Manley, a true queen in a man's world
Pioneer, businesswoman bridged color gap in baseball
In a sport of kings, Effa Manley served as its queen.From the late 1930s through the 1940s, Manley lorded over a baseball franchise and played a major role in the success of the Negro Leagues. Called a trailblazer, a pioneer, a hard-headed businesswoman, she was that and more among the group of tough-minded and determined men who ran their baseball fiefdoms in urban cities across America. But Effa Manley was different from them not just in gender; she was a white woman who found success in a black man's world. "An attractive and visible personage with a good business head, she was a woman ahead of her time," wrote James A. Riley in "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues." With skin color dividing blacks and whites in American society at the time, Manley bridged that color gap to become one of the foremost figures in the Negro Leagues. Her contributions to the game have made Manley a candidate for induction this month into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. She is one of 39 people that a panel of 12 baseball historians and Negro League experts is considering for induction. Few people on or outside the panel can argue that Manley, often referred to as "the Queen of Newark," isn't Hall-of-Fame worthy. "I, personally, feel Effa Manley should have long been in the Hall of Fame," said Bob Kendrick, director of marketing for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. For just as men like Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Martin Dihigo, Willie Wells, Josh Gibson, Monte Irvin, Oscar Charleston, Rube Foster and Satchel Paige helped shape black baseball and its legend, so, too, did Effa Manley in her role with the Newark Eagles, a team she owned with her husband Abe. "She was unique and effervescent and knowledgeable," Irvin, the Hall of Famer who played shortstop and outfield for the Eagles, once said of Manley. "She ran the whole business end of the team." She ran the business as if she were born with entrepreneurial blood coursing through her veins. In point of fact, Manley did have those genes.
Born March 27, 1900, Manley was the result of an affair her mother, Bertha Ford Brooks, had with John M. Bishop, a wealthy, white Philadelphian whom she worked for. She'd later marry two black men, so people assumed that because of the black stepfathers that Effa Manley herself was a light-skinned black woman.In a world of choices, Manley did nothing to change their assumptions. She picked what some might call the tougher of the two worlds to find comfort in. She decided to pass for black, a simple task considering her siblings were biracial. Shortly she graduated from high school, Manley found love at Yankee Stadium. She met Abe Manley, a man 24 years her senior, at the 1932 World Series. From girlfriend, she soon became Manley's wife. Abe Manley had the deep pockets to make many things possible for his wife. He'd invested and prospered in real estate, although rumors persisted that Manley's money had come from booking numbers. A baseball fan at his core, he decided to invest some of his money into baseball. In 1935, he started a Negro League team in Brooklyn, a team that he named the Eagles. "I guess he hoped they'd fly high," Effa Manely was once quoted as saying. With other businesses to run, Abe Manley put the Eagles in his wife's hands. She handled the job well. She turned the Eagles into her team. She served as the team's general manager, its traveling secretary, its PR director and its accountant. As de facto owner, Effa Manley acted like the 1930s version of former Oakland A's owner Charles O. Finley. Like Finley, she spoke her mind. Her candor was refreshing among Negro League owners, even if it wasn't always welcomed. "Effa and Abe were constantly maintaining that Negro baseball should be run on a more businesslike basis," Negro League historian Lawrence Hogan wrote in his book, "Shades of Glory."
"They advocated an independent commissioner, more reliable scheduling of games, and enforcement of penalties against players who jumped contracts and the owners who happily received the jumpers."Such high-minded ideals didn't win her friends; those ideals did, however, win her influence and earn her respect. The other owners named Abe Manley as the league's official treasurer, but it was Effa Manley who, in fact, handled the financial ledgers -- for the league and for the Eagles. As concerned as she was for the league itself, Effa Manley showed similar concern for the men that she employed. Few owners in the history of black baseball had the kind of rapport with baseball players that she did. She showed it with her willingness to pay them better wages. She doted over her players, much in the way a mother would a child. In her mind, her players were her extended family. Her generosity toward them was well documented, which included a tale about her lending Irvin the downpayment for his first home. But her openhandedness toward her players came with a high price: obedience. She demanded loyalty from the men who worked for her. Despite her business smarts, Manley couldn't figure out how to hold back the winds of change. By the mid-1940s, baseball was moving beyond segregation; integration was in the air. After Robinson broke the color barrier, the fortunes of the Negro Leagues took a downward turn. Effa Manley and her husband sold the Eagles in 1947. Yet even with no team to run, she remained an advocate for black baseball. Manley wrote, "Negro Baseball ... Before Integration," a 1976 book in which she argued for 73 players whom she felt deserved to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Her book came after seven players from the Negro Leagues had already been elected to Cooperstown. Eleven more have since earned induction. Later this month, Effa Manley, who died in 1981, might well join those Negro League colleagues with a spot there. As an influential owner, she made a strong case for herself during her life. "She was a very, very savvy businesswoman who wasn't afraid to use her feminine wilds to get what she wanted," Kendrick said. "Clearly, she was a pioneer; she was an innovator; she was very shrewd; and she was an outstanding owner. "Certainly, from my point of view, she's very worthy of being in the Hall of Fame."
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.