January 25, 2004

Date: Feature Week of January 25, 2004
Topic: Black Press Business/Economic
Author: William Reed
Article ID: article_ema012504
Reprinted with permission from author.


Operating With Two Strikes Against You

From the beginning, sports have been an idealized version of American social structure – equality of opportunity purely on the basis of merit. Sports ideology and its reality have always been separate and different. Over the years, athletic clubs and competition have been designed to exclude lower-class people and “Undesirable” ethnic groups. Blacks’ success in sports shows how they made the best of the hand they were dealt.

Blacks have been involved in America’s sports business since the late 1800s. Sports reinforce social hierarchies. And in the beginning, as it is now, Blacks were the performers, not owners and rarely promoters. The tradition of horse racing has been popular among white gentry since the nation’s start. But, the art of jockeying the horse was a role owners relegated to others. By 1850, Blacks jockeys dominated the profession. In the first 28 years of the Kentucky Derby – 1875 to 1902 – Black jockeys won the race 15 times.

When professional athletes, rules, leagues, teams, regular schedules, paid admissions, and governing bodies such as baseball leagues came into being, Black entrepreneurs emerged. The first official game of baseball occurred in 1845, and, by the 1850s baseball was being played for spectators with teams charging admission. Blacks engaged in baseball as early as the 1860s, and numerous Black teams flourished in local leagues by barnstorming. From the 1920s through the early 1940s, Black organized baseball reached its peak with the success of the Negro Leagues.

In 1876, the National League was formed “for whites only”. Blacks formed their first professional team, the Cuban Giants, in 1892. From 1895 to 1896, "Bud" Fowler operated an early Black powerhouse baseball team - the Page Fence Giants club. The club toured in their own railroad car taking on all comers, including major league clubs. The Page Fence Giants and Cuban Giants played a "national championship" series in 1896. Thomas T. Wilson formed Nashville Standard Giants in 1918 and guided them to a strong reputation throughout the South. In 1921, the club was renamed the Elite Giants. In 1928 Wilson moved onto the national stage and took the team from Nashville to Columbus, Ohio to Washington D.C. and finally Baltimore in 1938.

From the 1920s until the 1950s, The Negro Leagues played an important role in Black community life. Known for their talented baseball players and flamboyant style of play, by the 1940's the Negro League teams were the largest Black-owned commercial enterprise in America. Negro League games were community events and drew 20,000 fans regularly. Baseball teams were at the heart of America’s Black communities sponsoring contests, raising funds for charity and promoting Black entertainers and celebrities. Beauty contests were held at Negro League teams’ ballparks. Jesse Owens first raced a racehorse as a promotion at a league game. Celebrities like Joe Louis, Ethel Walters, and Lena Horne often engaged in league promotions.

One of the most prominent individuals in the history of Black baseball was Andrew “Rube” Foster. Born in 1879 in Calvert Texas, Foster created the Negro League in 1920. He envisioned a Black league that would rival the white major league. A player, manager, owner, commissioner and unsurpassed visionary, Rube Foster was so successful that on any given Sunday afternoon, his brand of baseball often outdrew his cross-town rivals, the White Sox and the Cubs.

W. A. "Gus" Greenlee owned one of the Negro League’s greatest dynasties. Owner of Pittsburgh's hottest jazz spots - the Crawford Grill restaurant and dance hall in the Hill District, Gus took over the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1930. The prototypical Black baseball owner, in addition to the Crawfords, Greenlee also owned his own ballpark, and a stable of boxers including light-heavyweight champion John Henry Lewis. A man of the streets, Greenlee introduced the numbers racket to Pittsburgh in 1926. He controlled almost a hundred numbers banks and employed 5,000 people. Greenlee's profits from his business ventures helped in the purchase of a new 22 seat bus and the development of Greenlee Field, a first-class facility seating 6,000 at a cost of $100,000.

Nowadays, Black communities and groups plead, often to no avail, for help from well-paid professional athletics, often to no avail, Back in the day, Negro League owners set the pace for corporate social responsibility. Abe Manley, of the Newark Eagles, was an owner who raised over $100,000 for the NAACP at one event.


© 2000-2004 William Reed - www.BlackPressInternational.com