Posted: Thursday July 27, 2006 2:31PM; Updated: Thursday July 27, 2006 4:35PM
Baseball was at the center of Effa and Abe Manley's love story.
Courtesy of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Inc.
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Effa Manley told Branch Rickey to go to hell. OK, so maybe she didn't use exactly those words. But in 1948, when the venerable Dodgers owner came after Manley's best slugger, that's the story that wound its way to Monte Irvin's ears.
Rickey had plucked Jackie Robinson off the Kansas City Monarchs' roster two years before. He'd then promoted Robinson -- to officially integrate baseball -- in 1947, and when Rickey started courting Irvin, well, the Newark Eagles' hot-hitting outfielder figured equality was really here.
Until his lipstick-wearing owner Effa Manley said Eff-off. Because it wasn't equal.
"I was pretty much mad at her then," Irvin said. "If it happened today, I'd be real mad. But it wouldn't matter. She always did what she thought was right. She was a woman."
Which is exactly why she's joining Irvin in the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend. Sunday in Cooperstown, enshrinee Bruce Sutter will share a dais with 17 specially selected honorees. Six years ago Major League Baseball gave the Hall a $250,000 grant and the directive to chronicle the history of African-Americans in the game. More than 50 authors were enlisted, 34 years of Negro leagues box scores were culled and the ensuing study, covering 1860-1960, helped create a first list of 94 potential candidates.
A five-person screening committee pared that down to 39, and then the 12-person voting committee spent two days in February championing and arguing and debating the merits of each of those. Seventeen got at least nine votes. One of those was Manley, and committee member Jim Overmeyer swears that not once did anyone mention that Manley wore high heels. No one thought, Overmeyer said, "Wow, we're going to put the first woman in the Hall of Fame." No one thought, he said, "her being a woman was a factor." Now that's just downright silly. No one but a woman could've run a team like Manley ran the Eagles. She fell in love with baseball because she had a crush on Babe Ruth (she said she used to go to Yankee Stadium "just to watch him bat"), and she fell in love with her husband, Abe, at a 1932 World Series game. To Abe, baseball was about balls and bats. He went out and found Irvin and Larry Doby and Don Newcombe. To Effa, baseball was about connections and community. She found a hospital to fund-raise for and an urban league to stage games for.
Effa got Supreme Court justice Charles C. Lockwood in the stands and New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia on the mound for the Eagles' first game in Brooklyn. She got Joe Louis to throw out a first pitch in the 1946 Negro League World Series. Overmeyer, who wrote the book Queen of the Negro Leagues, said she was easily the best promoter in the country.