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Monarchs owner Wilkinson a man of illumination

By: Bill Ladson | @ladsonbill24

NEW YORK -- J.L. Wilkinson was the only white person to own a Negro Leagues team, but he was more than that. He was an innovator.

Had he done for Major League Baseball what he did for the Negro Leagues, we’d all know his name.

In 1930, Wilkinson introduced night baseball when his Kansas City Monarchs played their first game under the lights. Wilkinson received a $50,000 loan from a bank to create his innovation. He put together a flat-bed trucking system, had light towers mounted on the truck and carried those towers around the country to light up fields so his team could play games after sundown.

It was another five years before the first night game in the Major Leagues.

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How popular was night baseball in the Negro Leagues? Wilkinson was able to pay back the loan in one year. Wilkinson’s grandson, Ed Catron, currently owns the truck his grandfather used to show the bank how he was going to use the lights.

“People were flocking to those games,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. “He was looking for a way to get the working-class fan into the ballpark. Night baseball became the answer. For the most part, the Negro Leagues were completely reliant on Major League stadiums on Sundays, but night baseball became bigger than Sunday games.”

Originally, founder Rube Foster didn’t want any white people involved with his league, according to Kendrick. But Wilkinson had something that Foster didn’t -- access to stadiums. Wilkinson had been booking games at stadiums as owner of the multiracial All Nations team from 1912-17. That team included white, Black, Polynesian, Asian and Native American players, including at one time, a woman. Some Black players from that team, like “Bullet” Joe Rogan, would transition to the Negro National League.

“I think that’s part of the reason that early efforts around the Negro Leagues didn’t succeed, was because they didn’t have the greater access to stadiums to sustain the league,” Kendrick said. “Wilkinson brought access to the fold, and I think those two things [including the talent that Wilkinson brought from the All Nations team] helped Foster move beyond whatever reservations [Foster] had and welcomed Wilkinson and the Kansas City Monarchs as one of the original eight Negro League teams.”

The result is one of the most successful and well-known Negro Leagues teams. With the help of those great players over the years – Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige, Turkey Stearnes, Rogan, Hilton Smith, Buck O’Neil and countless other legends – the Monarchs arguably became the Yankees of the Negro Leagues.

Kansas City won eight league championships and two Negro Leagues titles. The team was consistently good, posting but one losing season. So good were the Monarchs that they sent the most players, including Jackie Robinson and Ernie Banks, from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues.

“The Monarchs were a model organization,” Kendrick said. “Wilkinson had them on the road so often, there were a lot of people who saw the Monarchs play. They have fond memories of the Monarchs coming into their city to play. It would be almost be like the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs of the [1980s and 90s] when you had WTBS and WGN showcasing all of their games.”

One thing can be said about Wilkinson: He didn’t see color. He just saw people as they were.

Kendrick had a close relationship with O’Neil, who told Kendrick that Wilkinson was “the [first] white man he ever met with no prejudice.” For example, if there weren’t enough hotel rooms for his players, Wilkinson would share a room with some of his players, and he also made sure his players were fed properly.

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“There was a respect and adulation that Wilkinson had from his players and the African American community,” Kendrick said.

Catron was 9 years old when his grandfather died in 1964. He knew him well enough to know he was a special man.

“I never come across anyone who had anything bad to say about him,” Catron said via telephone. “He was a very kind person. He always tried to give other people credit. He always wanted to help others. He was so color-blind regarding race or religion. … Every single player I ever met just loved my grandfather because he always took care of them.”

For all he did for the game of baseball, Wilkinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

“They got it right,” Kendrick said. “Wilkinson should have been in the Hall of Fame well before 2006.”