1924 -- AN ALTERNATE HISTORY OF INTEGRATING THE MAJOR LEAGUES
It was the unexpected death of White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, in the summer of 1923, which set the wheels in motion. Baseball in Chicago was still reeling from the Black Sox scandal, and Comiskey, not conditioned to such mediocrity, had become increasingly irritable since the expulsion of his former stars from the league in the Black Sox scandal. In July of 1923, with the White Sox on a long road trip, Comiskey and his family had gone to their summer home in Wisconsin, and they were asleep on the night of July 31 when an electrical fire caused a catastrophe that took the life of the White Sox owner and his heirs.
Meanwhile, on the south side of Chicago, the father of Negro League Baseball, Rube Foster, was on a roll. After founding the Negro National League in 1920, his Chicago American Giants had dominated their rivals, and attendance was strong thanks to a burgeoning black middle class. It was Foster’s dream to see the major leagues integrated, and with Comiskey gone, there would never be a better opportunity.
So, in early September, 1923, Foster arranged a clandestine meeting with American League President Ban Johnson, still searching for a replacement owner for the tarnished White Sox franchise. Foster’s pitch was simple – he wanted the American Giants to replace the White Sox in the American League. It was a marketing man’s dream – to remove the stain of scandal by the progress of integration, and replace the Black Sox with the black Sox.
Johnson was amazed at the audacity of the proposal, but he was also intrigued. The American League president was always looking to get ahead of the National League, and getting ahead of them via integration would be a real coup if he could pull it off. But, he told Foster, it would be difficult to convince Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who officially opposed integration for fear that the major league owners would have to compensate the owners of the Negro league teams, and also that the minor leagues would have to be integrated – a real problem in the rural South.
Foster responded that he believed he could solve both problems, if the American League was also willing to consider expansion to include a couple of strong Negro League franchises. The other Negro National League owners would be happy to organize their own separate-but-equal Negro Southern League, where younger black ballplayers could be trained. Foster was confident that the Kansas City Monarchs could compete at the major league level, and that perhaps other strong cities could be added, so that the league expanded a bit while the overall standard of players went up at the same time. The two men agreed to meet with their fellow owners quietly and reconvene after the World Series in October.
Johnson proceeded quickly. He was already presiding over a divided league – the owners of the Yankees and the Red Sox had consistently challenged his authority over their cozy transactions, and they along with Comiskey’s White Sox had threatened to bolt to the National League only a year earlier, at the height of the Black Sox scandal. On the other hand, Johnson had a small interest in the Cleveland Indians franchise, and had protected Detroit owner Frank Navin when the N.L. threatened to put a new team in Detroit as part of their expansion plan; Navin would certainly not mind the opportunity to raid the NNL Detroit Stars of their young star, Norman (Turkey) Stearnes. For the expansion plan to work, though, Johnson would have to convince two of his supporters who might be wobbly on the subject of integration – Philadelphia Athletics owner Connie Mack, and Washington owner Clark Griffith.
His first call was on Clark Griffith. The former star pitcher had been among those who helped Johnson recruit National League players to the American League in 1901, and Johnson had rewarded Griffith by helping the Senators’ manager become part owner of the club in 1919, though the team was not on the same footing financially as many other clubs. Griffith was in no real position to argue; but he was unsure of the politics of integration in Washington, and asked Johnson if there would be any requirement to sign black players for his own team. Johnson agreed that would be up to each individual owner, and that was that.
Connie Mack would be a tougher sale. Mack’s Athletics were slowly beginning to recover from their dreadful years of the late teens, after he had sold most of his stars to avoid the salary increases that swept over baseball when the Federal League came into existence. And, though Mack was not known to have racial prejudices, he ran a tight ship and preferred players who led quiet and disciplined lives, which most of the black stars were certainly not known for. The appeal to Mack was that the influx of Negro League players might well have the effect of REDUCING salaries league-wide, as there would be more talent available per team, while possibly increasing gate receipts. Mack was a shrewd baseball mind, too, and quickly looked to gain an advantage in the deal. After asking, like Clark Griffith, to be free from taking on black players if he chose not to, he wondered aloud if his former star Eddie Collins might be available to come back to Philadelphia were the White Sox to be disbanded. Johnson thought that perhaps that could be arranged. Mack also volunteered that his friend in Birmingham, Alabama, Rick Woodard, owned the Black Barons franchise and a fine stadium patterned after Mack’s own Philadelphia ballpark; if expansion was to be considered, perhaps a team in Birmingham, in the heart of the South, would be a wise strategic play to get young black talent under contract.
With five owners in the fold, and a sixth (the White Sox ownership) vacant, Johnson believed he had enough leverage to push through the expansion. He telephoned Rube Foster to inquire about the Birmingham franchise, and to suggest that if the deal were done, Birmingham and Kansas City, with their white owners, could be added to the American League if they could afford the entry fee. Once they had tentatively agreed to terms, Johnson would approach Commissioner Landis.
When Judge Landis heard the proposal first-hand from Ban Johnson, he was appalled by how far the discussion had proceeded without his input. This was not something the American League could pursue on its own; the National Association of Baseball Clubs was now a single entity, and Landis had no intention of pursuing the proposal without the support of the National League and its president, Harry Pulliam. Secretly, he hoped that Pulliam would help him squash the idea, but he had to act soon; he knew that if the details were leaked to the press, holding the color line would fall entirely on his shoulders.
But Harry Pulliam was more concerned about falling behind the American League. He wondered about the new Eastern Colored League, and what would happen if one Negro League was integrated into the majors while the other remained separate; so, he proposed to Pulliam that they approach Eastern Colored League president Ed Bolden to get his reaction.
Ed Bolden, a quiet and modest fellow who worked at the Philadelphia post office, was amazed to be received by Harry Pulliam, and even more amazed to find Judge Landis in the room with him. Bolden saw the chance for an historic opportunity, and didn’t care whether he profited from it personally or not. He suggested that the Eastern Colored League could deliver the same deal to the National League that Foster had delivered to Ban Johnson -- two new clubs. But Bolden wondered aloud if Philadelphia could really support three major league teams, and so did the N.L. president, who shared that the Phillies team had few resources and perhaps could be bought out by Hilldale, much like the White Sox were being bought out by Foster. The New York teams would probably not be welcome competition for the Giants and Dodgers, Bolden knew, but perhaps the Cuban Stars could continue as a traveling team, and Baltimore and Atlantic City were other strong franchises.
Harry Pulliam didn’t let on in his meeting with Ed Bolden, but the mention of Baltimore was interesting for a different reason. The city had not had a major league franchise since the A.L.’s Orioles had moved to New York in 1903 – but prior to 1900 the city had a proud history of National League baseball. More to the point, its current white club, the International League’s Baltimore Orioles, had become the most dominant minor league team the game had ever known, and due to the insistence of the Orioles’ owner, the International League was the lone holdout to the draft agreement between the majors and minors. The International League’s owners were sick of being dominated, and the Orioles owner Jack Dunn was sick of being raided by the majors – perhaps, instead, he would like to join the major leagues as an one of the two expansion clubs. Pulliam discussed these possibilities with Judge Landis just before Thanksgiving, and Landis approached the Orioles owner in early December to ask him about coming into the fold. The catch: Dunn would have to integrate the Orioles, in order to preserve the terms of the agreement with the Eastern Colored League.
Dunn was more than happy to accept those terms; he even took in the Baltimore Black Sox’ white owners, George Rossiter and George Spedden, as minority partners in the new Orioles, in return for their financial assistance in paying the league’s entry fee. Finally, on January 31, 1924, just before the start of spring training, Judge Landis announced the expansion of the American and National Leagues into two ten-team leagues, as listed above.
Nowhere in Judge Landis' announcement did it say anything about the color barrier, which had been in place for more than thirty years; but of course, that had just been a gentlemen's agreement, never a formal rule. And the gentlemen had changed their minds, for the good of the game, or the money that would come with it.