Cover the Bases Interview with Neil Lanctot

by on February 19, 2010

We continue to focus on the Negro Leagues on the Cover the Bases podcast, in recognition of February’s designation as Black History Month. During the first half of last century, the Negro Leagues provided an opportunityfor players who were unable to participate in the major leagues simply because of racial inequality.  It is a critically important baseball story to tell, and we are pleased to have as our guest, Neil Lanctot professor of History at The University of Delaware.

Neil’s book is Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution, published by University of Pennsylvania Press . The book was awarded the prestigious Seymore Medal from SABR honoring the best book on baseball history or biography.   

This book provides a different perspective of the Leagues than the typical analysis of the players, teams and events on the field.  Neil determined that a complete analysis of the business aspects had not been told before, and launched on an effort to uncover any information about the finances and business activities that produced Negro League baseball games.

We take a look at the use of the name “Negro Leagues” as a catchall term for the various loosely affiliated organizations, including the Negro American League (NAL), the Negro National League (NNL), and earlier entities such as the Eastern Colored League.  This does not even take into account the numerous barnstorming Negro teams who traveled the country playing exhibitions against mostly semi-pro industrial teams.

One of the great contributors to the development of the League was a player and owner by the name of Rube Foster.  Not only was he a great pitcher, he also had the vision and the ambition in around 1910 – 1911 to team up with a white tavern owner named John M. Schorling, who was the son in law of Charles Comiskey, owner of the Chicago White Sox.  There was a need to fill the ballpark that was under Schorling’s control, so he teamed with Foster to put players onto teams to use the park.

The business structure lead to many white businessmen getting involved with the League as owners , booking agents and organizers.

Following the depression Gus Greenlee, a black entrepreneur from Pittsburgh who was involved in the numbers business, was determined to rebuild the League following the financial devastation brought on every team of that era.  He owned the Pittsburgh Crawfords as well as the stadium in which they played.  Ballpark ownership would turn out to be one of the key downfalls of the Negro Leagues in the long run.

I share with Neil how we have been using the Strat-o-Matic Negro League All-Stars game as a way to learn more about the players whose histories we have been deprived of, because of the era in which they played.  Looking for some insights into a player who we should be aware of, who might not be recognizable, Neil points out the achievements of “Wild” Bill Wright , who among other accomplishments edged out Roy Campanella by one homerun to lead the league and complete the Triple Crown in 1943.

Wright was a five tool player who has not elected to the Hall of Fame, but who has the backing and support of Monte Irvin and Neil Lanctot at least for earning that honor.

The business of the Negro Leagues hit its peak during World War II as gas rationing combined with higher earnings for African Americans working manufacturing jobs, contributes to the highest attendance at rented facilities such as Yankee Stadium, Comiskey Park, and Griffith Stadium among others.

Numerous business factors contributed to the demise of the League including the necessity of renting the ballparks, which removes any other revenue streams such as concessions. Lanctot also points out that as radio and television become more prominent during the 1950’s, the only form of revenue – gate receipts – begins to drop off.  This of course is compounded by Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and others ultimately breaking the color barrier and drawing fan attention directly to those major league teams.

These teams and these players are a significant component of the heritage of the game of baseball, and as factors have contributed to less interest in the game by young African Americans, we are bound to present and protect the stories that were born in the Negro Leagues.

We extend our sincere thanks for Neil Lanctot for spending time with us, and we look forward to the Simon & Schuster release in the spring of 2011 of Neil’s biography about Roy Campanella!  We will have to bring Neil back on the Cover the Bases podcast.

If you like hearing about the baseball books we profile on Cover the Bases, it might be time for you to pick up a Kindle from Amazon, so that you can take all the best Baseball Books with you no matter which stadiums you visit.

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