IOWA — His name and number are synonymous with baseball, but as Major League Baseball celebrates the 71st anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, Iowans should also stand proudly for one of their own.
“James Leslie Wilkinson. One of the greatest baseball people the sport has ever seen. This little white man from Algona, Iowa.”
Wilkinson’s love of baseball helped fuel his passion to start his own team in the early 1900s.
“He was so innovative.”
Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, says that innovation began with the creation of the Algona Brownies in Wilkinson’s hometown–a team mainly made up of black athletes who traveled the Midwest playing in front of small crowds. But Wilkinson wanted more.
“J.L. Wilkinson didn’t see color, no, he didn’t see color. And so he brought this kind of collaborative group of athletes together to form his all-nations team,” said Kendrick. “You had black, you had Latino, you had white, you had Asian, you had Native Americans all playing together.”
At the time, the MLB was limited to only white athletes.
“These great black and Hispanic baseball players were shunned from the major leagues, so they found a way of their own. They created a league of their own,” said Kendrick.
With no professional league for minorities, a group of black entrepreneurs–led by Rube Foster–met in Kansas City, where they launched a baseball league of their own called the Negro Leagues in 1920.
“His original model, he wanted complete black ownership. J.L. Wilkinson was white,” said Kendrick.
Armed with his own diverse team–the All-Nations, based out of Des Moines, Iowa–Wilkinson quickly won over Foster, despite being white.
“Out of the original eight Negro League franchises, J.L. Wilkinson was the only white owner,” said Kendrick. “He owned the great Kansas City Monarchs.”
For many of the Monarchs players, the treatment they received from Wilkinson was the first time a white man displayed no prejudice.
“When there weren’t enough hotel rooms to go around, they slept in the same bed together,” said Kendrick. “If they played or were going to play in a town and his Monarchs could not get a meal to eat, they wouldn’t play there.”
Looking for a way for the Monarchs to gain more notoriety and money, Wilkinson hit the road, putting his teams in front of as many cities as they could handle.
“They were almost like America’s team because they were on the road in so many places, and towns got to see the legendary Kansas City Monarchs because J.L. Wilkinson had them consistently on the road.”
Because of the MLB’s stranglehold on scheduling, the negro leagues mainly played on Sundays. In 1929, Wilkinson mortgaged everything for a gamble that changed the sport forever.
“J.L. Wilkinson somehow convinced a banker to give him $50,000 in 1929 to build this portable generator light tower system,” said Kendrick.
The idea of night baseball was a hit, and crowds flocked to the Monarchs’ games. Wilkinson made his investment back in year one.
“The history book says that the first professional night baseball game took place 1935, Crosley Field, Cincinnati, Ohio, Cincinnati Reds versus the Philadelphia Phillies,” said Kendrick. “Well, we are here to tell you that the history book is wrong; the first professional night baseball game, 1930, and it featured J.L. Wilkinson’s Kansas City Monarchs.”
With stars like Satchel Page, Jackie Robinson, and Ernie Banks–all now in the Baseball Hall of Fame–the Monarchs became a must-see attraction, winning the most league titles in Negro League history.
“There are those that say the Monarchs were the New York Yankees of the negro leagues, there are others that will say that the New York Yankees were the Kansas City Monarchs of the major leagues.”
Fitting for America’s team, in 1945 Wilkinson was the first owner to sign a four-sport athlete and all-American from UCLA to a Negro League Baseball contract. His name: Jackie Robinson.
“J.L. Wilkinson signed him, really sight unseen, based on Hilton Smith’s recommendation,” said Kendrick. “Little did Wilky know, he was signing the man that was going to put him out of business.”
Wilky’s decision to allow Jackie Robinson to sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers is celebrated as the beginning of integrated baseball, but it also meant the beginning of the end for the negro leagues.
“When Branch Rickey came and got Jackie, he never paid Wilkinson a dime for a player who was under contract,” said Kendrick. “But Wilkinson couldn’t fight back, he couldn’t fight back. Even if he wanted to fight back, he can’t fight back because he’s white. And he’s white and he had made his entire living in black baseball. So if you stand up and protest what every black person in America had been waiting on, for a black man to finally have a chance to play in the Major Leagues, if he protests this, his fan base was going to turn their back instantly.”
With the color barrier broken, other teams began slowly picking from the Negro League talent pool, sending the league into extinction.
“The eastern teams took a major hit the minute that Robinson steps onto the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers.”
The league dismantled by 1960s, but Wilkinson’s Monarchs teams remain among the best.
“They sent more players to the major leagues than any other Negro League franchise, one losing season in their almost 40-year existence in the Negro Leagues.”
Wilkinson was an Iowa man ahead of his time.
“He made his living in black baseball, so you can rest assured there were some white folks who were not happy that Wilkinson was spending so much time with black folks,” said Kendrick. “Wilkinson was a 2000 man in the 1900s. He didn’t see color, he just saw people.”
James Leslie Wilkinson.
“It does shock people to see, again, this very diminutive, white man from Algona, Iowa, who was as big as any when it came to black baseball,” said Kendrick.
J.L. Wilkinson died in 1964 and was inducted posthumously into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.