Nashville-Davidson, Tennessee 2020-08-27 10:00:00 –
Photo courtesy of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Inc.
Every winter, not long after the new year, the owners of teams in the Negro National League gathered in a conference room in an Eastern city to discuss the past season and plan for the one ahead. These discussions often simmered with tension as the cadre of equally strong personalities jockeyed for power and influence. But according to the Chicago Defender newspaper, the Feb. 2, 1940, meeting in Philadelphia was “the stormiest meeting in the history of the Negro National League — and there have been many stormy ones.”
That day’s point of contention? Leadership of the Negro National League — which at the time rested on the shoulders of Thomas T. Wilson of Nashville, Tenn.
Wilson was but a year into his tenure as the NNL president at that point, but for Abe and Effa Manley, owners of the Newark Eagles, that was a year too long. From Effa’s perspective, the league needed a neutral leader — someone who didn’t have personal interests to protect via affiliation with a team, someone who could call the shots that would improve the league’s overall operations. Wilson, who owned the Baltimore Elite Giants and had been nicknamed “Smiling Tom” because of his generally congenial nature, wasn’t that at all.
After a heated back-and-forth, the owners cast their votes, with the final tally resulting in a deadlock. Three owners were in favor of Wilson maintaining his post. The other three, led by the Manleys, pushed for the appointment of C.B. Powell, then publisher of the New York Amsterdam News newspaper, who had zero team connections. In the aftermath, Wilson told the Chicago Defender how upset he was that “a few of the members attempted to oust me without a notice.”
Three weeks later, on Feb. 23, the owners reconvened to debate the still-unresolved matter of who would be league president for the 1940 season. At that meeting, in an apparent win for the longtime baseball exec, Wilson was successful in gaining re-election. Effa, however, saw things a bit differently.
She’d lost her bid to see Powell installed, of course. But even more important: She had a feeling there would be greater losses — for everyone — to come.
Born in Atlanta in 1890, Tom Wilson moved to Nashville with his parents when they began studying at Meharry Medical School. Wilson’s parents were en route to becoming Black doctors in a city that already boasted Preston Taylor and J.C. Napier among its prominent Black citizenry, and this chosen career path certainly afforded their son some financial advantages. For his part, Wilson was astute enough to capitalize on them — especially in regard to America’s new pastime.
By the early 20th century, baseball had proven itself both entertaining and potentially lucrative for white and Black teams alike. An 1887 “gentleman’s agreement” instituted by leadership in organized white baseball barred Black players from its ranks for nearly 60 years, but that couldn’t stop Black players from playing their own games. Talented athletes and savvy businessmen partnered to form teams that barnstormed around the country, staging contests wherever there was dirt and a paying crowd — all the while proving the tenacity and resourcefulness of the entire Black community.
Wilson wasn’t much of an athlete, but he quickly learned that taking the field wasn’t the only way to get involved in the growing sport. In 1913, Andrew “Rube” Foster, one of the best Black pitchers of the era, traveled to Nashville to play a series of games against an all-star team culled from the Capital City League, an industrial league featuring a handful of company-sponsored semipro outfits. According to Bill Traughber’s Nashville Baseball History, the games played at Sulphur Dell — the since-demolished ballpark where Nashville’s First Horizon Park now stands — drew the largest attendance for a Black sporting event in history. Wilson, seeing the money changing hands and the enraptured crowd smiling and laughing in their Sunday best, decided he wanted in.
Wilson soon began sponsoring games for area teams, fronting the costs for stadium rentals and other expenses and pocketing the profits. In 1918 he his formed own club, the semipro Nashville Standard Giants, and in 1920, he took the team a step further by becoming a charter member of the brand-new Negro Southern League.
Photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum
By that time, Foster had morphed from all-star pitcher to player-manager and future-focused executive. He had long known that the success of Black baseball was possible only through organization and cooperation, and in February 1920, he brought together owners from a handful of Midwestern teams to found the Negro National League, which would become the first successful Negro League in baseball history.
Some of the owners chafed at Foster’s unyielding control over the league, as well as the fact that he collected 5 percent of gate receipts for scheduling and booking league contests, ultimately earning more money than the other owners. But in the end, Foster’s contemporaries understood they were better off inside Foster’s league than outside it, that there was value in cohesion.
Indeed, just a month after the NNL was founded in Kansas City, Mo., representatives from a group of Southern Black teams — including the Birmingham Giants, Chattanooga Black Lookouts and Wilson’s newly renamed Nashville Elite Giants — gathered in Atlanta and agreed to form their own official circuit. Though that league quickly disbanded, it was further proof that Black baseball could be a viable enterprise, even if a series of ups and downs over the next 13 years rendered its long-term future anything but inevitable.
The first Negro World Series, played between the Kansas City Monarchs of the NNL and the Hilldale Daisies of the Eastern Colored League, was staged in 1924. Then, just one year later, Foster had a debilitating accident: He suffered brain damage due to a gas leak, most likely carbon monoxide, in an Indianapolis boarding house. Neither he nor his still fledgling Negro National League would ever recover.
Meanwhile, throughout the trials that rocked the Negro Leagues at large, Wilson remained a committed baseball man. He kept his club on the field, independently barnstorming from city to city, and by 1928, had even built a park of his own. Reports suggest that Wilson — considered one of the wealthiest men of any color in Nashville — may have generated part of his wealth from an illegal numbers operation. Whether that is true or not, it’s certain that Wilson reinvested his funds in the Black community. Wilson Park, completed in Nashville’s all-Black Trimble Bottom neighborhood in 1929, was the most tangible example.
On any given game day, Wilson Park was the pride of Nashville’s Black community, and not just because it was the first Black-owned stadium in the South. Because Wilson didn’t have to pay the rental fees that Black-owned teams who lacked a home field did, Wilson retained more of his revenues. He used those to develop a hotel, field softball teams and, later, build the Paradise Ballroom nightclub.
Photo: Eric England
The stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression, which wreaked financial havoc across racial lines, were especially devastating to the Black community. Teams and leagues shuttered as fans stopped coming to games, and paying players became increasingly untenable. But by the early 1930s, there was new hope in the form of a Pennsylvania-based entrepreneur and numbers banker named Gus Greenlee. Greenlee had come to baseball in a sort of roundabout way, when the then-semipro Pittsburgh Crawfords showed up at his nightclub and asked for a financial investment. Greenlee eventually assumed ownership of the club and turned it into one of the dominant teams of the era, at one time featuring hardball legends Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell in his lineup.
To be clear, Greenlee certainly had personal reasons for pursuing a career in professional baseball. There was money to be made, of course, and a bitter rivalry with Homestead Grays owner Cum Posey provided intense motivation. But like Rube Foster before him, Greenlee also understood that achieving success as a Black owner of a Black baseball team would be more likely within a structured league — an organization that could provide a set schedule against quality opponents, thereby providing more stable profits and a more respectable product for fans. So in 1933, Greenlee launched the second iteration of the Negro National League — the newest embodiment of Foster’s mantra, “We are the ship, all else is the sea” — and became its president. And it was in this league that Wilson and his Elite Giants finally found their home.
During the NNL’s inaugural season, Wilson put his promotional skills to work by partnering with Greenlee and Robert Cole, the new owner of the Chicago American Giants, to stage the first East-West Classic. This was Black baseball’s version of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, which had launched the same year, and it was both a social and economic success from the start. Despite rainy weather that likely hampered attendance, 12,000 fans still showed up to Chicago’s Comiskey Park to see Black baseball’s best in battle.
If that first year of the NNL was to be any indication, Wilson, Greenlee and others had no reason to assume that the Negro Leagues wouldn’t prosper indefinitely. The 1933 season wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was solid enough to create a new foundation for Black players and teams for years to come. Unfortunately, many of the issues that had plagued Black baseball since its earliest days continued to be a problem. Costs continued to be high while profits were low or nonexistent; players jumped from team to team at will, always in search of a bigger paycheck; and a lack of home stadiums necessitated dealings with self-interested white booking agents.
By the end of the ’30s, the league was in disarray. Greenlee, who had been mired in conflict with several of the team owners, was also in dire financial straits. After losing his most valuable players to the Dominican Republic during the 1937 season, he began facing uncertainty in his numbers operation, and the career of a boxer he was managing was cut short.
In early 1939, with few other options, Greenlee disbanded the Crawfords and was officially out as the president of the Negro National League. Wilson — who had since moved his Elite Giants to Columbus, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., before finally settling in Baltimore — was in.
Photo courtesy of Marr and Holman Records
Under normal circumstances, Wilson’s affable, nonconfrontational nature might have been excusable or, at the very least, disregardable. But as the 1940s wore on and baseball’s integration became imminent, an unwillingness to make difficult decisions was beginning to bode poorly for all of Black baseball.
Wendell Smith, the sports editor for the Black Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, publicly addressed the heresy of Major League Baseball’s longstanding color line when interviewing white managers and players as they came to Pittsburgh to play the Pirates. Have you ever seen any Negro ballplayers who you think could play in the major leagues? Smith would ask. Yes, of course, the men would say, almost without fail.
In total, around 75 percent of Smith’s subjects — including superstars like Dizzy Dean, Honus Wagner and Mel Ott — admitted that they supported the idea of Black players in the majors. And if Smith’s informal poll presented one of earliest cracks in white baseball’s ivory veneer, America’s involvement in World War II was perhaps the most forceful. No longer could the majors justify denying Black players a right as basic as joining the baseball team of their qualification — not when some of those same players had been shipped off to Europe to fight for the rights of their fellow American citizens.
Negro Leagues execs were as attuned to these developments as the Black athletes who hoped to one day suit up in the majors. Suddenly, it seemed, as whispers of integration grew into manic screams, Manley’s admonishments for Black baseball to clean up its act for respectability’s sake — to honor player contracts, report game results in a timely manner and bring in neutral leadership — proved more prescient than ever.
When Branch Rickey announced on Oct. 23, 1945, that Jackie Robinson had signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and would be joining the minor league Montreal Royals in the spring of ’46, Negro Leagues owners were left scrambling. They could only assume that Robinson would be the first of many Black players called across the quickly eroding color line, and they needed to find a way to protect themselves and their business interests in the interim.
Meanwhile, even Wilson decided to speak out in the wake of Rickey’s news. He’d remained silent when former MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis declared in 1942 that owners had every right to sign a Black player if they wanted. But now that an MLB owner had actually done it, thereby throwing the Negro Leagues into upheaval, he could remain silent no more.
“I would like to see a dozen or more [Black players] signed,” Wilson told the Chicago Defender in December, “but believe since we get the men, develop them and spend money in doing that the Negro clubs ought to be paid something.”
Rickey had of course paid nothing for Robinson’s contract with the Kansas City Monarchs, his former team. In fact, Rickey hadn’t even contacted Monarchs ownership before cornering Robinson in his Brooklyn office in August 1945 and questioning his willingness to accept undue torture en route to becoming Black America’s new hero. It was this issue of nonpayment that most concerned the Negro League moguls, for — as Wilson mentioned — they had invested considerably in transforming Black baseball from sandlot to stadium, side hustle to lucrative enterprise.
In response to Rickey’s thievery, the Negro League owners lobbied Happy Chandler, MLB’s new commissioner, for recourse. In the hopes that the Negro Leagues might be absorbed into Major League Baseball as official minor leagues — a move that would allow them to keep their teams intact and be paid fairly for each recruited player they developed — the owners also promised to implement new league constitutions and player contracts that more closely resembled those employed by the majors. Regarding the matter of electing league presidents who weren’t affiliated with any team — an issue that had been raised inside and outside of Black baseball — Wilson offered to step down from his position. It was a decision made as much because of his declining health as his consent to make room for a neutral leader.
Ultimately, however, all of these actions were too little too late. Rickey’s recruitment of Robinson had endeared him to the greater Black community as a savior of sorts, and with Chandler’s unwillingness to step in and demand fair player compensation, there was no reason for the Dodgers boss to offer it. By April 1946, Rickey had signed four other Black players in addition to Robinson, including future Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella from Wilson’s own Elite Giants team.
If there is a silver lining to be gleaned from Wilson’s failing health, it’s that he never had to see how quickly the Negro Leagues crumbled. He didn’t have to watch as attendance at Negro Leagues games began its rapid plummet once Robinson took the field with the Dodgers in April 1947 — when former Negro Leagues fans decided they’d rather watch white baseball’s lone Black star than pay to see a team full of not-yets and never-wills still playing on segregated teams.
On May 17, 1947, a little more than a month after Robinson’s big-league debut, Wilson died from a heart attack outside his Nashville home. Even when he’d moved his team across the country, and even when he’d assumed a leadership position in the East Coast-based Negro National League, Wilson maintained his home in Tennessee. It was where he always returned when baseball gave him a chance to step away, and where he remained loyal to the Black community he’d spent his whole life entertaining.
Andrea Williams is an author and journalist who lives in Nashville with her husband and four children. Her book, Baseball’s Leading Lady: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues, publishes Jan. 5, 2021, and signed copies can be preordered from Parnassus Books.