Legendary Ladies: Effa Manley

2020 marks the centennial of the Negro Leagues, a baseball institution that produced legendary players, marked historic racial divides in the United States, and helped stitch the fabric of 20th century baseball history. Until 2006, Negro Leagues were grossly under-represented in the Baseball Hall of Fame. That year, a committee specifically devoted to analyzing Negro League history voted to induct 17 Negro League players and executives into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the largest single class of inductees ever assembled in Cooperstown.

As you walk into the plaque gallery at the Baseball Hall of Fame and stop by the section of 2006 inductees, you’ll notice that one plaque is emblazoned with a woman’s name. That legendary lady is Effa Manley, a pioneering figure for women in baseball and the only woman currently enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Manley had a long and rich history with the game, but she is best known for co-owning the Newark Eagles, a Negro League franchise that won a championship in 1946 against Jackie Robinson’s former team, the Kansas City Monarchs.

For any girl today who dreams of forging her own historic path in baseball when she grows up, Effa Manley is an essential name to know. Manley wore many hats during her career in baseball, and all of them represented her commitment to racial equality in baseball and the importance of a strong, intelligent female voice in a male-dominated sport.

Wearing the hat of “co-owner and baseball executive,” she excelled in a male-monopolized role. Manley was directly responsible for many of the everyday operations for the Eagles, including mapping out playing schedules, booking players’ travel arrangements, negotiating player contracts, and publicizing the games. Though her husband Abe was the longstanding “baseball man” and co-owner of the Eagles, it was Effa who kept the team running smoothly week after week. She was both fiscally responsible and ambitious when the time was right, using $15,000 of the Eagles’ 1946 Negro League World Series winnings to purchase a new air-conditioned team bus.

Manley was well aware of her unusual status as a woman in the baseball world, but she took it as a chance to doubly prove her worth as a savvy baseball executive. “Now in the beginning, the men were, a little bit, I believed disturbed, that this woman was entering the picture, but not long,” Manley said in a 1977 interview with William Marshall. “Little by little, I found myself doing more and more. . . no question that my final title after a very short time was business manager.”

Manley was determined to be a progressive figure in the game of baseball. She believed that simply being a woman was not enough to imprint her desired impacts on the baseball world. Manley was a brave, outspoken figure in the Civil Rights movement and took on numerous Civil Rights initiatives throughout her life. In 1939, Manley held an “Anti-Lynching” campaign at the Eagles’ Ruppert Stadium, where stadium ushers sold buttons and wore sashes that said “Stop Lynching.” Considering that thousands of African Americans were lynched throughout the early part of the 20th century, this was an extremely salient issue back in 1939 (and remains one today). At a 1946 Eagles game, Manley collected donations from fans and used them to cover lawyers’ fees for Black people wrongly accused of murder in Tennessee. Among those lawyers was Thurgood Marshall, himself a pioneer in the Civil Rights movement and future Supreme Court justice, the first African American ever to hold that position. Manley clearly sought to use her co-owner status as a platform for positive change.

Off the field, Manley fought tirelessly to secure fair compensation for Negro League players and teams when Negro League stars began integrating Major League Baseball. In 1947, Manley negotiated with Cleveland Indians owner (and fellow Hall of Famer) Bill Veeck over the contract of Larry Doby, a star for the Eagles who went to go play for the Indians, becoming the first Black player in the American League. Veeck offered the Eagles $10,000 in exchange for Doby, to which Manley reportedly replied, “Mr. Veeck, you know if Larry Doby were white and a free agent, you’d give him $100,000 to sign with you merely as a bonus. However, I realize I’m in no position to be bargaining with you. If you feel you’re being fair by offering us $10,000, I suppose we should accept.”

Veeck ultimately offered Manley and the Eagles an additional $5,000 in the deal, and gave Doby $5,000 as well. This helped set a precedent for MLB owners offering Negro League owners $5,000 per Negro League player who migrated to the big leagues. While it did not come close to covering the full value of future Hall of Famers who made the jump like Satchel Paige, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, and Hank Aaron, it was an important step for Major League Baseball to at least marginally acknowledge the monetary worth of the Negro Leagues. Manley was right at the center of this transition.

She was a trailblazer even after her tenure as Eagles owner ended. The team was sold in 1948, but Manley remained committed to Civil Rights issues and preserving the legacy of Negro League baseball until the day she died in 1981. Together with Leon Herbert Hartwick, she wrote Negro Baseball… Before Integration in 1976, which was one of the first comprehensive books about the Negro Leagues.

“[In the mid 1970s] I was invited three times on television to talk about our Black baseball. One time they had [Don] Newcombe on with me. . . it broke my heart to see that the present generation doesn’t know [the Negro Leagues] ever existed,” said Manley in 1977. “They just don’t know that there ever was this wonderful, magnificent Black baseball. So I enlisted the aid of a professional writer and I wrote this book.”

Manley also put together a fervent letter-writing campaign to re-establish a committee that would vote on inducting more Negro Leaguers into the Hall of Fame. By 2006, 25 years after Manley’s death, her wish finally came true.

Today, the Hall of Fame contains several artifacts that help keep Manley’s legacy alive. Her lifelong scrapbook is in Cooperstown, and provides a rich snapshot into her baseball world. In it, Manley documented her work in baseball and appreciation for African American athletes via notes, articles, and mementos. She also included comments from reporters about her, including one pointed note which initially states, “[Manley] is not the usual know-all busybody woman, delving into a man’s affairs.”

The comment somewhat redeems itself by praising Manley’s work ethic: “Rather she is intensely interested, well informed, capable, efficient, and strong willed woman who runs a man’s business better than most of the men who are engaged in it, and commands respect everywhere in the sphere of big league baseball.”

Aside from this scrapbook, a couple of photographs and a few letters have made their way to Cooperstown over the years. Still, Manley’s historic life leaves plenty left to be uncovered, and plenty to be further praised. “I have never asked for publicity,” Manley commented in the afore-mentioned 1977 interview, “But it seems to have always followed me.”

Effa Manley was one of the first female baseball owners, in either the Negro Leagues or Major League Baseball. She helped pave the way for subsequent women executives, such as original New York Mets owner Joan Payson, and sharp-tongued Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott.

Fourteen years after her induction, Manley remains the sole woman in the Hall of Fame.

She was a true inspiration for women in baseball, an active member of the Civil Rights movement, and a preserver of the Negro League legacy. While her male contemporaries in the baseball world, such as Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck, are more well-known, Manley was as much of a force as any man when it came to running a successful baseball team. She had the skills, smarts, and drive to succeed, combined with immense passion for the game that extended far beyond her years as an owner. Furthermore, she achieved as much, if not more than many of her male counterparts, and she did so as the lone woman in a male-dominated industry.

In addition to her honors as a Hall of Fame inductee, Effa Manley was also recently recognized by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) with their annual Dorothy Seymour Mills Lifetime Achievement Award, given to an influential woman in baseball history. Decades after her death, and years after her Hall of Fame induction, Manley continues to be a admirable example for women in baseball.

If Manley could make her dreams of working in baseball come true in 1930s America, there is hope for any woman out there today with a similar dream.

Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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