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How A Global Pandemic 100 Years Ago Helped Spark The Founding Of The Negro Leagues In Kansas City

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Inc.
J.W. Wilkinson's traveling All-Nations team in 1916. The squad was made up of players from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but its roster was decimated by both World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic.

A historic meeting at the Paseo YMCA in 1920 may never have happened if not for a series of world-altering events, including the 1918 flu pandemic.

Getting past a disruption caused by a global pandemic is nothing new for professional baseball. Even as Major League Baseball considers a shortened season this year amid the ongoing coroanavirus outbreak, the sport faced an even more dire threat a century ago with the flu pandemic.

That event, combined with World War I and a major gambling scandal, jeopardized the very future of the game.

Part of what came next was history, made in Kansas City: the Negro Leagues were formed 100 years ago at the Paseo YMCA, just as professional baseball was trying to figure out how to move on from a series of world-altering events.

‘The biggest entertainment business in America.’

Before 1917, Eliot Asinoff wrote in his bestseller “Eight Men Out” that baseball was “the biggest entertainment business in America.”

But in 1920, at the same time that Kansas City jazz was taking off in the 18th and Vine district, Rube Foster of Chicago and J.L. Wilkinson, who had recently moved to Kansas City from Iowa, met at the nearby YMCA on The Paseo to formalize the Negro National League in the Negro Leagues.

Credit Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Inc.
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Inc.
Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson (left) and Rube Foster, owner of the Chicago American Giants, were the two driving forces behind the founding of the Negro Leagues in 1920.

It was an unusual partnership for its time. Foster was black, and Wilkinson was white.

“Foster, I understand, would’ve preferred to have had all-black leadership for the leagues, but could not deny the connection that Wilkinson had,” said Raymond Doswell, vice president and curator for Kansas City’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which has been closed since mid-March as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus.

Foster knew Wilkinson from the integrated barnstorming team Wilkinson owned called the All Nations team. It was made up of players from a variety of backgrounds, including African Americans, Latino Americans and Asian immigrants.

Barnstorming teams — semi-professional outfits that traveled around the country playing other local teams — got in on the success that professional baseball had produced at that time.

“I do know the All Nations played the Chicago American Giants,” said Tom Fredrick, a Kansas City attorney who has published research on Wilkinson. “In other words, Rube Foster’s team, pre-Negro National League formation, in October of 1916. In Kansas City, Missouri.”

Despite the difference in the color of their skin, Doswell said Foster and Wilkinson had a lot in common.

“These were two baseball men who were visionaries in many respects, who understood the broader picture,” said Doswell.

A war, a pandemic and a scandal

Their partnership, though, came out of global tragedy and turmoil.

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Wilkinson’s All Nations players were among those who enlisted according to Fredrick.

“He (Wilkinson) lost All-Nations roster to the Great War. We know that,” he said.

Things worsened in 1918 when baseball — and especially barnstorming teams that had to travel to make money — were hit hard by the global flu pandemic.

Then, as now with the coronavirus, the flu impacted black communities more, according to Doswell.

“There’s a lot of urbanization, so it’s easy for these kinds of things like the flu or even tuberculosis to sweep through black communities very easily,” he said. “That was a problem in some large communities for many years.”

Credit Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Inc.
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Inc.
The Chicago American Giants, owned by Rube Foster (back row, middle, wearing suit) were a pre-Negro Leagues barnstorming team made up of all black players. This was the 1918 squad.

By 1919, the war had ended and the flu had subsided. But baseball had another lingering problem: gambling. Though an issue before the war and pandemic, the problem reached its apex when several members of the Chicago White Sox took money to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.

After those chain of events, Doswell said Foster and Wilkinson converged in Kansas City in 1920.

“They were being pushed by the black press mostly,” he said. “Black sports news editors were sometimes also the editors of different papers. They were commenting on the fact that black baseball was loose, and it was not organized.”

Kansas City’s signature franchise

From Fredrick’s research on Wilkinson, it was discovered that Wilkinson, being the shrewd businessman that he was, planned to start up the Kansas City Monarchs, with or without an organized league.

But as it turned out, the Monarchs became one of the league’s signature teams under Wilkinson’s ownership. Wilkinson, who entered the National Baseball of Fame in 2006, had earned the respect of his players.

One of them was former Monarchs first baseman and manager Buck O’Neil, who before his death in 2006, praised Wilkinson.

“J.L. (Wilkinson was) an outstanding individual. Great baseball mind,” he said. “He’s a promoter. He knew how to make money,” O’Neil said at that time.

One hundred years ago, the formation of the Negro Leagues was a historic step for baseball, one that may never have happened if not for world-shaking events. That’ something for Major League Baseball to keep in mind now, as it tries to move on after another global pandemic.

Ever since he set foot on the baseball diamond at Fernwood Park on Chicago's South Side, Greg Echlin began a love affair with the world of sports. After graduating from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, he worked as a TV sports anchor and a radio sportscaster in Salina, Kansas. He moved to Kansas City in 1984 and has been there since covering sports. Through the years, he has covered multiple Super Bowls, Final Fours and Major League Baseball's World Series and All-Star games.