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Effa Manley fought for social justice and the Negro Leagues

More than 80 years ago, the co-owner of the Newark Eagles used her platform to impact society

If you look deep into the history of the Baseball Hall of Fame, you will find one club owner enshrined who would fit seamlessly into the worldwide cultural revolution that is 2020.

Effa Manley co-owned the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League with her husband, Abe, and her words and deeds from more than 80 years ago would be just as relevant today.

There are 15 team owners, builders and “innovators” such as Connie Mack, Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Their bios chiseled on bronze plaques illustrate these execs’ Hall-worthy feats, including some accomplishments that live on in the sport as it stands in the 21st century.

For Manley, her achievements and impact went beyond baseball. She saw the opportunity in using her platform to affect change, much in the way athletes today are speaking out about social injustice.

We’ve marveled as millions in nascent rainbow coalitions have found their voices, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by police in Minneapolis. The footage of a policeman’s knee bearing down on Floyd’s neck caused revulsion throughout the world.

In this year of celebrating 100 years since the first Negro League game, I can’t help but wonder if Manley is somewhere asking what took the world so long to catch up with her. She lived Black Lives Matter before it was a mantra and a movement.

What other team owner hosted “Anti-Lynching” days at games in a crusade to rid America of its most heinous “sport” – the slayings of Black men, women and children simply because of the color of their skin – in 1939?

Manley used games as fundraisers to support efforts to force the federal government to go after the night riders who hid under sheets and behind the shields of law enforcement while killing, torturing and terrorizing Black Americans.

In 1939, she had vendors at New Jersey’s Ruppert Stadium sell buttons that read “Stop Lynching” for a buck a piece. The funds went to support legislation in Congress aimed at making the federal government address lynching, a scourge that claimed approximately 6,500 Black lives between 1865 and 1950, according to the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama.

Lynching remains a federal conversation in 2020. In June, Kamala Harris, the only Black woman in the U.S. Senate, was among three to sponsor legislation to finally make lynching a federal hate crime.

Manley’s fight eight decades ago was before a suddenly “woke” sports world acknowledged the often deadly dangers of living while Black in America. She was a prominent member of the NAACP who saw baseball and civil rights as inextricably linked, according to Leslie Heaphy, an associate professor of history at Kent State University and author of The Negro Leagues, 1869-1960.

“She tried to combine both of those things almost always,” Heaphy said in 2006 on the eve of Manley’s Hall of Fame induction. “She very much believed that here was an opportunity for both herself and her ballplayers to set an example.”

That fight was far from her only cause, as she used sports as a springboard to take on other societal issues. In 1946, Manley sent $500 that was collected from fans at the Eagles’ opener to lawyers defending Black people accused of attempted murder after racial tensions spilled over in Columbia, Tennessee. More than 100 Black people and two white men were initially arrested. Neither white man was charged; 25 Black men were.

The defense team included Thurgood Marshall, a lawyer destined to successfully argue the groundbreaking civil rights case Brown vs. The Board of Education before the Supreme Court. He later became that body’s first African American justice. Marshall and his fellow lawyers stunned many when they persuaded an all-white jury to acquit 23 of the 25 Black defendants. The two convicted men served no more than four months.

Manley saw microaggression for what it was. She famously one-upped segregated USO clubs and canteens during World War II by busing Count Basie, Earl “Fatha” Hines and a galaxy of stars from Harlem, New York’s and Newark, New Jersey’s lively jazz circuits to Fort Dix to provide entertainment for a Black regiment stationed at the segregated army base in South Jersey.

Just who was Effa Manley? Part mystery, to be sure, in terms of genealogy. To Connie Brooks, a niece and one of Manley’s few relatives to have lived long enough to celebrate her induction in 2006, Manley was a “mixed child” and “product for everybody, Black, white, American Indian.”

What is known is that Manley was a business woman. After marrying Abe in 1935, they built a baseball dynasty. She was in charge of the books both for the team and the league and spared no expense in the upkeep of her All-Star-laden team. When the Eagles defeated the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1946 World Series, she put the winnings into the purchase of a $15,000, air-conditioned Flxible Clipper bus. She invested in a Winter League team in Puerto Rico to provide offseason income for Eagles players.

She also was the team owner who authored a deal with fellow owner Veeck to secure compensation for Negro Leagues stars migrating to the majors.

That last feat happened 73 years ago on July 5, when Larry Doby, one of the Negro Leagues’ fiercest hitters, exchanged his Newark Eagles uniform for that of the Cleveland Indians following the 1947 All-Star break. Veeck, owner of the Cleveland franchise and long a proponent of integrating the game, offered to pay Manley and the Eagles for Doby’s services. Doby became the first Black player in modern American League history, 3½ months after Jackie Robinson joined Brooklyn in the National League.

Both the Manleys and the Eagles were out of baseball by 1948. While Robinson’s debut on April 15, 1947, is widely and rightfully celebrated, it also can been seen as the beginning of the end for an important, lucrative part of Black American life. That did not mean Manley would not fight till the end.

“They [the Brooklyn Dodgers] took Don Newcombe from my team with no compensation,” recalled former player Monte Irvin as he spoke during Manley’s Hall of Fame induction weekend. The Dodgers also wanted to take Irvin without paying a penny, he recalled.

“She was very angry at Branch Rickey,” said James Overmyer, author of Queen of the Negro Leagues: Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles, Centennial Edition.

Veeck, unlike the Dodgers, didn’t ignore the fact that players such as Doby were under contract. Therefore, when Veeck offered Manley $10,000 in return for Doby, it made for that watershed moment.

Manley’s response? “It was classic Effa,” Overmyer said with a chuckle. “Veeck wrote in his autobiography that she told him, ‘If Doby were white, you’d pay $100,000.’ Veeck said, ‘Well, I’m not paying you $100,000, but if he stays on the roster, I’ll pay you an extra $5,000.’ ”

Doby, a Hall of Famer in the making, stayed on the roster.

From that moment on, the major leagues compensated Negro League owners, reportedly $5,000 per player. The victory was Pyrrhic considering the talent flowing into the majors included Doby, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Monte Irvin, Satchel Paige and Ernie Banks – Hall of Famers all. Ultimately, such sparse payments could not ward off the inevitable, as the last Negro Leagues teams folded in the early 1960s.

Undoubtedly, this might seem like so much ancient history to many. And when sports resume in a world also reshaped by the coronavirus pandemic, any player, manager, coach or team owner who opts to take a knee might feel like a groundbreaker. Each should be reminded, though, that long before he or she took that knee, an extraordinary woman named Effa Manley dared take a stance in an era that was far from woke.

Claire Smith is a recipient of The Baseball Writers Association of America’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award for her contributions to baseball writing as a reporter and columnist. She is a news editor for ESPN.