J.L. Wilkinson stood out as the only white owner in the first official Negro League
The Kansas City Monarchs went on to become the most successful team in black baseball
One hundred years ago, on May 9, 1920, St. Louis residents, on foot and in cars, paraded their way along North Broadway. The procession was bathed in sunshine, spirited by three different bands, and attended by thousands of sports fans.
Their destination was Giants Park, at the corner of North Broadway and East Clarence Avenue. The celebration was for baseball. Black baseball. On this Sunday afternoon, the visiting Kansas City Monarchs were about to take on the St. Louis Giants in the Giants’ home opener. It marked, for both clubs, their first game as inaugural members of the Negro National League, the first official Negro League.
Unseen at the parade, at least in the owner’s car, was Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson. Easily recognized — he wore only tailored suits and parted his hair as straight as a fastball, right down the middle — Wilkinson had chosen to stay in the background, giving his seat to Quincy Gilmore, the Monarchs’ African American business manager.
Wilkinson didn’t take to the limelight. He did, however, stand out as the only white man among the eight owners in the league.
Ed Catron, Wilkinson’s grandson, now 65 and living in Missouri, described Wilkinson as a quiet, modest man who liked to remain in the background. “Granddad didn’t drink, he didn’t cuss, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t chase women and he never took credit for anything,” he told The Undefeated.
Asked why his grandfather chose to champion a black baseball team, Catron said, “He loved baseball and just wanted to put together the best team that he could possibly put together. He didn’t have the money to break into the major leagues, but he could break into black baseball.”
One can imagine Wilkinson, on that weather-perfect Sunday, maybe loitering at a concession stand as he watched the new league bloom before his eyes.
The Chicago Defender reported that fans could be seen on “hillsides, housetops adjacent to the enclosure, trees and motor truck tops.” Inside the ballpark, “the throng completely encircled the playing field, so there remained no more than 10 feet of space for the outfield to romp over, and the first- and third-base lines were fairly teeming with masses of excited humanity.”
It was, for any team owner, a success.
Did it matter to Wilkinson that his was a black team?
Negro Leagues historian Larry Lester offered this: “The league was dark, and he stood out, and he didn’t care.”
But he did care about winning.
And so, his smile surely grew even wider when the Monarchs left the park later that day, winners by a 10-8 margin — and on their way to four Negro League pennants in nine years.
Born J. Leslie in 1878, Wilkinson was the eldest of six children. His parents, Myrta “Mertie” Harper and John Wilkinson, had settled in the tiny town of Algona, Iowa, where John Wilkinson became the superintendent of the school district. (Years later, John Wilkinson would move the family to Des Moines, Iowa, and become a real estate developer.) Some historians identify J.L. as James Leslie Wilkinson. But according to Catron, Wilkinson was encouraged by his parents to pick his own first name — something to finish the “J” in “J. Leslie.” Wilkinson declined, choosing instead to be called J.L.
Young J.L. played sandlot baseball and had some success as a high school pitcher. He then hooked up with a local semipro team while playing ball at Highland Park College in Des Moines. But in 1905, when the team manager made off with the club’s coffers, his fellow players nominated him as manager, figuring he’d have better luck in that role than he did on the field.
They were right — but they had no way of knowing he’d make an even better promoter. Within five years, Wilkinson fielded two popular traveling teams. First, there was the Kansas City Bloomers in 1909, a team he advertised with the slogan “Girls Who Can Really Play the Great National Game.” Admittedly, the club wasn’t entirely all-female, but Wilkinson had a ready supply of wigs on hand to make it appear that way.
Next came the All Nations team, with Native American, African American, Japanese, Hawaiian, French, Cuban, Filipino and German players. The All Nations toured cities and towns from Iowa to California in a Pullman Palace railroad car outfitted with six staterooms, a dining room, kitchen and baggage room. Wilkinson also brought along a canvas fence and a fold-up grandstand that could seat as many as 2,000 fans. As he had done with the Bloomers, he offered sideshows — in this case, a professional wrestler who took on all comers.
In all likelihood, Wilkinson’s promotional instincts were honed while watching black teams barnstorm throughout the Midwest.
Speaking with The Undefeated, Phil Dixon, author and Negro Leagues historian, said, “The black teams always promised the people some kind of comedy. They couldn’t come in and just play straight baseball, they had to come up with some gimmick. They used to play a thing called ‘Shadowball’ before the game. A player would hit an imaginary ball, and then the third baseman would pretend to catch it and throw it to the second baseman, and so on — and they’d go through the motions like they had a ball. But they had no ball.”
Lester explained it this way, “We have to remind ourselves that whites enjoyed minstrel shows long before baseball was very popular. Whites were accustomed to being entertained by African Americans. They didn’t see these games with a ‘welcome to my town’ mentality. It was more like, ‘you’re here to entertain me.’ ”
The idea of creating a black baseball team, the Monarchs, came about after World War I put the All Nations out of business.
It was then that Wilkinson moved with his wife Bessie, son Richard and daughter Gladys, to Kansas City, Missouri. Out of money but flush with ideas, he hired star players from the All Nations, including John Donaldson, José Mendez and “Bullet” Joe Rogan, and formed the Monarchs. In 1920, the club became a charter member of the Negro National League.
Bessie Wilkinson ran a thriving antique business in Kansas City, and their children both joined Wilkinson on the Monarchs. Richard helped out with the team, and Gladys tracked each game’s receipts, attendance and stats.
It wasn’t long before Wilkinson figured out a winning financial formula. When the Monarchs had a hole in their league schedule, he booked barnstorming tours that helped offset the cost of the team’s baseball season. Plus, he went out of his way to pay his players well and treat them with respect.
For starters, he fitted them for tailored suits and custom uniforms, which for home games were white with maroon trim and featured the word “Monarchs” emblazoned across their chests. But his dedication went far beyond apparel. To skirt Jim Crow segregation laws, he bought the team a tourist bus and equipped it with sleeping accommodations and a kitchen. And he insisted on integrating the seating at Monarchs games. In 1923, when his team moved to 16,000-seat Muehlebach Field, he cut the ropes that divided the “white” section from the “colored” section.
Buck O’Neil played for, and later managed, the Monarchs. He wrote of Wilkinson in his autobiography, “When I got to know him, I realized I was in the company of a man without prejudice, the first man I had ever known who was like that. I was from the South, mind you, so I was unaccustomed to meeting a white man who treated me the way he would his own son.”
Referring to his interviews with former Monarchs, Lester says, “When I asked players about J.L. Wilkinson, [I recall] the joy on their face and how their eyes would light up when they would talk about him. A complete celebration. They could get an advance during the winter against their salaries. If they were on the road and staying in a hotel, and they had an odd number, Wilkinson would share a room with a player. He had no prejudice in his bones at all.”
Thanks in large part to Wilkinson’s leadership by example, the Monarchs coalesced into a singular force, a group of athletes who played as a cohesive unit. For years, they were the most successful club on the circuit.
Until 1931, when the Depression decimated the Negro National League — and turned the Monarchs into an independent barnstorming team.
Facing an unrevivable economy, Wilkinson needed to transform his business — which meant reinventing the game.
And that’s what he did. In an effort to draw people to the ballpark, Wilkinson came up with a new attraction: night baseball.
The idea had been tried before using arc lamps — some college football teams put up lights for late-day practices — but the results were disappointing: The wattage hadn’t been powerful enough to light an entire field or to keep the lamps from sputtering.
Still, Wilkinson was convinced the idea could work. He sold a half-interest in the Monarchs to Kansas City pool hall owner Tom Baird, and hired a company to design a portable lighting system that the team could bring from city to city. Then he mortgaged his home to secure a $50,000 loan, using the money to purchase a 100-kilowatt generator with a 250-horsepower, six-cylinder, triple-carburetor, gasoline-driven engine.
“What talkies are to movies,” Wilkinson told the press, “lights will be to baseball.”
On Monday evening, April 28, 1930, Wilkinson’s prophecy came true. The Monarchs took the field against Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma. They made history, and incidentally, won the game 12-3.
Reporting on the event, The Call wrote, “Night baseball will be a lifesaver, it will revolutionize the old game, restoring small town baseball.”
Toting his caravan of 44 giant floodlights and telescopic poles on six Ford truck beds, Wilkinson lit up ballparks from the Midwest to Maine. (Five years later, Major League Baseball would follow Wilkinson’s lead, playing its first game under lights at Crosley Field in Cincinnati.) Fans were drawn to the novelty of night baseball, and when Wilkinson cut ticket prices from 75 cents to 25 cents, they came out in droves.
In 1933, the Chicago Defender wrote that the Monarchs were playing “at a very high rate of profit and laughing merrily as the associated clubs [of the Negro National League] wallow in the confines of a red ledger.”
Night baseball didn’t only rescue the players’ livelihoods, it may have saved their lives as well. At a time when lynchings continued to terrorize African Americans, Wilkinson sent scouts into “sundown towns” to arrange night games. The novelty of night baseball, coupled with the team’s reputation for top-level play, ensured the Monarchs’ safety.
Dixon explains: “ ‘Sundown towns’ were not just in the South, but in the North as well. Black people couldn’t come to town after dark; they weren’t welcome. [But] the Monarchs would come with their lights and play. And generally, those would be the best-attended games of the year.
“The [sundown] towns would put together an all-star team to try and beat them.”
Wilkinson’s influence extended well beyond night baseball. For one, he is singularly responsible for saving Satchel Paige’s career.
In 1937, Wilkinson spearheaded the formation of a new circuit, the Negro American League. The following year, when Paige — by now a 32-year-old pitching icon and folk hero — returned from Mexico with an overused, dead arm, Wilkinson made him an offer to play on the Monarchs’ backup squad. For Paige, the deal couldn’t have been sweeter. The arrangement, which allowed him to pitch when he was up to it, or play first base or coach when he wasn’t, kept him solvent. (It also gave birth to the Satchel Paige All-Stars, a successful traveling venture.) In the meantime, while barnstorming, Paige underwent treatments on his right arm. When the sleepy limb finally woke up, Wilkinson signed Paige to the big-league Monarchs. Paige then spent seven years as a Monarch before making a splash in the major leagues, where he appeared in 179 games over six seasons.
In 1945, Wilkinson made yet another contribution to the majors by inviting former UCLA football and track star Jackie Robinson to spring training — and signing him to a baseball contract.
Only a year later, the Brooklyn Dodgers snatched Robinson away, bringing him to the major leagues and breaking the league’s color barrier in the process. Rather than sue the Dodgers for the loss of Robinson — there was a disagreement over whether the Monarchs’ contract was written or verbal — Wilkinson simply said, “I am very glad to see Jackie get this chance, and I’m sure he’ll make good. He’s a wonderful ballplayer … he will have a wonderful career.”
Leslie Heaphy, a history professor at Kent State University, has written extensively about the Negro Leagues. In her view, Wilkinson’s willingness to step aside and let Robinson play at a higher level showed that he was more of a racial reformer than an opportunist.
“If he had stood in the way,” she told The Undefeated, “he may well have been branded one way: You’re not giving your player the opportunity to enter into the major leagues. What does that make you?”
Not long after Robinson’s departure, Wilkinson saw the writing on the wall. With Major League Baseball starting to integrate, other teams would soon be raiding the black teams for their top talent. Wilkinson sold his interest in the Monarchs to Baird and retired. The Monarchs went out of business in 1955, the same year that a major league franchise arrived in Kansas City.
Wilkinson spent his later years at home in Kansas City, surrounded by a houseful of antiques that his wife had accumulated. Catron visited his grandfather regularly — he still has vivid memories of Wilkinson dressed in a coat and tie, settled in his easy chair, an oversized magnifying glass resting on a stand nearby.
Wilkinson had lost his sight in one eye, but would sit by the radio listening to ballgames. And during the afternoons, he welcomed visits from former Monarchs players.
On Aug. 21, 1964, at the age of 86, Wilkinson died in a Kansas City nursing home. To the end, he embraced the game that had captured his heart so many years earlier.
Wilkinson owned the Monarchs from 1920 to 1948. Under his stewardship, the team won 11 league titles and two World Series. What’s more, 27 of their players went on to the major leagues, the most of any Negro Leagues franchise. Thirteen players who suited up for the Monarchs, including Paige and Robinson, have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Wilkinson himself was inducted in 2006.
No other Negro Leagues team has been as successful.
In what may be the finest tribute to Wilkinson, the 1928 Monarchs team took out an ad in The Call. It read, in part, “We have a man, the best club owner in the world to work for … who believes in us at all times, who stands for a fair and square deal to all, who gives the best and expects the best in return, who loves and is loved by his players … who practices what he preaches and never turned on a friend.”