The first lady of black baseball
Manley was an innovator in the Negro Leagues
By Aimee Crawford
Effa Manley, with her husband, Abe, received money after her Negro League stars defected to the Major Leagues.
Effa Manley was ahead of her time.
In the 1930s and '40s, women were often viewed as second-class citizens, and blacks were accorded few rights. According to the established rules of society, neither were considered qualified to contend at baseball's highest level. But Effa Manley had little use for those rules -- or for establishment, for that matter.
Like greats Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, she was a pioneer in breaking down baseball's racial barriers. Unlike those two, Manley faced the additional obstacle of gender bias.
Aggressive and progressive, glamorous and magnanimous, Manley overcame each to make her mark as one of the most fascinating and significant figures in Negro League history.
Jimmy Rollins and Juan Pierre accepted Legacy Awards last week from the employees at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
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While the very existence of the Negro Leagues was necessary because of the racial divides in the United States, black baseball not only survived -- it excelled.
Barnstorming was common place in the Negro Leagues.
"She was unique and effervescent and knowledgeable," says Monte Irvin, the Hall of Famer who played shortstop and outfield for the Newark Eagles, the Negro League team Manley co-owned with her husband, Abe. "She ran the whole business end of the team."
A born entrepreneur, Manley was the only female owner in the history of Negro Leagues. Effa and Abe ran the Eagles, a Negro National League team, from 1935-48. And her considerable influence extended beyond baseball as well; she was also active in the black civil rights movement.
Manley was born March 27, 1900. Her birth, like much of her life, was controversial. Within the black community, Manley rarely discussed her heritage, and most people assumed she was a light-skinned black. But Manley claimed in an interview in 1973 that she was white. Her mother, Bertha Ford Brooks, was white, of German and Asian-Indian descent. Effa explained that Bertha, who earned a living as a seamstress, became pregnant by her white employer, John M. Bishop, a wealthy Philadelphian. Manley's black stepfather, Benjamin Brooks, sued Bishop and received a settlement of $10,000 before he and Bertha divorced. Bertha remarried, and Effa was raised in a household with a black step-father and black half-siblings, and so chose to live as a black person.
After graduation from high school in Philadelphia, Effa moved to New York, where she took work in the millinery business. Fittingly, she met Abe Manley, a man 24 years her senior, at the 1932 World Series at Yankee Stadium.
"Babe Ruth made a baseball fan of me," Manley once said. "I used to go to Yankee Stadium just to see him come to bat."
Abe and Effa married the following year, on June 15, 1935.
According to Effa, Abe had made his considerable fortune through a number of successful investments in real estate. After watching Negro League teams barnstorming around the country, he "decided he'd like to see baseball organized," according to Effa. Other sources suggest Abe made his money in "numbers banking," or racketeering.
Together, the Manleys started a Negro League team in Brooklyn later in 1935, naming the team the Eagles. "I guess he hoped they'd fly high," said Effa. The Eagles played in Ebbets Field, home to the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Eagles were unable to compete with the Dodgers for fans, and the Manleys decided they had to move the team if they were to survive financially. They bought the Newark Dodgers, a black semi-pro team, and moved the Eagles to Newark in 1936.
"Abe and I had a magnificent partnership," Effa once said. "He got the club together and I took care of the business details. It was a perfect partnership."
Though she had no prior financial experience, Effa assumed an active role as co-owner.
"The Manleys were a very unusual combination," says Monte Irvin. "Mrs. Manley was a very astute businesswoman and she became very knowledgeable about baseball affairs."
She took over day-to-day business operations of the team, arranged playing schedules, planned the team's travel, managed and met the payroll, bought the equipment, negotiated contracts, and handled publicity and promotions.
Fellow owner Cumberland Posey of the Homestead Grays once wrote that "Negro baseball owners can take a few tips from the lady member of the league when it comes to advertising."
Thanks to her rallying efforts, more than 185 VIPs -- including New York Mayor Fiorello LeGuardia, who threw out the first pitch, and Charles C. Lockwood, justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York -- were on hand to watch the Eagles' inaugural game in 1935. But the Eagles proved unable to rise to the occasion, and dropped the opener to the Homestead Grays, 21-7.
George Giles, the Eagles first baseman at the time, recalled that Manley did not take the loss well.
"The Homestead Grays near killed us! ... Mrs. Manley left (the ballpark),"said Giles. "When she was displeased, the world came to an end. She'd stop traffic. ...
"Mrs. Manley loved baseball, but she couldn't stand to lose. I was a pretty hard loser myself, but I think she'd take it more seriously than anybody."
So seriously that she was unwilling to suffer it for long. When the Eagles finished with a losing record that first season, Manley insisted that manager Ben Taylor be fired and replaced with Giles. Giles said Abe Manley approached him and told him, "My wife wants you to manage the ballclub."
Effa Manley was not afraid to offer advice -- solicited and otherwise -- to the media, to her own players and to fellow Negro League owners. It wasn't always appreciated.
Dan Burley, sports editor for the Amsterdam New York Star-News wrote in 1942, "Effa Manley has long been a sore sport in the N.N.L. (Negro National League) setup ... the rough and tumble gentlemen comprising its inner sanction have complained often and loudly that 'baseball ain't no place for a woman.'"
Although many of the men in the sport resented her -- and grumbled loudly about her brashness -- they certainly respected her. Abe was the league's official treasurer, but in name only. Effa handled not only the Eagles finances, but those of the Negro National League as well.
Manley was also known as a players' advocate. She fought for better schedules, better travel and better salaries.
Manley recognized that her team was a community resource. Said former Eagles star Max Manning: "The Eagles were to (black) Newark what the Dodgers were to Brooklyn."
James Overmyer, author of "Queen of the Negro Leagues," a biography of Manley, notes that she also worked to make sure the "team had an image of upholding the black community's best standards."
Manley was also a social activist and a crusader for black civil rights. As part of her work for the Citizen's League for Fair Play, Manley organized a 1934 boycott of a Harlem stores that refused to hire black salesclerks. After six weeks, the owners of the stores relented, and a year later 300 blacks were employed by stores on 125th Street.
Manley served as the treasurer of the Newark chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and often used Eagles games to promote civic causes. In 1939, Manley held an "Anti-Lynching Day" at Ruppert Stadium.
Several stories about her have become part of Negro League folklore. One such tale is of her demanding that Terris McDuffie be the starting pitcher for a certain game because she wanted to show him off the women of her social club. Another had her giving signs to players by crossing and uncrossing her legs to signal bunts.
More precisely documented are instances in which she went above and beyond the call of duty to take care of her players.
According to Irvin, Manley provided the Eagles with an air-conditioned, $15,000 Flexible Clipper bus -- a first for the Negro Leagues -- in 1946. Worried about what her players would do for employment during the offseason, she and Abe sponsored a team in the Puerto Rican winter leagues.
Manley helped develop the careers of dozens of players, and treated many like family. She and Abe served as godparents to Larry Doby's first child. They loaned Monte Irvin money for a down payment on his first house.
"After I quit playing, she started me out in business," said former player Lenny Pearson. "She interceded for me and spoke to people and helped me. She financed the first tavern I ever had. A beautiful, beautiful person in all ways."
But in return for her generosity, she expected obedience.
"Mrs. Manley was the disciplinarian of the teams," recalled pitcher James Walker. "She would call you in and tell you how to dress, what to do, who to associate with. When you had your problems, if they were personal, you went to Mrs. Manley, and she was very understanding, as long as you toed the line."
END OF AN ERA
During World War II, Negro Leagues attendance reached all-time highs. By the end of the war, the leagues were a $2 million enterprise and represented one of the largest black-dominated businesses in the U.S.
After the war, integration of Major League baseball became a hot-button issue. The color line was broken in 1946 when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to play for Montreal, the Dodgers' Triple-A International League team.
That year was a watershed one for Manley and the Eagles, too. Newark beat the Kansas City Monarchs in a thrilling, seven-game Negro League World Series.
"And," said Manley later of the championship, "I believe we could have beaten the winners of the white World Series [the Cardinals], too,"
Robinson broke into the Major Leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Integration -- as well as the increased popularity of other entertainment options, such as television -- took its toll on the Negro Leagues. Attendance at Eagles games plummeted, from 120,000 in 1946 to 57,000 in 1948, and Newark, like many other Negro League teams, found itself no longer able to generate profits.
After Rickey successfully recruited pitcher Don Newcombe away from Newark and convinced him to join the Dodgers, Manley took action. She wrote letters to Rickey asking him to meet with her. Rickey did not respond, but Manley continued to fight for just compensation and speak out against the raiding of Negro League teams without reparation.
Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck called Manley in 1947, inquiring about Larry Doby. They agreed to a deal that ultimately paid the Manleys $15,000 in exchange for Doby, who became the first black player in the American League. The deal established a precedent, and Major League owners from then on paid an average of $5,000 for each Negro Leaguer they signed.
In 1947, thanks to declining attendance, the Eagles lost $20,000, and the Manleys sold the team to Dr. W.H. Young, a black dentist in Memphis, Tenn.
Abe had spent more than $100,000 of his own money on the team, and Effa once said he got less than five percent of his investment back. The Eagles folded in 1948, and several other teams in the Negro National League followed suit.
Throughout her years in Newark, Manley kept a baseball scrapbook. That document is now part of the collection at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Until her death in April 1981 at the age of 81, Manley devoted herself to keeping the history of Negro League baseball alive. In 1976 she published "Negro Baseball ... before Integration," which listed 73 players she felt were qualified for the Hall of Fame. She wrote numerous letters to the Baseball Hall of Fame and publications such as The Sporting News, urging recognition for the league and its players. The Hall of Fame enshrined 11 players from the Negro Leaguers in 1973. And in 1985, the Hall of Fame added an exhibit on black baseball. Her photo is prominently displayed in the exhibit.
Manley was buried at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, Calif. Her gravestone reads, "She loved baseball."
In an interview a few years before her death, Manley talked of the joy she received from reminiscing about her days in with the Negro Leagues, relived in part through her extensive scrapbook.
"People say, 'Don't live in the past,'" Manley said. "But I guess it depends on how interesting your past is."
Effa Manley was certainly a woman with an interesting past -- and an irrevocable, influential place as a pioneer in our nation's pastime.
Aimee Crawford is deputy managing editor for MLB.com. This article was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball of its clubs.