Wilkinson built baseball dynasty
Owner provided leadership, money to keep Monarchs on top
People often forget the non-players who made black baseball run, and few men who played roles off the field had a bigger influence on the game than J.L. Wilkinson, owner of the Kansas City Monarchs.
Under Wilkinson's ownership, the Monarchs became one of the dominant teams in the Negro Leagues. Wilkinson, the son of a college president, built a baseball dynasty that featured baseball legends like Bullet Joe Rogan, Hilton Smith, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks and Elston Howard.
Those legends owe a lot to Wilkinson, a white man who didn't let race color his opinion of the men who worked under him. He proved to be a fair, respected and honest owner who showed generosity toward his players. Wilkinson was every bit the pioneer that owners like Rube Foster, Cum Posey, Gus Greenlee and Effa Manley were.
For his contribution to black baseball, Wilkinson finds himself among the 39 players and baseball executives who are under consideration for induction this month into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
A 12-member panel of historians and Negro League experts will debate whether Wilkinson's contributions to black baseball are worthy enough to earn him a plaque in Cooperstown, and the panel will announce its decision Feb. 27 in Tampa.
Whether Wilkinson gets the nine votes that would put him into the Hall of Fame isn't important, because the vote count, no matter which way it goes, won't take away from what he accomplished in black baseball.
"Under Wilkinson's guidance, the Monarchs captured 10 Negro League pennants and two of the four Negro World Series in which they competed as representatives of their league," wrote baseball historian James A. Riley in The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. "Wilkinson's Monarchs won the first Negro World Series played in each of the two eras when Series were played between the two competing leagues."
Wilkinson stayed at the helm of the Monarchs from their start in 1920 until '47, and he provided the insight, the leadership and the money to keep the franchise at the top of black baseball.
"He was a white man, and he thought different," baseball historian John B. Holway quoted pitcher Bill Drake as saying in his book, Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers. "He was strictly business. And the man knew baseball."
And Wilkinson's business was baseball, a fact that members of the Hall of Fame panel will have to take notice of. He made his players treat the game with dignity, Holway wrote. As an example, he insisted his players turn the other cheek when white fans baited them, and he put in place a dress code.
"No wonder black kids who could hit and throw dreamed of joining the Monarchs almost as much as white kids dreamed of becoming Yankees," Holway wrote. "Wilkinson made them dress the part."
But if one thing stands out about Wilkinson's contribution to baseball, it might as well be this: the gift of light.
"We were the first ballclub that ever played under lights," Holway quoted Monarchs second baseman Newt Allen as saying. "J.L. Wilkinson was the man who started it all, one of the finest men I've ever met. He was a white man who was a prince of a fellow. He loved baseball, and he loved his players."
Wilkinson's love for the game guided his decision to respect the game and the men who played it.
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.