, and they signed Robinson in 1945, only to have him “raided” by the Brooklyn Dodgers Branch Rickey.
What is now heralded as an admirable stand for justice may not have been completely magnanimous on Rickey’s part. Some believe, rather than intending to integrate white baseball, Rickey was actually attempting to use Robinson to form a new Negro league to compete with the existing leagues. Regardless of his motive, Rickey paid the Monarchs, the team with which Robinson was under contract, absolutely nothing.
Player raiding had plagued the Negro Leagues for years. But the practice had lost favor by the 1940s, and J.L. Wilkinson, the white owner of the Monarchs, felt disrespected and violated by the Dodgers’ nabbing of Robinson. He and partner Tom Baird protested to everyone who would listen, but decided against lodging a formal complaint to Major League Happy Chandler.
To attempt to block Robinson’s departure could have slowed the integration that was finally at hand. So the Monarchs were forced to relent. But the handwriting was on the wall, and from that moment everything changed for black teams.
Suddenly fans weren’t as interested in the aging legends of black baseball. They came, black and white alike, to see the future stars who would inevitably be added to white teams. Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, Don Newcombe – it was now the young studs that all eyes were upon.
But worse than that for black teams, was that attendance immediately took a hit. Black fans took new interest in the major leagues. Attendance in the Negro American League (based mostly in the Midwest) dropped by about half in 1947 from what it had been a few years earlier. Teams tried cutting payroll to stay afloat. The affect of salary reduction made the game even more suited for youngsters. Older players who were used to higher salaries and doubted their chances of making the major leagues jumped to Mexico or the Caribbean. Youths hoping to follow in Robinson’s footsteps were concerned more with opportunity than with salary. They were more likely to stick it out than their older counterparts.
It wasn’t long before the Negro Leagues transformed from the pinnacle of black baseball to a training ground for eager young prospects. Teams trying to stay in the black seized this new opportunity. If they couldn’t keep the big leagues out, they could at least get a piece of the action. After the Cleveland Indians’ Bill Veeck actually recompensed the Newark Eagles for Doby’s services, a new business boomed.
Since the Kansas City Monarchs were still an elite team, they had some of the best players for the white teams to pick from. In 1947, the year Robinson debuted in Brooklyn, the Monarchs sent Willard Brown and Hank Thompson to the St. Louis Browns. Next, they sent Satchel Paige to Bill Veeck’s Indians in 1948. At that point, black baseball teams began, by necessity, to care more about developing young big leaguers than about winning games. The 1949 the Monarchs actually voluntarily dropped out of the playoffs because they’d sold off four key players.
After 1949 there would be no more player raids without payment, a la Jackie Robinson. A minimum payment of $5,000 was set when Irvin signed with the New York Giants. The Monarchs scored the biggest profit in the Negro American League when they sold Ernie Banks and Bill Dickey for $20,000 in 1953.
All in all, the Monarchs sold 25 players to the major leagues, gaining the reputation of a Negro baseball preparatory school. Some teams actually formed alliances with major league teams, as the Monarchs allied themselves with the New York Yankees. The Monarchs would ship four players to the Yankees in 1949 and 1950, including future MVP Elston Howard.
Integration changed not only the segregated white leagues but also the Negro Leagues. The need for an all-Negro league disappeared after integration, but the exhibition of major league prospects kept black baseball going for nearly a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.