Effa Manley: Cooperstown Queen
For the true believers of America’s Pastime, there might be no more hallowed ground than the premises of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Erected in the town Abner Doubleday was (incorrectly) said to have invented the sport, The Hall of Fame is a place to honor the sport’s mythic past. Icons like Joe Dimaggio, Cy Young, & Hank Aaron are all celebrated within Cooperstown’s borders, but the hall of fame isn’t only for the headline-grabbing giants of the sport. It is a place for the builders and pioneers that made baseball the biggest recreational obsession of 20th century America. It is in this category where you will find the first woman ever inducted to the hall of fame. She was an owner and a champion no less, innovating the game in an era when keeping your head down was the safest thing to do. Her name was Effa Manley, co-owner of the Newark Eagles, and she is the sole owner of one of the most fascinating lives in baseball history.
Manley was born in Philadelphia before the turn of the 20th century, to a white mother and Black father. To this day her true parentage remains debated, as her seamstress mother was having an affair with her boss around the time of her pregnancy, who was also white. Regardless of who her father truly was, Effa was embraced by her mostly Black community as one of their own. Growing up and throughout her life, Manley identified as Black, but it did not take her long to realize that her lighter appearance gave Manley unique access to the wider world. Being able to pass for both Black and white allowed her easy passage between both communities. After graduating high school Effa moved to New York City, where she would use her ability to code-switch to gain better employment, better housing and to take in her favorite sport in person all across the city.
New York was owned by the Yankees in the 20s & 30s. Manley would regularly attend games at Yankee Stadium to watch stars such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as they transformed the sport. Yankee Stadium would also be the place her life would transform. It was here, reportedly during Game 4 of the 1932 World Series, here Manley would meet her second husband, Abe Manley. Fifteen years her senior, Abe had already established himself as a respected businessman and member of New York’s Black community. By 1935, the two were married and co-owners of the Negro League's Brooklyn Eagles, which they moved to Newark, New Jersey the following year.
Though the team had moved to New Jersey, the couple still resided in Harlem. Here Effa would again use her ability to bridge the racial divide to fight for the advancement of civil rights. She helped orchestrate a neighborhood-wide boycott of businesses that refused to hire black workers that became known as the “Don't Shop Where You Can’t Work” boycott. Effa became a prominent member of the NAACP and would later use her front office talents as the treasurer of the Newark chapter.
In a pre-war era when married women were almost exclusively homemakers, Manley was a true equal to Abe in their business partnership. Abe took charge of evaluating talent on the field and Effa took care of pretty much everything else. Her unique insights on how the team should be organized and how players should be treated revolutionized baseball. From payroll to travel, Effa Manley took a fresh look at how a team should be run.
She was an advocate for making life as easy as possible for her players, so they could focus on the game. Be it turning a player’s paycheck into a down payment on a home or spending the majority of the past season's profits on a luxurious bus for traveling to away games, Manley took a player-first mentality to ownership. It paid off. Several future Hall of Famers spent large chunks of their careers with the Eagles. So beloved were Abe and Effa by their players that a few of them even made the couple the godparents to their children.
Effa Manley was also a master of promotion, (she convinced Mayor LaGuardia to throw out the first pitch for their only home opener in Brooklyn) and would tie her civil rights work into planned events during the baseball season. The Eagles would hold promotion nights similar to the ones we all know today, but instead of having a Star Wars-themed night, they would fill the bleachers for anti-lynching and hospital fundraising drives. During the second world war, soldiers in uniform would get into games free of charge, as a small thank you for their service.
Not only did her work translate to a loyal fanbase and financial success for the organization, but in 1946 the Eagles finally won a title over the Kansas City Monarchs. This would turn out to be the peak for the Negro Leagues. The following year, Jackie Robinson would walk onto the diamond at Ebbets Field, spelling the eventual end of segregated baseball. But Effa Manley would have her impact on that, too.
Cleveland owner Bill Veeck wanted to have the first integrated American League team, and as soon as the Dodgers brought in Robinson, he saw his chance. For years Veeck had been scouting talent, waiting for the right moment. He reached out to Newark for the rights to Larry Doby.
When Jackie Robinson left the Kansas City Monarchs, the team didn’t receive a single dime from the Dodgers in compensation. Effe Manley was fully aware of this fact. According to some accounts, Manley actually chided Veeck during their negotiations, saying that if Doby was a white man, the rights to his contract would be worth at least $100,000, a sum nearly four times the profits the Eagles banked in their championship season. Weighing the importance of the integration movement with her team’s bottom line, Manley settled for ten percent of that number. She also went to bat for Doby’s future in the Major Leagues. Manley required Cleveland to pay Doby a minimum of $5,000 each year he was under contract. The stipulation was non-negotiable and the deal would have fallen through if Veeck refused. He accepted and Larry Doby became the first Black player in the American League.
Effa and Abe sold the Eagles in 1948. Abe would die four years later. Effa would marry twice more in her life, moving from New York back to Philadelphia and eventually to California where she continued her work in civil rights. Long after her owner days were over, Manley worked tirelessly to make sure that the Negro Leagues were not forgotten as the MLB entered its silver age. She lobbied the Hall of Fame to accept Negro League players and co-authored a book about the leagues, bringing renewed attention decades after the integration of baseball. Her compassion was rewarded in 2006, as she became the first and only woman voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, 25 years after her death.
We live in an era where the fights of past generations are once again taking center stage. New states are still ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee women the same legal protections as men in America. We are still struggling with the fallout of the last 400 years of black history in America, battling institutionalized segregation and suppression. Effa Manley should be a trailblazer, a story known as Jackie Robinson’s or Billie Jean King’s. But nearly 80 years after her greatest contributions, and 40 years after her death, Major League Baseball has zero women owners. Between the NBA, NHL, NFL & MLB, there is only one black owner.
Effa Manley worked too hard and for too long for this to be her legacy. Her story of racial & socioeconomic self-determination should be the norm by now, not an everlasting exception.