- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

A few years before her death in 1981, Effa Manley said: “People say not to live in the past. But I guess it depends on how interesting your past is.”

Manley’s life and times were very interesting, both on sporting and sociological fronts. Her election this week to the Baseball Hall of Fame should cast a welcome light upon her achievements and the prejudices that existed in this country more than a half-century ago.

As an early prototype for wacky sports owners, Manley will do. When she ran the Newark Eagles of the old Negro National League, she once demanded that pitcher Terris McDuffie start a game because she wanted to show him off to her female friends. She often gave players the bunt signals by crossing and uncrossing her legs. I wonder why Frank Robinson never thought of that.

And like George Steinbrenner, Manley didn’t take kindly to losing. When her team, then located in Brooklyn, played its first game in 1935, she coaxed New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and other dignitaries to Ebbets Field. The Eagles lost to the Homestead Grays 21-7, and Effa was more than a little ticked off.

“When she was displeased, the world came to an end — she’d stop traffic,” Eagles first baseman George Giles once recalled. “Mrs. Manley loved baseball, but she couldn’t stand to lose. … She’d take it more seriously than anybody.”

Yet Manley was much more than just another ill-tempered owner. As the female boss of a black team in a black league, she had to battle for everything she got at a time when African Americans and women of any race often were considered second-class citizens by many. As the sports editor of a black newspaper wrote in 1942: “Effa Manley has long been a sore spot in the [league]. The rough and tough gentlemen comprising its inner sanction [sic] have complained often and loudly that ‘baseball ain’t no place for a woman.’”

“Rough and tumble gentlemen”? That’s a classic oxymoron.

But give Manley credit — she hung in there. When the Eagles proved unable to compete with the Dodgers in Flatbush, she and her silent-partner husband, Abe, moved them to Newark. The club endured until the Manleys sold it in 1948, partly because by then the major leagues were stealing players from black teams without compensation and attendance at Negro League games had dropped from 120,000 in 1946 to 57,000. Then, as now in baseball, fair play wasn’t always in play.

Of course, Manley didn’t take kindly to such flagrant thievery. When Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey — the same guy who broke Organized Baseball’s color barrier with Jackie Robinson — swiped pitcher Don Newcombe from the Eagles without paying a dime in 1947, Manley fired off letters demanding that he meet with her and get out his checkbook.

Rickey never responded, but Manley’s complaints must have had some effect. When Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck signed Larry Doby later that year, he paid the Eagles $15,000. Of such small steps is justice constructed.

For years, Manley fought the good fight in and out of baseball. She bought a $15,000 air-conditioned bus so her players could travel in comfort. She sponsored a team in the Puerto Rican Winter League so those players would have offseason employment. She organized boycotts against stores that would not hire blacks except for menial jobs. She was treasurer of the NAACP’s Newark chapter and often used Eagles games to promote civic causes.

In 1939, she even staged an “Anti-Lynching Day” at Newark’s Ruppert Stadium. That might sound strange now, but it wasn’t then.

And how’s this for a kicker: Manley wasn’t even black. She said in a 1973 interview that her mother, who was white and of German and Asian-Indian descent, became pregnant by a white employer. Effa did, however, have a black stepfather, and most people had assumed she was a light-skinned black.

After all these years, it’s appropriate that the Hall of Fame elected Manley and 16 other veterans of black baseball this week. It’s just sad they aren’t alive to appreciate how much their game and their country have changed.

The inscription on Manley’s tombstone at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, Calif., reads simply: “She loved baseball.”

Now baseball finally has returned that love by making her the first woman to enter Cooperstown’s hallowed precincts.

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