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J.L. Wilkinson


A rare white owner in the rough-and-tumble world of black baseball, J.L. Wilkinson was distinguished for his fairness, honesty, and innovation. He demanded the utmost from his players and reduced rowdiness, thereby strengthening racial relations. He also signed Jackie Robinson to his first professional contract, which was the stepping-stone Jackie needed to reintegrate organized ball.

Wilkinson is created with setting up portable lights during night baseball.
Wilkinson is created with setting
up portable lights during night
baseball, and fans began to arrive
in huge numbers for the evening games.

James Leslie Wilkinson (1874-1964) was the son of a college president whose promising baseball career was cut short by an injury. He turned his talents to promoting the game, and in 1912 he formed the All Nations team, an organization consisting of whites, blacks, Polynesians, Asians, Native Americans, and even for a time, a woman (dubbed “Carrie Nation”).

Three years later, the team moved its headquarters to Kansas City. The team traveled the Midwest. Included in their entourage was a wrestling team and a dance band, allowing them to deliver a full day and night’s worth of entertainment for the locals. During the First World War, however, his team was largely drafted into service.

Wilkinson saw a new opportunity in 1920 with the founding of the Negro National League. Rehiring the best black players from his All Nations team, and relying on the savvy recommendations of Casey Stengel regarding men Stengel had seen play on the 25th Infantry team at Fort Huachuca (including Bullet Joe Rogan and Andy Cooper), Wilkinson created the Monarchs. The team rapidly became one of the great institutions of the Negro Leagues.

From 1920 through 1931, the Kansas City Monarchs were a powerhouse. But when the Depression took the league down, Wilkinson turned his talented gang into a barnstorming team in the grand old tradition -- with a few new twists. One of the most dramatic was a portable set of lights that made night games possible wherever the team traveled. “Talkies saved the movies,” Wilkinson said. “Lights will save baseball.” Telescoping rods raised the lights 50 feet high, and while the results weren’t terrifically effective, they were an attendance draw.

It is said that Wilkinson borrowed every nickel he could to pay $50,000 for the lights, then recouped every cent on a two-month tour around the Southwest. For the next several years, while other blackball teams struggled, the Monarchs barnstormed the Midwest as well as Canada and even Mexico.

When the Negro American League came into existence in 1937, Wilkinson moved his Monarchs back into league play. During his tenure as their owner, his players won ten league titles and participated in four Negro League World Series, winning in 1924 (over Hilldale) and 1942 (topping Homestead).

The Monarchs sent more players to the white majors than any other -- a total of 27. Nine Hall of Famers elected as Negro Leaguers -- Cool Papa Bell, Bill Foster, Satchel Paige, Bullet Rogan, Hilton Smith, Turkey Stearnes, Willie Wells, Willard Brown, and Andy Cooper -- played for Wilkinson. So did Ernie Banks and Jackie Robinson.

“Wilkie,” as he was affectionately known to players, sportswriters, and fans, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame as a “pioneer/executive” in 2006.

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