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Effa Manley: Pressing and Passing After a Fashion

By Bob McGee, February 18, 2016

It was the day before V-E Day, when the throngs would fill Times Square, but on this occasion, arguably Effa Manley’s finest hour, the crowd consisted of the usual cast at a Branch Rickey press conference, notably the scribes who were oft subject to his lengthy discourses in the office domiciled on Montague Street in Brooklyn that the reporters themselves would dub “Cave of the Winds.”

On this occasion Effa Manley decided to crash a party, and stand up to power. And there was nothing unusual about that.

Rickey had been ripping the Negro American and Negro National Leagues, criticizing them for their lack of contracts and ersatz schedules, characterizing them as “organizations in the zone of a racket,” a cantilevered phrase bordering on slander. The show he was putting on had to do with his launch of the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers in the United States League (USL), founded the previous December.

John Shackleford, former Negro Leagues player cum lawyer, was nominally running the USL, but the power behind the throne was Gus Greenlee, who had owned the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The street cred that the old numbers man Greenlee brought to the table could provide a nice smokescreen for Rickey and his unbeknownst intentions to bring an African-American to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Effa Manley, owner, with her husband Abe, of the Newark Eagles, would not take this little party lightly, though, and was not afraid to show up and, with furrowed brow, pipe up: “Why didn’t you try to enter our league instead of forming a new one?”

Rickey parried, punting to Shackleford, giving Manley, a white woman who moved in a black world, more time to formulate another question. All of this, of course, was on the eve of a day when the redoubled promise of the four freedoms—of speech, from want, of worship, from fear—could accompany a collective celebration of survival.

On that day, for once in America, it didn’t matter who you were, where you were, or what color you were (unless, of course, you happened to be Japanese, in which case someone still might have some questions).

The triumphs of the next half decade came amid an allowance of the realization of potential: Robinson; Truman’s integration of the armed forces. But the steps were not without consequences, pain, and readjustments, and the forces of reaction stood in the way of a core freedom, notably freedom from fear. Persecution wasn’t only limited to color: Ask the Hollywood Ten.

When Rachel Dolezal, the head of the Spokane NAACP, came under fire in 2015 for passing as black after her own parents in nearby Montana publicly disclosed she was white, it created an uproar that monopolized the headlines and triggered yet another national debate about racial identity, veracity, and consequences. What, after all, should someone else have to say about it if a particular individual self identifies with a race not their own?

Newark Eagles owners Abe and Effa Manley.
Source: Negro League Baseball Players Association, www.nlbpa.com

The question falls into a tortured American web with ever-spiraling historical antecedents—Where have you gone, Thomas Jefferson?—that has spawned trillions of conversations about people’s complexions. It’s hardly over. Trillions more will come.

If those preoccupations and the many atrocious events stemming from them have made us a lesser people in the eyes of other societies more tolerant and accepting of pluralism, it doesn’t change who we are.

Through all of that, the only woman whose plaque sits in the National Baseball Hall of Fame did much the same thing as Dolezal, wittingly or not. Manley turned quite a few heads in her time, but without the incipient uproar that labeled Dolezal a poseur.

Of one thing there was no doubt: Effa was a piece of work, with gumption, smarts, beauty, and élan. She was both a product of her time and, given her generation, a few light years ahead of it.

For Effa often effortlessly passed as black though she was white, during a time when many light-complected blacks deemed it economically or socially advantageous to do the opposite. Of course, it was perfectly natural for Effa to do so, inasmuch as she grew up in a black family, married a black man, and moved, for the most part, in black society and largely in a black world. Although she lived with black siblings, her white mother didn’t tell her that her father also was white until she was well past being a child.

Effa’s mother, Bertha Ford Brooks, was white, and her husband, Benjamin Brooks, was black. Bertha had four children with Benjamin, but Effa’s birth was the result of an illicit relationship with John Bishop, a white stockbroker who held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

Either way, hardly anyone would bat an eyelash or give you more than a raised eyebrow at a parallel development in these gender-bending days, but in 1900, when Effa was born, all of this was somewhat unusual.

The affair broke up her mother’s marriage to Brooks. Yet Bertha subsequently married again, not to Mr. Bishop, but to B. A. Cole, who, like Benjamin, was black. The result was a family where all of the children had a black father, with Effa the exception.

If one thing is clear in historical perspective, it’s that Effa was comfortable in her own skin and was unafraid and unintimidated moving in the white world. When circumstances dictated it and behooved her or her husband’s interests, or beyond that, the interests of black businesses, black baseball, or the black race, she inserted herself into controversies and became a factor.

In the process of doing so, she shaped baseball history, more specifically the history of the Negro Leagues and the Newark Eagles.

Under Manley’s watchful eye, the Newark Eagles became one of the most successful teams of the Negro League.

The aforementioned plaque annotates her contributions succinctly without any mention of color. In fact, winsomely looking over her left shoulder, her color on the plaque is bronze, which may be closer in tone to the olive complexion often ascribed to her than the other plaque depictions are to their subjects.

Hers reads thusly:

EFFA L. MANLEY
Brooklyn Eagles, 1935
Newark Eagles, 1936-1948

A TRAILBLAZING OWNER AND TIRELESS CRUSADER IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT WHO EARNED THE RESPECT OF HER PLAYERS AND FELLOW OWNERS AS BUSINESS MANAGER AND CO-OWNER OF THE EAGLES. ENSURED TEAM’S FINANCIAL SUCCESS WITH CREATIVE PROMOTIONS AND ADVERTISING. BELOVED BY FANS BECAUSE SHE INTEGRATED HER PLAYERS INTO THE COMMUNITY AND FIELDED CONSISTENTLY COMPETITIVE TEAMS, HIGHLIGHTED BY A 1946 NEGRO LEAGUES WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONSHIP. REPRESENTED TEAM AT LEAGUE MEETINGS AND ESTABLISHED A PRECEDENT OF NEGRO LEAGUES CLUBS RECEIVING FAIR COMPENSATION FOR PLAYERS SIGNED TO MAJOR LEAGUE CONTRACTS.

In the 1990s, James Overmyer gave Effa the biography she rightfully deserved. We are still discovering our own history, still learning, still absorbing, while very painfully, even now in 2016, still making the same mistakes.

The four freedoms are still at issue in the world, still under siege. We can still escape into baseball, and the rhythms of our game, even if we choose to ignore its tortured past in favor of its pastoral beauty at the nexus of the order in a diamond’s perfect symmetry.

Consciously or not, even as we strive for Lincoln’s more perfect union, we can reflect and remember those on either side of Civil War barricades, and how they fought valiantly through the carnage and then would stop to play base ball.

Even now, as a collective people here at home, we’ve yet to realize that elusive freedom from fear.

But we can stand up to it, as Effa Manley did.

 

 

 

 

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