It was perhaps the strangest baseball game in history.
Today when fans talk about the great baseball rivalries, games that come to mind are usually Yankees vs. Red Sox, Cubs vs. Cardinals, or Giants vs. Dodgers.
But on June 21, 1925 at Island Park in Wichita, Kansas, a rivalry for the ages and Ripley’s Believe It or Not, was staged between the all-black Wichita Monrovian team and an obviously all-white Ku Klux Klan baseball club.
Shortly before the game took place, the Kansas Supreme Court had officially banned the Klan from operating in the state.
Brian Carroll, in his 2008 article for The Baseball Research Journal, did a wonderful job describing the culture in the country, Kansas, and Wichita that created the climate this game was played in. The Ku Klux Klan was originated as a white supremacist group in 1865 but died out in the 1870s. Beginning in 1915, though, it was again flexing its muscle by promoting racial discrimination and hate toward Catholicism, Judaism, and immigration. It was a strong supporter of school segregation.
The Klan had about 40,000 Kansas members at the time, about 6,000 residing in Wichita. William Allen White, the Emporia Gazette publisher and a 1924 candidate for governor, campaigned on a platform that called for abolishing the white supremacist group and calling them a “self-constituted body of moral idiots.”
The Klansmen fought back in the media calling the self-titled “Anti-Klan Candidate for Governor” a flip-flopper on issues and dishonest among other things. White was backed up in his attacks by Henry Allen, governor from 1919 to 1923, and also a newspaper publisher in Kansas. Allen saw the Klan as primarily a moneymaking racket. White was not elected but his powerful rhetoric definitely hurt the Klan.
At the time of the ballgame, the black population in Wichita was less than 10 percent of the city’s total number of residents. A study done by the Wichita Council of Churches the year before showed that one out of five blacks, 1,300 total, were living “far below the level of decency and comfort. Housing had become more segregated with many living in “squatter-towns” at the city’s margins.
A headline in The Negro Star about a 1922 meeting read, “The Negro Must Help Himself.” The writer of the story, thought to be the paper’s owner Hollie T. Sims, wrote, “If we are to gain and maintain the respect of the white race, we must prove that the rich, red, potent blood is in our veins and that we are capable of producing and achieving results.”
In the midst of these barriers, many in the black communities were beginning to use the words of educator, author, and political leader Booker T. Washington when he described the need of cooperation within his race “as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”
The week of the game, Reverand Dr. Daniel W. Cannon of the black Baptist Church delivered a keynote address at the 24th National Baptist Sunday School and Baptist Young People’s Union Congress in Wichita.
Cannon said, “The Negro must win his way to civilization as other races have done, and then he must learn that civilization is not a garment to be purchased … but must be gained through industry, honesty, reliability, and thrift.”
In 1923, the Monrovians accumulated a 52-8 record according to the Negro Star, which added their schedule included “the best amateur clubs in the country.” Many of those teams were all white although the Monrovians did help form the Colored Western League that included 8 teams from Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. The league only lasted one season because of fiscal woes and disputes among teams.
With no league affiliation, the Monrovians became a barnstorming team in 1925 and had spent 6 days playing in Oklahoma before their match-up with the KKK.
The site of the historic meeting was Island Park which seated about 5,000 and was likely the most public place for the game to be contested.
It was owned by the city of Wichita and built out of wood on Ackerman Island, on a sandbar in the middle of the Arkansas River in 1911. The ballpark was part of a 34-acre leisure complex that was highlighted by the Giant Thriller figure-8 rollercoaster that was built in 1905 in the Wonderland amusement park. A swimming pool, vaudeville theater, dance pavilion, bandstand, roller rink, electric fountain, and some larger-than-life statues that had originally stood at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Mo., completed the fun spot.
So, back to the game.
Fans were warned in an issue of the Wichita Beacon, that “strangle holds, razors, horsewhips, and other violent implements of argument” would be barred at the gate. The Monrovians were described as a “fast colored team” just back from a barnstorming tour in Oklahoma when they took the field against the Ku Klux Klan No. 6 semi-professional team.
“To discourage favoritism,” Carroll reported, “the game was officiated by two white Catholics, ‘Irish’ Garrety and Dan Dwyer.”
A story in the People’s Elevator pointed out that violence at the game was a “distinct possibility” and noted the chilling statistic that during the first 6 months of 1925 a record 9 lynchings of black people had been reported in the United States compared to 2 the first 6 months of 1924.
Though no lynchings of blacks had been reported in Kansas since 1920 when Albert Evans was killed in Mulberry, Kan., the Klan’s existence was being threatened in state politics. This could have swayed the group to be cautious, but also might have made it more prone to make a statement.
The Klan had seen some expansion to new areas of the state and the year of the game fired up its base with a crowd of 15,000 at the fairgrounds where they sang and burned crosses. Perhaps, believed some, the game against the Morovians was a ploy to garner favorable publicity.
The Klan swore it would act peacefully that day, but who would blame the Monrovians and their fans for being skeptical of that promise?
Little media attention was paid to the Monrovian-Klan game. That the game was not meaningfully covered by the big dailies can according to some people only be explained by race. White teams and leagues got plenty of regular coverage, including previews leading up to big games, reports on the contests themselves, and statistical roundups and league standings.
At the same time, however, the Beacon staff in 1922 employed at least two black reporters, George E. Hamilton and B. C. Ranavalona. The Reverend Dr. Ranavalona also was the Star’s assistant editor throughout the decade. Even more dramatically, the local dailies ran at least two items on all-black women’s teams, including one as early as 1920. In May of that year, in a game at Island Park, the Alabama Bloomers played a Wichita team called the A.B.C. Club. The report appears to have been submitted to the Beacon by the Bloomers, indicating a fairly liberal editorial policy on the part of the newspaper.
Why the Star did not cover the game is more difficult to understand, though perhaps simple to explain. Until mid-1934, sports coverage in the black weekly was almost entirely reflexive, or passive. The paper solicited and sometimes received reports from teams and clubs in the city’s black community, including the Monrovians, the A.B.C.s, the Gray Sox, and many of the city’s South Central Athletic Association basketball teams. It appears to have published whatever such reports it received, yielding no comprehensive or systematic coverage of any sport, much less of any one organization. In addition, publisher H. T. Sims was not in Wichita the day of the game. He was at a session of the Baptist Young People’s Union (BYPU), an organization for which he was national secretary, in Fort Scott, Kansas. Given its limited resources, the newspaper may not have been able to send anyone to Island Park to cover the game, particularly on Sunday, the busiest news day of the week for a publication devoted to church news.
The Star did briefly experiment with sports coverage in 1922 (one issue, 28 July, using Negro Newspaper Association wire copy), but Sims did not begin meaningful sports coverage until the arrival of sports editor Bennie C. Williams in 1934.
The Beacon and Eagle each covered the Monrovians as frequently, or as infrequently, as did the Star, providing a few lines on a recent game in the city every few weeks or so. Of the three, the Beacon provided the most coverage. The clue is how the teams are described. “The fastest organization of colored players ever organized in Wichita,” read one story in the Eagle about the Monrovians. According to another, they were “Wichita’s favorite colored ball team,” a team that played at a level “that has not been excelled in the history of colored baseball circles in Wichita.” The players’ names, too, suggest that the teams themselves submitted the copy, using names such as “Chicken,” “Red Horse,” and “Six Shooter.”
According to Celebrating Ourselves: African-Americans and the Promise of Baseball, by Daryl Russell Grigsby, the Monrovian’s catcher in the game against the Klan was Thomas Jefferson, named after the 3rd president of the United States, and his nickname was T-Baby. The club president was J.M. Booker, a lawyer and political activist, who named the team after the capital of Liberia which was settled by free blacks in the 1800s and was thought to be a symbol of self-determination.
The dailies likewise included items on the city’s other black teams, including the Gray Sox, the A. B. C. Club, Black Wonders, Rex Cudahy, Stockyards, and Coffeyville.
Some of these games were against white clubs, including a game in 1922 at Monrovia Park against the Eagle’s own city-league team, the Wichita Eagle Newsies. That year, the Monrovians also played the white American Legion team at Monrovia Park, winning 2 to 1, and played several games against the Beacon’s championship amateur-league team. That white teams would routinely play all-black teams on the black team’s home field in the black section of town seems to say a great deal about race relations during the period. This does not seem to have occurred, for example, in Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, or New York City, nor did it occur anywhere in the South.
The Wichita Eagle described it as a “novel game” and ran a headline “Monrovians Beat K.K.K.” The story beneath the headline noted that the game was played in 102-degree heat with “searing winds” and said that the Monrovians won the game, 10-8, while a “good-sized crowd watched.”
A report in the Wichita Eagle a few days after the game, called it the “best attended and most interesting game in Wichita.”
The see-saw battle, knotted at one apiece through the first five innings, was the most entertaining game in town that Sunday, according to the Wichita Beacon. The rooting was “enthusiastic,” it reported, and the large crowd “would have been a credit to the [all-white] Western League.”
It is not clear whose judgments and opinions the newspaper was reporting, but coverage during the period of black teams in general and of the Kansas City Monarchs in particular suggests that the Beacon and the Eagle reprinted reports sent in by the black teams themselves, including the Monrovians. The game report carried no byline, which was common for sports coverage of the period, and no individuals in the short article were identified in any context, neither as subjects nor as sources. The report likely was submitted by Lascelle Dortch, the Monrovian team’s manager and a porter at Wichita’s Skaer Hotel, exemplifying how in the black communities of the period, business leaders invariably played many roles.
Read more Kansas baseball stories like this in my book, Home, Home Plate on the Range: Historical Guide of Major League Players from Kansas and Baseball in the Sunflower State. Find it at online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.