02/06/09 10:00 AM EST
Innovative Wilkinson saw beyond color
White owner of Monarchs built dynasty by treating others without prejudice
By Nate Taylor / Special to MLB.com
Bob Kendrick has found stories about J.L. Wilkinson among the most compelling in the history of "black baseball."
Ironic was one word that Kendrick, marketing director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, used often when talking about Wilkinson and his baseball legacy.
In a world of black men, Wilkinson, a white man, turned out to be one of the most influential figures in the Negro Leagues. Historians consider him one of the best owners in black baseball history.
What made Wilkinson's story ironic, Kendrick said, is that Wilkinson connected with his ballplayers better than most black executives did.
"Wilkinson was a man of high integrity and was extremely trustworthy," Kendrick said. "I found that to be exceptional for a white man who basically was assimilating in a black world."
During an era when America had a rigid color line, Wilkinson, a Hall of Famer who owned the Kansas City Monarchs, stood out. He earned the respect and loyalty of his players, even from legendary Negro Leaguers like infielder Newt Allen.
"J.L. Wilkinson was one of the finest men I've ever met," Allen once said. "He was a white man who was a prince of a fellow. He loved baseball, and he loved his players."
It was for that reason, if for no others, that Kendrick felt Wilkinson should be better known in baseball circles today.
"I don't think the focus was ever about him," Kendrick said. "It was about his players. His players truly believed in him, and they performed for him well because they trusted him."
From 1920 to '47, Wilkinson ran the Monarchs, turning the franchise into one the most dominant in the history of black baseball. His clubs won 10 pennants and two Negro League World Series.
His clubs were successful because Wilkinson didn't let race enter into his evaluation of ballplayers, said Phil Dixon, a Negro Leagues historian and the founder of "American Baseball Chronicles."
"He had a solid understanding of the game," Dixon said. "But because the man was basically colorblind, it allowed him to find the right players. He didn't see color, he saw talent."
In building the Monarchs into a powerhouse, Wilkinson relied on seven players -- Cool Papa Bell, Bill Foster, Satchel Paige, Bullet Rogan, Hilton Smith, Turkey Stearnes and Willie Wells, all of whom became Hall of Famers -- to turn the franchise into a dynasty.
He also had Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks and Elston Howard on his roster at one point before integration opened the Major Leagues to black ballplayers.
As an owner, Wilkinson proved one of the most innovative in the history of the game. He pioneered night baseball. He used his money to install portable lights on the beds of trucks in 1930, and the lights allowed his Monarchs to play night ball across the Midwest.
What he did in bringing night baseball to cities should have been enough in itself to get Wilkinson enshrined in Cooperstown, Dixon said.
"He was a true baseball man," Dixon said. "He treated his players as men. Even though he wasn't the same race as them, they were his family, and he made a living for his players."
As for Kendrick, most of his knowledge about Wilkinson came from Buck O'Neil, a former Monarchs ballplayer, manager and an iconic figure in the history of the Negro Leagues.
O'Neil told Kendrick story after story about the impact Wilkinson had on the men who played for him.
"Buck always said Wilkinson was the first white man he ever met without any prejudice," Kendrick said. "Buck had great admiration for him. He talked very glowingly about Wilkinson as an owner and his deep rooted appreciation for those African-American athletes."
Kendrick remembers best one tale O'Neil told him about Wilkinson. It happened on a summer day in the late 1930s when the Monarchs were in a small, Northwest town preparing for a ballgame later that night.
After the Monarchs arrived in town, they stopped at a restaurant. Like most small towns back then, the restaurant refused to serve blacks. Wilkinson stepped off the team bus and stood up for his ballplayers.
If the restaurant refused to serve his players, Wilkinson said his team wouldn't play in that town. He threatened to put his players back on the bus and move on. His threat to cancel the game proved enough to get his players a meal.
"I don't know if people understand how difficult it had to be for Wilkinson to be operating in a black world," Kendrick said. "Believe me, that story from Buck is not a gimmick."
Unlike so many in his day, Wilkinson showed his love and support for black ballplayers. He treated them like family. It's examples of that summer day and others like it that Kendrick hopes will keep the legacy of Wilkinson alive.
"He didn't look at his men as inferior," Kendrick said. "He looked at them as equals."
Nate Taylor is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.