Recounting the history of the Negro Leagues is an incomplete exercise without also including the women who were part of the many stories. The Negro Leagues were the first place that a woman could own and run a baseball team and it was the first professional baseball league where a woman took the field alongside men. But as the Negro Leagues were the result of MLB’s exclusionary practice, so too did the Negro Leagues exclude and diminish the impact of the women who were a part of them.
The first woman inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Effa Manley has a complicated legacy. From 1935 to 1948, Manley managed and co-owned the Newark Eagles. Under her leadership, the Eagles posted a .539 winning percentage going 480-411-16. In 1946, the Eagles won the Negro League World Series, defeating the Kansas City Monarchs in a seven-game series. The Eagles were also longtime homes to future Hall of Famers Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, Willie Wells, and Leon Day.
After her time with the Eagles came to an end, Manley never stopped championing Black baseball. She co-authored the book Negro Baseball… Before Integration, and she lobbied for Black players to gain induction to the Hall of Fame. Even before 1935, Manley fought for Black causes, walking in a picket line for “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign.
What complicates her legacy is that Manley wasn’t Black herself. She was born into an interracial family, but her mother’s husband, an African-American man, wasn’t her biological father. Despite learning the truth in her teenage years, Manley continued living as a Black woman.
The first woman to own a Negro League team was not Effa Manley, but rather Olivia Taylor. Taylor became the owner of the Indianapolis ABC’s following the death of her husband C.I. Taylor in 1922. The widow ran the team for three years before it folded in 1926—the Negro National League would cease operations entirely in 1931—and she faced several obstacles in that short time.
Players were hesitant to play for a woman which contributed to much of the ABC’s talent departing for the Eastern Colored League including Indianapolis star, Oscar Charleston, who left the team in 1924. Ben Taylor, the manager of the ABC’s and C.I.’s brother, also bristled at Olivia taking over his late brother’s team. Taylor departed after one season, and was replaced with Dizzy Dismukes. The vitriol between the two was even stronger than what existed between Taylor and her brother-in-law as Dismukes and Taylor exchanged scathing op-eds in the national Black press.
From the time she took over the team, other NNL owners demanded she sell, claiming that she was ruining her husband’s legacy. Taylor was often criticized for under-paying her players, and perhaps she wasn’t a model owner, but the deck was stacked against her from the start. History hasn’t remembered her fairly, and her accomplishments have been diminished. She died in 1935, and she lay in an unmarked grave until 2013 when the Negro League Grave Marker Project finally gave her a headstone.
In the years following Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the Negro Leagues were siphoned of talent often without compensation. As more and more Negro League greats went to the National and American Leagues, fewer and fewer people attended Negro League games. Owners like Syd Pollock of the Indianapolis Clowns turned to novelties and promotions to draw fans which eventually led to Toni Stone finally getting a shot on a professional team in 1953.
Stone had been playing in semi-professional leagues and all male barnstorming since she was 16, and but her shot on the Clowns didn’t come until she was 32. Stone had often lied about her age to join teams like San Francisco Sea Lions, but her age was harder to mask in Indianapolis. Injuries kept her from playing every day, and likely impacted her at the plate.
Seamheads Negro League Database doesn’t include numbers for the 1953 season, so how well she performed isn’t precisely known. She supposedly hit .302 for the 1953 season and .243 for her Negro Leagues career. With those kinds of numbers, it’s hard not to speculate how Stone might have performed if it hadn’t taken desperation on an owner’s part to give her a chance and Stone had entered the league at 22 rather than 32.
Mamie ‘Peanut’ Johnson
Regardless of her performance, Stone was a successful draw. People turned out in droves to see her play whether it was out of skepticism or admiration. Initially, Pollock didn’t want to seek out other women ballplayers because more women in baseball would mean that Stone would lose some appeal. Only when injuries kept Stone off the field did Pollock begin seeking out other women.
The Clowns eventually gave two-way player Mamie Johnson a tryout in September of 1953, and she impressed enough that they offered her a spot on an upcoming barnstorming trip. Johnson played for the Clowns from 1953 to 1955, compiling a 33-8 record as a pitcher and a .273 average as a hitter.
Like with Stone, it’s hard not to wonder what her career might have looked like if she had been afforded an equal opportunity to play baseball. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League never integrated, so Black women had no professional league in which to play. They instead had to play in semi-pro or recreational leagues or carve out spaces in male leagues, but Johnson still showed that she could thrive in those.
Connie Morgan was the third woman to play in the Negro Leagues, joining the Clowns in 1954. Before then, she had played five seasons for the North Philadelphia Honey Drippers, posting a .368 batting average in that time while playing all over the diamond.
Morgan replaced Stone at second base for the Clowns in 1954 as Stone went to the Kansas City Monarchs. Like Stone, Morgan was a big draw for girls and women but men still treated her as a novelty. Even when Morgan retired from the league to return to business school, Pollock released a press release saying “her decision to ‘pursue a secretary position in a business office’ was her ‘true calling.’”
It’s shameful that the only three women ballplayers to play in the Negro Leagues were exploited as box office promotions, that their worth as athletes was constantly denigrated, and that they were put in a position to be harassed. It’s an even greater shame that women and girls still aren’t afforded equal opportunity to play baseball
Amira Rose Davis | Radical Review | No League of Their Own: Baseball, Black Women, and the Politics of Representation
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.