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Effa Manley mixed business and activism as co-owner of the Newark Eagles, a Negro National League team. Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images
"The League"

The team owner who fought for civil rights

Catherine Orihuela Apr 23, 2024
Heard on:
Effa Manley mixed business and activism as co-owner of the Newark Eagles, a Negro National League team. Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

It’s April, baseball season is in full swing and this month we’re watching “The League,” which is available to stream on Hulu with a subscription. You can also rent or buy the film on several platforms. 

“The League” isn’t just about the players on the field, it’s also about the managers and owners who shaped the game. 

Effa Manley co-owned the Newark Eagles with her husband, Abe, from 1935 to 1948 and served as unofficial secretary for the Negro National League. Manley was raised Black alongside her siblings by her light-skinned mother and Black father. As a teen, Manley learned her biological father was white and was told by her mother to live as a white woman. Manley, however, continued to identify as Black and tied herself to the Black community throughout her life. 

 A number of other women led Negro League teams before and after Manley, like Olivia Taylor of the Indianapolis ABCs and Minnie Forbes of the Detroit Stars. But Manley is still the only woman in the Baseball Hall of Fame. As a business owner, she used her position with the team to help promote civil rights campaigns in her community.

“She saw those two things as intertwined, hand in hand. And so what was important to one, was important to the other,” says Leslie Heaphy, an associate professor of history at Kent State University at Stark who has written extensively about the Negro Leagues and women’s baseball. Heaphy also sits on the board for the Society for American Baseball Research and serves as chair of its Women in Baseball Committee. So we called up Heaphy to learn more about Manley and her impact on the game. Here are edited excerpts drawn from two interviews with her. 

Marketplace: How did Manley become involved in the world of baseball ownership?

Leslie Heaphy: Well, I think it started just purely because Effa loved baseball. And that’s clear from everything we know about her. It brought her the opportunity to meet Abe, who was already in the baseball world. So with her marriage to Abe, that brought her more directly into that world and gave her an opportunity to exercise her love of baseball beyond just going to watch games. Now she had the opportunity to get involved on a day-to-day basis, which she definitely does.

Marketplace: How would you categorize her leadership style? How did it differ from other managers?

Heaphy: She was very transparent. It appears she was not somebody who would hold back in saying what she thought and believed. She led by example. And so she was very much not afraid to be in the forefront, and to let people know that she was there, and that she was going to have a role to play. And given her gender, that was probably the only way she could be taken as seriously as she was and be able to have the impact that she did. I think she had more of an active role beyond just her team than a lot of owners. She had ideas and things that she wanted to get done. She always struck me as somebody you couldn’t ignore.

Marketplace: Let’s talk about her community involvement. Manley was very involved as a team owner and a civil rights advocate. How did her efforts to promote campaigns intersect with her strategies for building the team’s brand and identity?

Heaphy: It’s always struck me that Effa was very aware that because of her standing as an owner, she had the opportunity to do a couple of things. That was to promote the team, and the look and brand she wanted for them. And to use that platform to also advocate for changes in her community, which had always been important to her. She had been involved in those things long before she got involved in baseball. And so she brought those two together, using the ballpark for events, whether it was to raise money during the war or to hold anti-lynching campaigns. 

She saw all of her players, as representatives of not just their team and their name, but also representing the community. And certainly the players who left records talking about her, saw her as a figure they could turn to for help. They knew they could talk to her, that she supported them, that she wanted them to be successful. And she wanted to make sure they all did that the way she wanted that to be done. She had a voice and presence that she wouldn’t have had otherwise because of the baseball team.

Marketplace: Could you talk more about those campaigns she hosted at the ballpark?

Heaphy: Anti-lynching campaigns were one of the big ones. And the Blumstein’s boycott, like others she’d done before, came out of this idea of “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work.” The notion that they shouldn’t be spending money at businesses that didn’t hire people of color, so that their money would stay in the Black community.

Marketplace: By hosting those campaigns and putting the team’s face on these causes, what do you think she was trying to tell the community?

Heaphy: That this was not just one person’s campaign. If it was important to the community, it was important to the Newark Eagles. And if it was important to the Newark Eagles, it should be important to the community. To her, those two things went hand in hand. They were not separate entities. And that’s why I think it was so important for her that the Newark Eagles be good representatives of the team and the community. That’s why she wanted them to always have new uniforms and suits to wear. And so what was important to one, was important to the other.

Members of the Newark Eagles pose for a team portrait in 1939.
Members of the Newark Eagles pose for a team portrait in 1939. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)

Marketplace: Of course, one of the most pivotal moments during her time as owner comes when Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier. What were Manley’s feelings about integration and the state of the Negro League at that point? 

Heaphy: I think Effa is a good example of what most of the owners felt. And that was that the reintegration of the league with Jackie was something they really couldn’t stand in the way of. Even though they knew it could mean the death knell for their business. But knowing the fans and the players, they didn’t want to be the ones who were going to stand in the way of a player getting the chance to play in the Major Leagues. 

And so that’s the dilemma she and others found themselves in: recognizing that this was the balance. How do you support your players knowing that that support could mean the end of your own business? Simply because of the way that reintegration happened. It’s all about one person and one player at a time, instead of full teams. That just wasn’t an option. It wasn’t proposed. But that’s what led Effa to push so hard to make sure Negro League teams were paid for players that were taken from them. Because that allowed the teams to have some income that could make up for some of their losses. But for her, it was also about getting recognition and respect.

Marketplace: Right. She didn’t have a crystal ball, but she had the foresight to know that integration was going to pose some financial problems for the Negro League. She knew the owners needed to cushion themselves as best they could and demand for players’ contracts to be paid. 

Heaphy: Absolutely. And she is the leading figure who pushes that. She was adamant that her players were not going to go without payment. Because she said, ‘Well, if you pay others, you’re going to pay us, because we’re a business and this is the way this works.’ She knew that if integration was going to succeed, it was going to hurt the Negro Leagues, particularly if they didn’t get paid. They’re losing their best players and they’re not getting anything for it. That doesn’t make good business sense at all.

Marketplace: And what do you believe is Manley’s lasting legacy on baseball? 

Heaphy: I think it’s twofold. It’s very important for everyone to know that there have been women in these roles, and they were not just there to be in the background, or just because they inherited a team. And the other part is what she did within the community and what she did for civil rights. Using her platform in baseball and recognizing that she had a unique opportunity. She had a standing in the community because of the baseball team and she saw that as a way to improve the lives of her entire community.

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