By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006
Effa Manley was tall, lovely and very shrewd. Men underestimated her; women often felt intimidated by her.
She favored stickpins at her neck and flowery dresses in the summertime, and hauled an assortment of dazzling hats with her to spring training. Mink looked like mink on her, and pearls like pearls.
Sometimes, she'd stride across her ballpark in Newark, N.J., in her high heels, her porcelain skin drawing stares, gliding past the dugout to chitchat with her players on the field.
Children on the streets of Newark, recalls Monte Irvin, one of her players, would see her behind the wheel of her fancy Lincoln Continental and wave Effa Manley through the sunshine. She'd be headed over to Ruppert Stadium, where brown hands were wrapped fiercely around bats, swinging during warm-up drills.
Ruppert was rickety, but it had pool-table-green grass and looked downright beautiful at twilight.
In 1938, she tried to sign the great Satchel Paige for her team. But Satch preferred the sunny climes of Latin America that year. Manley didn't need Satch's wicked right arm in 1946, though. The Newark Eagles, utilizing power-hitting and deft fielding, won the Negro leagues championship by whipping the estimable Kansas City Monarchs in a thrilling seven-game series.
With her husband, Abe, Effa Manley was co-owner of the team -- the sole female owner in the league. The baseball writers of the day gave most of the publicity to her husband. But Abe knew the truth, just as the players knew: It was Effa's team.
Time to renew your contract?
See Mrs. Manley.
Don't like the hotel accommodations?
Talk to Mrs. Manley.
"She was so happy about the championship," says Irvin, a star on that 1946 team. "She worked hard on assembling the team."
* * *
The next year, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues, was the beginning of the demise of the Negro leagues.
Soon, Effa Manley sold the team, and then the team died.
Without the Eagles, Manley lived a relatively quiet life. Her husband died and she moved to Los Angeles. She watched with pride the battles for equal rights during the '60s.
As the years passed -- the '50s, '60s, '70s -- many of the Negro league owners died. They passed away before the Negro leagues became an object of nostalgia, with collectors gathering memorabilia and old players waving from modern ballparks.
Manley corresponded with some of her former ballplayers, and heard the rap of their knuckles every now and then at her door when they came to visit. When she died, in 1981 -- baseball historians believe she was the last of the Negro leagues owners to pass away -- there were no lavish tributes.
But, 25 years after her death, Manley has connected with the longest of the long balls: On July 30, she will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first woman to be so honored. "Using her position with Newark to crusade for civil rights, Manley made the Eagles a social force off the field and a baseball force on it," the citation says.
And yet, when the news popped about her induction weeks ago, even baseball historians could be forgiven for asking the question:
Effa who?Game of a Lifetime
The early life of Effa Manley was full of racial double takes, wide-eyed stares and melodrama fit for the big screen.
She was born in Philadelphia. Varying dates have been given for her birth, but it is widely accepted as March 27, 1900.
Effa' s mother, Bertha Brooks, was white, of German descent. Bertha's first husband was a black man, Benjamin Brooks, with whom she had children. During the marriage, Bertha had an affair with a white man, John Bishop, a liaison that produced Effa, who now joined her biracial stepbrothers and stepsisters.
"I was always this little blond, hazel-eyed white girl, always with Negro children," Manley says in a little-known biography, "Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles," by Jim Overmyer.
Effa grew up caught in the mystifying web of being white in a biracial family. It had been passed through both history and lore that one drop of Negro blood and you were forevermore, inescapably black. Family composition seemed to matter, as well. Effa chose not to argue about her white parentage and proudly chose to live in a black world.
She moved to New York City after high school, found a job in a hat shop and became interested in social causes. She marched in picket lines protesting the plight of blacks who could not get jobs in department stores. She followed the preaching of Marcus Garvey. She befriended black musicians and artists.
In 1932, Effa moseyed over to Yankee Stadium to catch Babe Ruth and the Yankees. It was there that she met Abraham Lincoln Manley, a quiet and mysterious North Carolina-born man whom Effa discreetly called a "gaming speculator and real estate dealer." He was 15 years older than Effa.
Abe Manley knew the best dining spots in Harlem. He treated Effa right and, a year after meeting, they married. (It was Effa's second marriage. There is little information about her first marriage, except that it took place in Atlantic City.)
"Abe and I went right to Tiffany's for the ring, and I picked out a five-carat ring," Effa Manley recalls in the Overmyer chronicle. "When we went back to pick it up, every salesgirl in the store was there to take a peep at us. They had heard this old Negro man had bought a five-carat ring for this pretty young white woman. I got a kick out of that."
Chroniclers of the Negro leagues have contended that Abe Manley purchased the baseball team in 1935 as a mere hobby and was hardly dreaming of championships. The Manleys moved the team from Brooklyn to Newark, where the couple purchased a large home. (Abe had largely given up his gambling pursuits to become a legitimate baseball team owner.)
Abe allowed Effa to assert herself as team owner and business manager, and she relished the challenge, shrewdly making decisions about players and contracts.
Leslie Heaphy, an assistant professor of history at Kent State University, has pored over the Manley papers, now stored at the Newark Public Library. "I was surprised to see her name so prominently," Heaphy says. "It's her name on almost everything -- not his. Abe was treasurer of the Negro leagues for a while, but she was really doing the book work. But the [male] owners would have never elected her to that position."
It was, at times, a barnstorming league. Some teams traveled in beaten-down buses (the driver for the Eagles was a man named Edison Thomas). Scores didn't always get called in on time to the Negro press -- which drove Manley nuts -- and so stats sometimes got lost. The players hungered for higher salaries and many of them just knew they had skills for the big leagues, where the white players played. Kids would point out players -- Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, James "Cool Papa" Bell, Monte Irvin -- as if they were gods. Never mind DiMaggio. Never mind Ruth.
Children crowded into the Negro league stadiums, clutching the hands of mothers and fathers to see players in sharp uniforms, to tear at balls of cotton candy, to hear the sounds of booming loudspeakers. Newark native and writer Amiri Baraka would recall, in his father's eulogy, being taken regularly to Ruppert Stadium by his dad: "We were present that last year, when the Eagles won the world championship of black baseball. I even inherited a baseball [from] Larry Doby, the second Afro American in the so-called 'Big Leagues,' [who] fouled off in 1947. It is still labeled -- the date, the place, the player and the father who grabbed it and the awed son who witnessed this grand event."
In the '30s, the Eagles once hosted an "Anti-Lynching Day" at Ruppert Stadium to encourage people to write to Washington in the hopes of passing anti-lynching legislation.
Inside those stadiums, the world was free. Only the ball was white, went the line.
Effa loved every minute of it, the travel and the games, the seriousness and the gossip.
She recognized her history-making role with the team, and reflected on it in "Negro Baseball: Before Integration," her forgotten memoir. "Were the other club owners prejudiced against a woman in their midst? Not really, although I recall for that the first couple of meetings an undercurrent of uneasiness was evident. It seems that gentlemen weren't quite sure just how freely to act with a female sitting in on their business confabs."
There were rumors of affairs with this or that player. "Beautiful owner, young handsome players," Heaphy explains.
Manley herself never responded to the rumors. Abraham Lincoln, however, did. He was known to quickly trade a player whom he suspected of flirting with his Effa.
Other stories flew -- that Effa crossed and uncrossed her legs to signal a player when to steal or when to take a pitch.
She was a shouter, an arm waver who often sat in the press box and was known to explode when her team lost. "Effa Manley has long been a sore sport in the Negro National League," reported the New York Star-News in 1942.
Players who tried to wheel and deal during contract negotiations were met with an unbending resolve.
"When I first joined the team," recalls Monte Irvin, "I was making $125 a month. In 1942 I told Mrs. Manley I wanted to get married and wanted a $25 a month raise. She said she couldn't do it."
Manley's players dressed nicely off the field: fedoras and long coats and silk ties.
Manley herself turned heads effortlessly. "She was such a fine-looking lady," says Buck O'Neil, a legendary Negro leaguer who played for and later managed the Kansas City Monarchs. "She bought her clothes downtown, New York City. Of course she had to have style to keep up with us Negro league ballplayers. This was a dress-up era."
Box seats inside Newark's Ruppert Stadium went for $1.25; for 75 cents, there you were, take a seat anywhere, at the old ballgame.
With the beginning of World War II, however, the Negro leagues suffered. Star players were off to the war. Stadium attendance dropped. The Manleys wondered whether they'd be able to keep the team going. Effa's idea for solvency lay in hitting the road.
"Washington, D.C., always was our best out-of-town stop," during the war, Manley wrote in her memoir. "Griffith Stadium played host to 27,000 paid admissions for the opening game in '42 . . . During the first year of the War, our home attendance in Newark was low . . . but we finished the season with a nifty profit thanks to a rather brisk road business."
When the war ended and ballplayers began trooping back into her office to sign new contracts, Effa was more determined than ever to mount a potent team. She gave raises, bumping Irvin up to $600 a month. She bought the team an air-conditioned bus.
The Eagles were now fielding a team that included Irvin, Larry Doby, Leon Day and Pat Patterson.
"We were drawing good crowds after the war," Irvin remembers. "People were starved for good baseball."
The game of Effa Manley's life was held Sept. 29, 1946, at Ruppert Stadium. Joe Louis himself threw out the game ball. The Newark Eagles faced the Kansas City Monarchs in the seventh game of the championship series. More than 7,200 were in attendance, and it was an eclectic crowd. Manley opened her memoir with a description of the scene: "Assorted sportsmen and hustlers of every conceivable stripe, all blending into some weird kind of human mosaic." She goes on to describe hits, strikeouts, Newark taking a 3-2 lead. "Perched in my customary seat in the cramped press box, atop the grandstand, it seems as if I am dying a thousand deaths. The realization has swept over me that a years-long dream is about to come true."
The Newark lead held. Men tipped their hat to the Eagles' owner, the lady in the red lipstick and near-white skin.
Effa had her trophy. "Eagles Win Negro Title," screamed a headline.The Final Innings
When Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson the following spring, it was the beginning of the end for the Negro leagues. Manley and other owners could do little more than watch as the great players began their long lope from one world into another: Satchel Paige went to the Cleveland Indians, Henry "Hank" Aaron to the Milwaukee Brewers.
"She knew then," says Irvin, "that the Negro leagues were not long for this world."
"When the white league started signing ballplayers," says O'Neil, "Effa Manley said, 'Wait a minute, you can't have these ballplayers for nothing.' "
Monte Irvin went to the New York Giants, but only after Effa Manley was paid $5,000 to give up his contract.
The Manleys sold the team to an owner in Houston in 1948 and it folded a few years later. Abe died in 1952. Effa left Newark and moved to Los Angeles. She and Abe never had children.Cooperstown Calling
There was no indication at the time that the Negro leagues would eventually achieve iconic status, with historians writing books and old Negro league players being saluted in modern ballparks.
But Manley tried to have her team and contributions remembered. She convinced a sportswriter named Leon Hardwick that she had a story to tell. Not one commercial publisher, however, thought it worth spending money on. So Hardwick -- who had dabbled in Hollywood public relations for such stars as Dorothy Dandridge and Nat King Cole -- co-wrote and published it himself in 1976. "Negro Baseball: Before Integration" suffered the fate of many a self-published chronicle: scant publicity and meager sales. Jet magazine, however, which catered to a black readership, did highlight the book in its March 1977 issue with an eye-popping headline: "White Widow of Baseball League Pioneer Writes Book About Saga." Many blacks had assumed that Manley was black. In 1988, Overmyer, who then and now works in the budget office of the New York state court system, became intrigued with Manley's story. He couldn't get an advance, but wrote it anyway. A small book, "Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles," was published by Scarecrow Press in 1993. Overmyer was proud of the book, but reviews and sales were few. "I certainly didn't make any money on the book. I think I may have broke even," he says.
Manley, it seemed, was fighting from the grave for recognition.
Two years ago, David Biesel, publisher of the New Jersey-based St. Johann Press, began thinking he'd like to reissue Manley's "Negro Baseball," out of print and long forgotten.
"We publish eclectic books," Biesel says. "The neglected areas of sports history."
Eclectic, indeed: One book on his list is titled "Baseball Burial Sites."
Biesel, who works out of his home, wasn't in any rush to publish Manley's book. He'd get to it when he got to it.
Then, in late February, his phone rang. It was Cooperstown, the Baseball Hall of Fame. Biesel couldn't believe what he was hearing. He yelled out to his wife, Diane.
Effa Manley, he was told, had been elected for induction into the Hall of Fame.
"It's the kind of thing a publisher dreams of!" he crows.
After that phone call, Biesel amended his publication date to "sometime in June." Then he moved it up again to "sometime in April."
Before this year, Cooperstown had honored only 18 men for their Negro league careers, starting with Paige in 1971. Manley's class will include 17 players and executives from the Negro leagues and earlier black teams. Never have so many Negro leaguers been collectively recognized by Cooperstown. "In one fell swoop," says Jeff Idelson, a spokesman for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, "we put in 17 Negro leaguers. We were serious about these candidates not waiting another day."
In her book, Manley struck a reverential tone about baseball. She had not been shy about suggesting the names of former Eagles for the Hall of Fame, recognizing the impact of the Negro leagues on today's game:
"Those black baseballers from out of the past never, themselves, had the opportunity of 'making it to the Big Time,' but it's just possible that their shadowy ghosts still hover around, applauding vigorously every time Willie Stargell belts another home run . . . or Lou Brock swipes another base. . . . Further, their elation must have known no bounds at the news that one of their talented successors, Frank Robinson by name, had been hired as the first black field manager of a Major League ball club that historic October day in the year 1974. Perchance, just perchance, all of this too was written in the stars a long time ago!"
Now and then, late in life, Manley would hop a plane and get herself to one of the Negro league players' reunions. They were sentimental affairs, old players jawboning over torn-down stadiums, lost statistics, genuine power. Monte Irvin last saw Manley in 1978 at a reunion in Ashland, Ky. She was striding toward him and smiling: a woman who once decided the fate of ballplayers, who giggled at children with fingers sticky from cotton candy, who twisted with joy when the ball cracked and jumped off the bat of one of her players inside a ballpark touched by moonlight.