- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Kansas City will be center stage in the baseball world this week during the World Series between the Royals and the San Francisco Giants.

It’s considered a good baseball town, dating back not just to the glory years of the Royals, when they won six division titles from 1976 to 1985, culminating in their first World Series win over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Their predecessor, the Kansas City Athletics, drew over a million fans in their first two years in the Midwestern city following the move from Philadelphia in 1955.  They left only after owner Charles Finley ran the franchise into the ground and headed west to Oakland in 1968 (where the A’s barely drew 100,000 more than they did in the last season in Kansas City).

What makes it a historic baseball town, though, is a World Series that took place 90 years ago — the first Negro League World Series.

Because of racism that ruled Major League Baseball’s color line, African-American ballplayers who loved the game were forced to create their own version of the national pastime, and did so with style and greatness and did not let the hatred that kept them away from the major league game take away from their love for the game itself.

They did this through Negro League baseball, and in 1924, in Kansas City, they achieved a level of success strong enough to sustain the first official Negro League World Series.

The Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro National League champions, faced Philadelphia’s Hilldale Baseball Club, the champions of the competing Eastern Colored League, in a best-of-nine series — which actually turned out to be 10 games this inaugural season, with one tie contest. It marked the first time two Negro League champions from different leagues agreed to play in a championship series of note.

Games were not just played in the respective teams’ hometowns. They played games in Baltimore (because of the Sunday blue laws in Philadelphia) and Chicago (where the president and founder of the Negro National League, Rube Foster, operated his own Chicago Americans team) to make the most of the box office for the series

Games 1 and 2 were played at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl. The series shifted to Baltimore, where games 3 and 4 were played at Maryland Park. It finally made it to Kansas City and Muehlebach Field for games 5, 6 and 7, with the final three finishing up at Chicago’s Schorling Park.

The series featured five future Hall of Famers — Monarchs manager and pitcher Jose Mendez and his teammate and pitcher, Bullet Joe Rogan, along with Hilldale’s Judy Johnson, the legendary third baseman born in Snow Hill, Maryland, Louis Santop, the home-run hitting catcher, and Biz Mackey, another standout catcher and hitter.

The Monarchs opened the series with a 6-2 win by Rogan over Hilldale’s Phil Cockrell before a crowd of 5,300. Hilldale bounced back to win Game 2 11-0 before a reported crowd of 8,600. Tickets were $1.65 for box seats, $1.10 for the grandstand.

When the series moved to Baltimore, the crowds they expected didn’t show up — they drew only about 600 for Game 3, which ended in a 6-6 tie after 13 innings when the game was called because of darkness. When the series finally got to Kansas City, interest picked back up.

The series was tied at 2-2 after five games when the game that, according to Mark Ribowsky, author of “A Complete History of the Negro Leagues,” is the game that “would endure as one of blackball’s most mythical contests.” Before a crowd of 8,800, Mendez — the legendary Cuban pitcher known as “El Dimante Negro” (the Black Diamond) in his homeland — took the mound in relief late in the game, at the age of 36, and led Kansas City for a 4-3 win in 12 innings.

Kansas City would win Game 7 in Chicago 3-2, and Hilldale would come back for a 5-3 win in Game 8. With the series tied at 4-4, Mendez would call upon himself to win the deciding game against Hilldale’s Scrip Lee — a 5-0 three hit shutout to give Kansas City the first Negro League World Series title.

The Monarchs earned an estimated $10,000 for the win — half of which went to team owner J.L Wilkinson and the other half distributed among the Monarchs players, each pocketing $308 apiece, according to Ribowsky’s book. Hilldale players got $193 each.

This would be the beginning of five straight World Series between the two leagues. Negro League baseball was often a shaky financial operation, with leagues and teams folding often. But 90 years ago in Kansas City — where the 2014 World Series began play Tuesday night — the game that was so exciting and filled with so many great players finally reached a level of credibility with their first World Series.

That series is part of the rich tradition of baseball in Kansas City.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com

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