August 3, 2004

Five surviving Philadelphia Stars (from left):Wilmer Harris, Mahlon Duckett, Harold Gould, Bill Cash and Stanley Glenn.

Posted on Tue, Aug. 03, 2004

Stan Hochman | All-Star lineup

Five surviving Philly Stars, Negro leagues to be honored finally

By Stan Hochman

JACKIE ROBINSON played shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro league team, in 1945. Gloomily. Bolted before the season ended.

Branch Rickey signed him for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Made history with that signing. Made millions for the Dodgers. As compensation,

Rickey paid the Monarchs: a) $0; b) $1,000; c) $10,000; d) $100,000.

"Rickey paid them nothing," Neil Lanctot said the other day.

"Robinson did not have a contract with the Monarchs. Rickey said it was a poor excuse for a league. Said it was in the zone of a racket.

"I teach a class in sports history at the University of Delaware. I ask my students if they think Rickey should have paid the Monarchs something. Lots of them say, 'Well, there was that loophole, Robinson did not have a contract.'

"When the Giants signed Willie Mays, they paid the Birmingham Black Barons some money, because they felt it was the right thing to do, and because they wanted to rub Rickey's nose in it."

Lanctot, a youthful-looking 38, has written a splendid book, "Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution." It is scholarly without being stodgy, it is meticulously researched, clearly written. It sheds harsh yet sympathetic light on a league that was loose as ashes at times, yet survived the Great Depression and the restrictions of World War II. Four seasons after Robinson integrated major league baseball, the Negro leagues withered and died, the ashes blowing in the winds of change.

Most of the literature about black baseball centers on the players...colorful Satchel Paige ("Don't look back, something might be gaining on you."); the legendary slugger, troubled Josh Gibson, who died the year Robinson became the first black to play in the major leagues, some say of a broken heart; the swift Cool Papa Bell, who could turn out the hotel-room light and be in bed before the room got dark.

And while Lanctot focuses on the owners, their shady backgrounds, their squabbles, their schemes and dreams, their dependence on the white men who owned the big ballparks, the book is relevant now, as a determined band of Philadelphians seeks funds to honor five surviving members of the Philadelphia Stars and all of Negro league baseball with a memorial at Belmont and Parkside.

"The Stars played in a ballpark at 44th and Parkside," Lanctot said. "It belonged to the Pennsylvania Railroad and Eddie Gottlieb leased it from them. The trains came into the nearby station to be cleaned. The air would be filled with smoke and soot."

Monday nights, they'd play at Shibe Park, home of the A's and Phillies. Gottlieb owned the Stars and was the booking agent for all the black teams in the Northeast, skimming 10 percent of the gate receipts for his services.

Yep, the same Eddie Gottlieb who organized the SPHAs basketball team and later owned the pro basketball Philadelphia Warriors.

"Gottlieb was a promoter," Lanctot explained.

"That's what he did for a living. Jews were getting into the movie business, entertainment business, because those were the opportunities available."

Gottlieb seldom talked about his involvement in the Negro leagues.

He left few clues about his philosophy, his motives. Critics point to how slow he was to integrate the Warriors. Lanctot has an explanation.

"Abe Saperstein," he said, "who was more exploitive, may have owned a piece of the Warriors. He also owned the Globetrotters and the Globetrotters would often play the first game of a doubleheader before the Warriors' games.

"Possibly, Saperstein didn't want a black player on the Warriors because it might dilute the appeal of the Globetrotters."

At the always-contentious Negro leagues owners meetings, Gottlieb faced and survived an angry challenge from Effa Manley, whose husband owned the Newark team. Effa emerges as one of the most

fascinating characters in Lanctot's book, a white woman who passed as black, never bashful about playing the race card.

She squawked about a white man booking black teams into ballparks like Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. Other owners sided with Gottlieb. In 1948, they took away his promotional rights to Yankee Stadium.

"I came across a letter from George Weiss of the Yankees," Lanctot said. "They'd given the job to James Semler, who owned the Black Yankees.

"Weiss wrote that Semler wasn't big enough for the job and how the Negro National League was falling apart. The Stars, meanwhile, survived until 1952, the lone team left in the East."

The Dodgers played 11 games each season in Philadelphia and black fans flocked to those games, rooting vociferously for Robinson. Attendance at the Stars' games dwindled. The painful price of progress?

The Phillies' shameful history of discrimination has been rehashed down through the years, squelching Roy Campanella's dreams of playing for his hometown team without even a tryout, the cruel taunts from the dugout and grandstands when Robinson played here in 1947, the pitiful 10-year gap before the Phillies signed an African-American player, John Kennedy. The Phillies, to their credit, have been working hard in recent years to heal those wounds.

The story might have been incredibly different. Through the years, Bill Veeck told people he tried to buy the Phillies after the 1942 season, intending to stock the roster with stars from the Negro leagues. Veeck blamed commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis for squelching the deal, approving, instead, the team's sale to William Cox, a lumberman. Lanctot found no hard evidence to back Veeck's claims.

Bob Carpenter eventually bought the franchise and continued the snow-white complexion of the team.

"He didn't want blacks on the team," Lanctot said. "And he hired people who didn't want blacks on the team.

"There was tension in 1950, in the pennant race. The white fans in Philadelphia loved the Whiz Kids.

The black fans supported Robinson and the Dodgers. Things didn't change until they brought Roy Hamey in [as general manager]. Eventually, they signed Dick Allen."

The Phillies won in '50, despite the gallant heroics of Robinson and Don Newcombe. Lanctot clears up some of the mystery surrounding Rickey's choice of Robinson to break the color line.

"Actually, Rickey signed five black players," Lanctot said. "Robinson, John Wright, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Roy Partlow. He did pay the Stars $1,000 for Partlow because he had a contract.

"There was pressure [to integrate] in New York from the mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, so Rickey announced Robinson's signing first. I don't question that Rickey was a religious, moralistic person. But he often used that moralistic approach when it suited his purposes.

"I think he saw an untapped source of talent that he could get cheaply. I think he felt the black players would improve his team."

Was money involved in the equation? Did Rickey foresee bigger crowds as blacks abandoned Negro league games to come watch Robinson play his aggressive, swaggering style of baseball?

"The Dodgers were a popular team before," Lanctot said. "As a matter of fact, one of the things that slowed integration down was a fear by major league owners that an influx of black fans would scare away white fans."

One other piece of the equation was the financial boost some dreadful major league teams got by renting their ballparks for Negro league games.

The Homestead Grays, playing in Washington's Griffith Stadium, outdrew the woeful Senators, game after game after game.

It didn't help the Negro leagues that Rickey sneered at their shaky structure. And it certainly didn't help when Robinson wrote an article for Ebony magazine ridiculing the leagues as "horse-and-buggy" and demeaning the behavior of the men who played in them.

"He wrote the article himself," Lanctot said. "It was called, 'What's Wrong with Negro Baseball,' and it identified all the problem areas. He wasn't wrong, but it was damaging, for sure. Here was Robinson, the foremost black athlete in the country, blasting the leagues. It was bad publicity, very damaging. Besides, if not for the opportunity to play in the Negro leagues, Robinson might never have gotten out of Los Angeles."

Some of the bitterness was eased as more teams signed black players, with the Phillies, Tigers and Red Sox the last to jump on the integration train.

Only the older players, who had missed their chance, felt shortchanged. And the team owners, of course, who had persevered against long odds to keep the leagues alive for 50 years.

"They tried to get affiliation as a minor league," Lanctot said, "but it never worked out. The fans looked at segregated baseball as something from the past. Integration, that was the future. By 1950, the league was dead, although teams survived to barnstorm against semipro teams."

And now, 54 years later, a passionate campaign to acknowledge what the Stars were all about.

"They offered a chance to show solidarity," Lanctot said. "They'd get 10,000 people in one place, a chance to cheer for black heroes, talented black athletes. They deserve their due."