Guest Columnist

Iowa and the 100th anniversary of Negro National League

Bob Motley officiates a Kansas City Monarch game, circa 1949, in the Negro Leagues.
Bob Motley officiates a Kansas City Monarch game, circa 1949, in the Negro Leagues.

When you think of baseball legends in Iowa, names like Bill Zuber, Bob Feller, and maybe Kevin Costner, come to mind. But how about Chappie Johnson or Harold Moore or Eugene Baker? Not coming to mind right off the bat? Zuber, of the Amana Colonies, was pitcher for the New York Yankees in the 1940s, Feller, of Van Meter, was a record setting pitcher in the 1940s for Cleveland and inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

They were common place names during that era and are remembered today. But if you were a baseball fan from a half century before, the other three were icons of their own time. Each set records, as well as setting the nation straight and moving the nation’s pastime ahead to the level of play it enjoys now. When it comes to America’s game, you may not think of their names, nor may you even think of the month of February, but both are inexorably tied to the sport and how we define the people of the country it represents.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Negro National League in professional baseball. When major league teams were formally organized beginning in the 1870s, minorities were strictly prohibited (although it was never officially stated) and all those of “color” banned from signing on with any of the licensed teams.

Discontented at not being able to be publicly display their skills, teams composed entirely of black and Hispanic players began to be formed in the 1880s. The first of these, the Cuban Giants, was organized in 1885. This was quickly followed by the Philadelphia Pythians and the Chicago Union Giants, who led minority baseball into the turn of the century.

Professional ball, though, was largely limited to major cities at the time. In 1900, James Wilkinson, the son of a wealthy white insurance broker from northwest Iowa, wanted to bring the excitement of that level of sport to the state. He had been an up and coming pitcher himself until injuring his wrist and ending his aspirations on the field. Instead, he directed his passion to team ownership and incorporated his own team, the Algona Brownies, based in the county seat of Kossuth County.

The Chicago Giants and Chicago Union teams had recently undergone a controversial merger and Wilkinson recruited many of their star players for his club, which was affiliated with the Western League. Among the best of minority talent hired by Wilkinson, was Chappie Johnson, who went on to play professionally for 25 years and would come to be considered the best catcher in the Negro Leagues.

Wilkinson also enthusiastically signed Henry Moore, who went on to play as an outfielder and ultimately win four championships. Billy Holland, one of the few ballhandlers who could claim a championship in two centuries, played as a pitcher, and Talbot Dangerfield, a natural at 3rd base, remained as heroes in baseball for three decades. All totaled, ten athletes from the Chicago teams had moved from the Second City to Algona to form the most formidable club in minority baseball. They, along with Wilkinson, were nearly unbeatable, and brought Iowa its first professional baseball title in 1903 winning the Western Championship, the equivalent of the World Series for minority players.

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At the time, though, baseball games for blacks and many Hispanics were held sporadically and with little cohesive governance. Inconsistent rules and quality of skill made it difficult to maintain regular schedules and a profit. Wishing to introduce a more rigid set of standards, in 1920, a 41-year-old pitcher who had been playing professionally since he was 19, Andrew Foster, formally organized the Negro National League to provide for his fellow athletes and enhance the level of baseball they were capable of showing the world. It would soon be followed by the Eastern Colored League and Negro American League, with teams in larger metropolitan areas and smaller leagues intended to cull future top talent.

One such “farm” team was the Waterloo Boosters. It served as a source of developing young potential players from Iowa and surrounding states and competed against similar sized communities in the Three I League (with teams based in Iowa, Illinois, or Indiana). Eugene Collins became a star pitcher and finished a 12 year career in the Negro Leagues with a .356 batting average. The Boosters would remain as a team until 1961, closing at the end of that season as the oldest and longest running Class B league team in the nation.

Of all the players, though, that called Iowa home for a part of their career, one called the Hawkeye State his alma mater long before swinging a bat. Eugene Baker was born at Davenport in 1925. He showed promise as a basketball forward, but switched his attention to baseball after serving in the Navy during the Second World War, and was signed as a shortstop with the Kansas City Monarchs by Algona’s Wilkinson, who had disbanded the Brownies and moved to Kansas City as owner of its Negro League team.

Baker held his ground between first and second base in Missouri for two years and reached a batting average of .295. In 1950, he was picked up by the Chicago Cubs as a prospect and began a career in Major League Baseball as shortstop for the Cubs’ farm team, the Bruins, in Des Moines. Three years later, he was called up to the big leagues in Chicago and signed on as second baseman for the Cubs a week before his teammate, Ernie Banks, would be awarded a contract as its shortstop. Banks would play on the diamond before Baker, however, and as such, Banks is credited as the first black athlete to play for the north side team.

Hidden in Banks’ shadow, Baker was named to the 1955 All Star team, but in 1958 sought a trade to Pittsburgh. There, he sustained a knee injury that prevented him from competing aggressively and he moved to Columbus, Ohio, to assume the position of coach for the Columbus Jets, in so doing, becoming the first African American coach in AAA baseball history.

The Pirates then rehired him as a scout and he remained with the Pittsburgh club until retiring in the early 1980s. Baker had been a prominent figure, and quiet leader, in baseball for more than three decades. He died in 1999 and was buried with honors, both by Major League Baseball and the United States Navy, at Rock Island National Cemetery at the Quad Cities. He continues to be hailed as one of the greatest shortstops and second basemen in the sport. In a tribute to how he got his start, along with so many others who were early pioneers of the sport, six years later, Baker’s former boss in the Negro Leagues, James Wilkinson, was nominated and named to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

So this winter, as you suffer baseball withdrawal awaiting spring training, think of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League and warm up with thoughts of its dramatic effect on the sport. Let’s keep a warm place in our hearts for all of those Iowa legends, and their equally intrepid teammates, who led the path for professional baseball to be the home run it is today.

David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.

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