2016 in Review: Effa Manley

As I recall my first year as a sports writer, I thought it would be fun to share a few career highlights!

I got back into writing in the most unexpected way – through sports.  Although, anyone who knows me won’t find it all that surprising.  I love sports, but baseball above them all! Therefore, getting the chance to write about a woman who owned a Negro League baseball team was an absolute joy! First up for my 2016 in Review is my piece on Effa Manley for MyWSports: Women’s History Wednesday.

“She loved baseball”, those are the words written on the tombstone of Effa Manley, the first woman inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Manley was the first female co-owner and operator of a baseball club.  She and her husband, Abe Manley were the owners of the Newark Eagles, a team that competed in the Negro Leagues from 1935-1946.  From the highest salaries in the league to Anti-Lynching game days, Manley was a marketing guru for her team, as well as causes she felt strongly about.

 A  biopic on Effa Manley is in development, baseball fanatic Penny Marshall is set to direct the film.  My W Sports was able to catch up with Jeffrey Miiller, co-writer of the screenplay for “Effa”.  Miiller teamed up with Byron Motley to bring Effa’s story to life.

We asked Miiller how he and Motley came to the story of Effa Manley, “My partner’s father, Robert Motley, is the only living umpire from the Negro Baseball Leagues, so Byron grew up hearing a lot of stories about the Negro Baseball League and is somewhat of a historian on the Negro Leagues … it was through these old stories that eventually he found out about Effa Manley, which was of interest to him because he grew up hearing all the stories about the players, but he didn’t really know much about her.”

Motley and Miiller’s screenplay for “Effa” is based upon Queen of The Negro Leagues, by James Overmeyer. “What attracted us to the story was that she’s an astonishing woman.  She was way ahead of her time, and a lot of the themes that run in this story are just as relevant, perhaps even more so, today …”

Black or White?

One of those topics that Motley and Miiller found captivating was Manley’s racial identity.  In Overmeyer’s biography, Manley shares that she was told that she was white later in life, after living among her siblings and family as black.  During the time Effa was going up, there were several legal and societal factors that made being black at best, more challenging; at worst, deadly.  There is much confusion on the topic of Effa’s race, and most interviewed by Overmeyer didn’t remember or quite frankly, didn’t care.

Black sportswriter Arthur G. Rust, Jr stated, “Identification is so difficult to pinpoint in this basically racist society we live in that whether Effa was really white or black seems ludicrous.  After all, being black is also a state of mind, and apparently Effa thought so too.”

Baseball and Civil Rights

“By bringing people to the stadium, she was making them more aware of social causes and she was raising money for those causes.” ~ Jeff Miiller on Effa Manley. 

Despite how Effa chose to identify, she was very involved in the well-being of her community; the black community.  As a woman in business, she often offered her home, her voice and her team for the fight against unjust, racially motivated, barriers to success of the black community.  In the 1930’s Manley became involved with Citizen’s League for Fair Play, a group that organized boycotts of white-owned retail stores.  After volunteering in multiple capacities, a reporter suggested that the owner of Blumstein’s would offer jobs to black girls and women, if Effa herself asked.

Manley, obviously convinced, went to work!  She held planning meetings in her home and collected consumer data from the department store, discovering that 75% of the Blumstein business came from black women.  Despite this, the store owner Mrs. L.M Blumstein refused to hire black women. In a meeting between the Blumstein owners and the Citizen’s League for Fair Play in July of 1934, Manley interjected after much back and forth,

“I said, ‘You know, Mr. Blumstein, we think as much of our young colored girls as you do your young white girls, but there’s no work for them except to work as someone’s maid, or become prostitutes’ When I said that, Blumstein’s lawyer almost went through the roof. ‘Oh Mrs. Manley, don’t say such a thing,’ he said.  I said, ‘I’m only telling the truth.’”

Manley used her position to strengthen the black community and black baseball.  Manley interjected the blunt truth at Eagles games as well.  Miiller reflects, “She was very brilliant in marrying her social activism with America’s popular game; America’s love of baseball.”  Overmeyer noted that Newark politicians, who were exclusively white at the time, prioritized appearances at Newark Eagles games.  In fact, Manley and the NAACP once hosted an “Anti-Lynching Day” where pins with the slogan “Stop Lynching” were sold for $1.  Press in attendance snapped a photo of the Newark Mayor purchasing one of the pins on that day.

 Additionally, Manley and the Newark Eagles often held fundraisers for the Booker T. Washington Community Hospital, she did so with conviction “This hospital is the only one in the State offering an opportunity for colored physicians and nurses to get hospital training.  This is a civic responsibility no one should shirk and everyone should be proud to meet.”

Players Advocate

Manley served her ballclub with the same gusto that she brought to community advocacy.  Miiller described her as an “early players advocate”.  Manley was the first owner to buy her team a state-of-the-art, air conditioned bus for road games.  The Manley’s were known for paying players well, forcing other team owners to do the same. Although Effa’s voice was not always welcomed, she was given reprieve, in the beginning, because her husband was so well liked.  However, over time the other owners noted that, on matters where collective financial interests were at stake, Effa Manley was the “best man for the job”.

 The Negro Leagues began to suffer after Jackie Robinson broke the modern-era color barrier. MLB teams began “poaching talent” from the Negro Leagues, as Miiller put it.  The co-writer of “Effa” also acknowledged that the Manley’s were torn about the integration of baseball, “When segregation fell and Jackie Robinson was signed to the majors, one thing that rarely talked about, although that was a great thing for progress … it did decimate the black community.”

She and her husband found the position slightly compromising, as they would never dissuade a player from the opportunity to play in the MLB, but felt very strongly about maintaining a professional business relationship with MLB owners, which included making good on the investment of the talent they cultivated.

“She basically stood up to one of the owners and said, ‘Look, if you want one of my players, we train these men, we brought these men to the game; they are who they are partially because we gave them this opportunity.’

“She was the only Negro League team owner to stand up to Branch Rickey and say to him, ‘This is wrong, what you’re doing. I believe in progress, yes.  But, you’re stealing our players and you’re not compensating us; we have contracts with these men and you’re just stealing them.’”

The Manleys were compensated for Eagles players who moved to the MLB, but she nor the Negro Leagues survived long after.  In 1946 Manley and the Eagles won the Negro League World Series against Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs.  By 1948,  the Negro Leagues were done for good.

 Hall of Fame

“It’s great that younger people, especially young girls, could be introduced to a strong female character like this who did such amazing work … I really think she changed the game.” ~Jeff Miiller

In 2006, Effa Manley became the first woman inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  She was inducted with 16 other Negro League players and executives, including some of her players. Of Manley, the National Baseball Hall of Fame states, “When she found a closed door, Manley kicked it open to improve her league and her team’s playing conditions. As a result, Manley will be remembered forever as a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

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