FROM THE CHAPTER 16 ARCHIVE: This review originally appeared on January 5, 2021. It has been updated with new publication details.
In 2006, Effa Manley was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and is still the only woman so honored. This would not have surprised her. As the co-owner and manager of a baseball team, Effa was used to being surrounded by men. Nashville author Andrea Williams tells Manley’s story in Baseball’s Leading Lady: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues.
Baseball had been a popular sport for only a few decades when Effa Brooks was born in Philadelphia in 1897, but it quickly took hold, particularly in New York, where the ambitious young woman moved after graduating from high school. She immersed herself in the vibrant intellectual and cultural scene of Harlem, then in the midst of its fabled “Renaissance.”
Effa Brooks also became involved in political activism as a leader of the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work!” movement, a boycott that convinced white business owners in Harlem to hire more Black workers. Effa shocked many men with her strong, outspoken attitude, but, Williams says, she “saw beauty in Black unity, and in due time, she would become a leader in her own right, adding her unique voice to the call for Black civil rights.”
And she fell in love with baseball, especially the New York Yankees, even though all the players on the team were white. Integrated teams had existed briefly in the 1800s, but by the 20th century, the Major Leagues had become segregated.
Fittingly, Effa met her future husband, Abe Manley, at a World Series game. He was the owner of the Negro National League’s Brooklyn Eagles. The couple later purchased the Newark Dodgers and merged the teams into the Newark Eagles. Effa soon became the team’s manager, responsible for most of the business decisions. She was also very good at public relations, persuading New York’s popular mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to throw out out the first ball for the new team’s opening game.
The Newark Eagles struggled for a few years, but under Effa’s management, they won the 1946 Negro World Series in a hard-fought seven-game match. This was their swan song. In 1948, the Negro National League folded. Previously all-white teams were slowly opening up to Black players, frequently using unfair tactics to lure them from their obligations with the Negro Leagues.
Fascinating though Effa Manley is, Baseball’s Leading Lady is about more than its titular subject. The book includes sketches of prominent Black activists and explores the conflict between those who believed in gradual improvement of the Black condition and those who wanted more radical change. Williams writes about violence against Blacks by racist whites, the Harlem Renaissance, Jim Crow laws, class divisions in Black society based largely on skin tone, social activism by Black women, and more. This is not just backdrop — Williams shows how all these societal elements were entwined with one another and with sports, including baseball.
Sexism was also prevalent in the sports world. In a dispute over procedures, fellow Negro League team manager Cumberland Posey “boldly declared that he wasn’t going to return [to the discussion] until Effa was back ‘where she belongs—in the kitchen’” and said that the way she behaved was a “disgusting exhibition for a lady.”
The narrative assumes some knowledge of the history of the Negro Leagues and of baseball, and the last quarter or so of the book will be most appealing to readers interested in the history of the integration of Major League baseball and its role in the marginalization and demise of the Negro Leagues. Williams goes beyond Jackie Robinson, covering such important figures as Octavius Catto (who was brutally killed for attempting to vote), Andrew “Rube” Foster, and others.
The epitaph on Effa Manley’s tombstone reads in part, “She Loved Baseball.” She surely did, but there was much more to her than baseball. In Baseball’s Leading Lady, Andrea Williams introduces young readers to an important and inspiring figure in American history. In addition to the book’s appeal as leisure reading, its quotes from primary sources and extensive bibliography will make it useful for school reports.
Tracy Barrett is a writer who lives in Nashville. Her most recent book, Freefall Summer, was published in 2018 by Charlesbridge Teen.
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