Published February 10th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Kansas City might be the Chiefs Kingdom nowadays, but a century ago, professional baseball ruled the roost, treating fans to some of the best talent on both sides of the color barrier.
It was only fitting that Kansas City would boast one of the nation’s finest black teams, the Monarchs, given the city’s historic role in hosting the charter meeting of the Negro National League in 1920. Whites played for the Blues, one of the country’s best minor league clubs.
Both teams played at old Association Park at 19th and Olive streets, just around the corner from the jazz district at 18th and Vine streets. It was the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, and even a century later Kansas Citian Jason Nivens, 42, can practically feel the boozy late-night mix of sweat, music and baseball trash talk.
A local disc jockey, Nivens lives on the West Side with his wife, son and stepdaughter. Raised in Prairie Village, Kansas, his love of history is that of an adoptee who always wondered about his own past.
Thus, all of Nivens’ interests coalesced into this question for curiousKC: “I’ve only found a little bit here and there about the Monarchs vs. Blues barnstorming series. When exactly was it & how’d it come about?”
CuriousKC eagerly fielded the question, with an assist from the Kansas City Public Library’s Missouri Valley Special Collections, which includes books from authors Janet Bruce (“The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball”) and Phil S. Dixon (“The Monarchs 1920-1938: Featuring Wilber ‘Bullet’ Rogan: The Greatest Player in Cooperstown”).
The headline in the Sept. 20, 1921, edition of The Kansas City Star called it a city series “De Luxe” in hyping a clash the next month between the two clubs.
For several weeks, the story said, the Monarchs had been clamoring for a city championship series. The team was confident it could beat their white rivals, the reporter wrote, despite the Blues having stars like slugger Bunny Brief and league leading pitcher Gus Bono.
It was slated to be a seven-game series, the article said, before shedding any hint of objectivity:
“The Blues will not get frivolous with the Monarchs and toss them any games. They will win four straight if they can, but if the Monarchs should take a game, then the series will be completed without delay.”
There was talk of a fifth and even a sixth game, if necessary. But apparently The Star could not even contemplate a series that went the full seven games.
Fielding an injury-depleted lineup, according to Dixon, the Monarchs lost the series in six games.
The Monarchs were spoiling for a rematch in 1922, and the Blues obliged.
A threat both as a pitcher and hitter, Rogan had posted disappointing numbers in the 1921 series. So when he and his Monarchs teammates took the field in 1922, Dixon wrote, “they were primed and pumped” for a major upset.
They were, indeed, losing only once in the best-of-nine-game series.
The Kansas City Call, the newspaper serving the city’s black community, heralded the triumph on the front page of its Oct. 20 edition. “Monarch Bats Beat Blues’ Experience,” the headline blared. “Skeptics Get Converted when Negro National Leaguers Take Four Games in a Row.”
As The Call headline suggested, this was more than just a city championship series for the Monarchs. It was a chance to prove that the Negro League was every bit as competive as the white leagues that excluded black players.
And like the series the year before, the 1922 rematch highlighted what was then a regular feature of the baseball landscape. To earn extra money, black and white players alike would “barnstorm” in their home regions, and sometimes beyond, to play exhibition games.
In something that would be unthinkable today, in an era of multimillionaire players whose playing time is carefully managed, these barnstorming tours typically came in late fall after the teams had already played dozens of games through the heat of the summer.
In fact, only days after their 1922 victory over the Blues, the Monarchs took both games of a doubleheader from an all-star team headlined by Babe Ruth and his New York Yankee teammate Bob Meusel.
These drubbings did not sit well with Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the authoritarian commissioner of the white major leagues. With other examples of Negro Leaguers beating his boys, Bruce said, Landis declared that only all-star teams from his league could compete in these postseason contests — even though that had not helped Babe Ruth’s team.
Landis said that his players failed to keep in shape during the offseason, thus harming the reputation of white organized baseball, according to Bruce.
Black players had their own suspicions, as Bruce highlighted in a quote from Negro League great James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell. “They was keeping blacks out of the Major Leagues, and if we could beat ‘em, why not let ‘em play?,” Bell said. “So they would let ‘em play as All-Star teams, and if we beat ‘em, we hadn’t beat no big league team.”
Blues owner George Muehlebach did not need any pronouncement from Landis to make up his own mind. After the 1922 loss, Dixon said, Muehlebach he swore to never play the Monarchs again — and he never did.
“Call it prejudice or plain old protectionism,” Dixon wrote, “the Blues weren’t about to let the Monarchs create a yardstick by which to measure the white leagues as inferior.”
Mike Sherry is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 816.398.4205