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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 922

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This is the grave of J.L. Wilkinson.

Born in 1878 in Algona, Iowa, J.L. Wilkinson grew up in a middle class home. His father was a school superintendent and then an insurance executive. But his son had more romantic dreams than insurance. He loved baseball. He really wanted to play the sport. He was a very promising pitcher and played for a number of semi-pro and corporate teams in the Midwest And then….he broke his wrist. In these years, you hurt your arm, forget about it, you were finished. So that was the end of his dream. He switched to shortstop for awhile, but he wasn’t nearly as good as he was a pitcher, particularly because he was a bad hitter.

But Wilkinson still loved baseball. So he started putting together barnstorming teams that he would manage. Barnstorming was a huge part of baseball in these years, including with major league players doing it in the offseason in the warmer states and Latin America. This is still largely the pre-mass entertainment years. Movies were rising but not that common in the smaller towns. Radio wasn’t here yet. So baseball was a real entertainment and there was a nearly insatiable demand for it at the local level. A barnstorming team came to town, there was something to do. This is what Wilkinson tapped into, starting in 1909 with a woman’s baseball team. In 1912, he created something called the All Nations Club, which was a team made up of people from a variety of ethnicities, the kind of mixed team that could never play in the major leagues, but could on the barnstorming circuit. This team not only had native-born whites, but also Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiians, Frenchmen, Cubans, Filipinos, Scotsmen, and Germans. No one had really done this before. And yeah, it was a stunt. Welcome to barnstorming! This was a pretty prominent team until World War I, when most of the players got drafted or volunteered for the military. The players on the team included early Cuban legends Jose Mendez and Cristóbal Torriente.

Soon, Wilkinson turned to Black teams, despite being a white guy. This was very unusual for the time. In 1920, he became the owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, which would become one of the iconic teams of the Negro Leagues. He built the Monarchs from some of the best players on the All Nations. Rube Foster founded the National Negro Leagues and he only trusted one white man to own a team and treat the players with respect and dignity–J.L. Wilkinson. The two owners were quite close and Wilkinson was one of Foster’s major advisors. It was not easy to make these teams work. The talent was there, absolutely. The finances were tougher. Teams came and went all the time. The Monarchs won their first Negro World Series in 1924, the first of four under Wilkinson.

The Great Depression nearly killed the Negro Leagues. The poverty in the Black community was just overwhelming. But Wilkinson was not the kind of guy to give up easily. So, between 1931 and 1937, the Monarchs operated as a purely barnstorming team, sometimes playing games in Kansas City but mostly being on the road taking on all comers. This was remarkable, both in terms of it working but also in terms of the physical sacrifice of the players who had to be on the road all the time. Wilkinson invested in a portable lighting unit so that the team could play doubleheaders that would often be at night. These players were working hard. They weren’t making much money. But they were playing. Moreover, Wilkinson would share rooms with his coaches and players when they were on the road and didn’t have much money. I don’t know if Wilkinson was truly an anti-racist, but for the first half of the twentieth century, he was a remarkable white person in his treatment of Black Americans. He also hired the first full-time Black umpires for the National Negro League. In addition, he bought fancy buses with trailers in part for traveling but also because it gave the players somewhere to sleep and eat in Jim Crow towns.

Many of all the time-greats would play for Wilkinson. Among the Hall of Famers who played for the Monarchs in its classic years are Cool Papa Bell, Bill Foster, Satchel Paige, Bullet Rogan, Hilton Smith, Turkey Stearnes and Willie Wells. Jackie Robinson briefly played too before the Dodgers signed him. So did Ernie Banks and Elston Howard. Wilkinson was kind of mad when the Dodgers plucked Robinson since they didn’t pay anything for his contract, but he was tremendously gracious about it and said publicly he just hoped that Robinson could play in the major leagues.

Wilkinson didn’t make much money on any of this. Hell, there wasn’t much money to be made by anyone. These were still fly by night operations and he was willing to pay what he had to for a competitive team. He got out of the Negro Leagues in 1948, selling the Monarchs as he could see the writing on the wall that with the integration of baseball, there wasn’t any room for these teams anymore. He was also having health problems, including declining eyesight. But he did not sell it for much money and he didn’t have much in the bank. He ended up pretty poor and died in poverty in a nursing home in 1966. He was 86 years old.

Among his players and friends was Buck O’Neill, who later said of Wilkinson:

“[H]e “didn’t have a prejudiced bone in him. … While Wilkinson could have been lynched just for owning a Black ball baseball team, he never allowed the ugly racial prejudice of his day to keep him from doing what he loved and believed — Black baseball at its highest. J.L. Wilkinson, he looked down on no one and he brought out the best in everyone. That’s J.L. Wilkinson. … I love that man.”

J.L. Wilkinson is buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery, Kansas City, Missouri.

Wilkinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. If you would like this series to visit other members of the Negro Leagues in the Hall of Fame, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Oscar Charleston is in Indianapolis and Buck Leonard is in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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