The PCL and the Color Line

Clarence "Pants" Rowland

Clarence “Pants” Rowland

This is a guest column by my friend Ronald Auther, who joined the SABR community in 2014. He holds a B.F.A. and M.F.A. from the California Institute of the Arts. He writes a blog on African American baseball called The Shadow Ball Express, focusing on western baseball, from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast. His research focuses on social dynamics and social construct developments in arts, entertainment, and sports. Here he tells the story of how the racism of the Pacific Coast League owners may have denied them a a place in major-league history, whether as a third major league or as an incubator of African-American talent.

In January 1914, J. Cal Ewing, owner of the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League, was building a new ballpark, Ewing Field. “If I were a player, working for McCredie,” he said, “and he asked me to go out and play against these colored fellows, I would refuse to do it for him.”

Walter “Judge” McCredie, manager of the Portland Beavers baseball team, had scheduled exhibition games against the Chicago American Giants, a celebrated black club. This series of games would take place along the West Coast, beginning in Santa Maria and Fresno in California and ending up in Portland, Oregon. Finding a venue to play in along the way north would present problems for McCredie. Ewing offered further: “There are two classes of players I bar from playing on my ball parks—colored tossers and bloomer girls. The league has no power to prevent these games between the Beavers and the Chicago Giants, but I am sure that nearly every director in the league would be opposed to these games.”[1]

PCL president Allen T. Baum agreed with Ewing. “I have no jurisdiction in the matter, but my sentiments are strongly against it. I am sure there is not another manager in the league that would consider playing with the Chicago Giants.”[2]

1916 Chicago Americans Giants

1916 Chicago American Giants

When the Chicago Defender headlined a story “Rube Foster’s Team Starving in Oregon,”[3] it was undeniable that the Chicago American Giants had generated ill feelings during their stay. Their talents as baseball exponents captivated Portland’s Walt McCredie but the cool reception by the fans and the other PCL teams spoke volumes.

Fast-forward thirty years to 1944, and what a year it would be when the Pacific Coast League decided to make its move to become a third major league. There was the American League, the National League, and the minors, when Clarence “Pants” Rowland, general manger of the Los Angeles Angels, stated: “…we’ll simply have to get major league baseball when the war is over. This Pacific Coast area is the fastest growing in the nation.”[4]

By December 1944, the PCL moved to boost the draft prices for its stars from $7,500 to $10,000. From there, league vowed to strengthen its territorial restrictions to prevent a postwar Major League Baseball invasion of the West Coast. Rowland’s showdown with the Big Show was placed on the back burner, for now [5]. Waiting for a new commissioner that backed his play would be paramount to forming a new major league on the West Coast.

The PCL used the death of Commissioner K. M. Landis to leverage a new deal for the West Coast minor league. Landis had often been blamed for delaying the integration of African American players into the major leagues. That weight obviously could not be placed on the shoulders of one man alone. Landis and those who thought like him felt that by allowing integration, teams in the Negro Leagues would seek financial redress for monetary losses that might occur.[6].

By September 1945, Ed Harris and C.C. Pittman of the High Marine Social Club made contact with Rowland, by phone and letter, presenting the concept of a full-fledged West Coast Negro League that would operate in every major market already established by the PCL, excluding Hollywood and Sacramento. The stage was being set for a baseball war between the races. Clarence Rowland hadn’t planned for this upstart new league of “professionals” to waylay his well-laid plans to create a major league from the existing Pacific Coast League, which had battled long and hard to be recognized by the American and National Leagues as more than just a “farm.” Rowland had in effect been notified that his battle to be the West Coast big league would be shared with men of color.

The first rule of starting a league would be to secure playing grounds. This was one of the main issues facing the new league, backed by Jesse Owens and Abe Saperstein. Ed Harris was the West Coast Baseball Association chairman, and front man when it came to securing almost everything from players and coaches to the fields they’d play on. To accommodate the crowds required to fund a league, Ed Harris along with Abe Saperstein would do their best to negotiate with owners of Pacific Coast League parks.

The schedule for six new teams would require some tweaking by the Pacific Coast League to accommodate these other ‘professionals’ that hadn’t been sanctioned by anyone to start a league on their own. Even if ball parks like Edmonds, Wrigley, Oaks, and Seals Stadium had dark days or down time, their owners were not required to rent these parks to African Americans, based on the unwritten covenants, conditions, and restrictions that had stood firm since the days of J. Cal Ewing. Rowland reneged on a promised meeting with Ed Harris and Dewey Portlock about the use of the Angels’ park.

Large investments had been made for the development of these Pacific Coast League ballparks by men like Yubi Separovich, Dick Edmonds, and Paul Fagan. For them, the demise of the West Coast Negro League was personal as well as business. By the 1940s, racism on the West Coast had peaked, based on the Great Migration fulfilling the promise of jobs in the war industries for tens of thousands of African Americans, raising their level of income and allowing them to better themselves in West.

Major league baseball had sent Rowland a clear message in July 1945, when it rejected the proposed increase in the price on a draftee to the majors.[8]. He returned fire in December, when the PCL adopted a resolution stating, “Resolved that the Pacific Coast League now become [sic] a major league and to be such beginning with the 1946 season, but provided it must obtain approval of the commission of baseball, of the presidents of two major leagues, and the national association, and that it be accepted as a major league in organized baseball and remain therein.” [9]

Letter Saperstein to Separovich.

Letter from Saperstein to Separovich.

A triumvirate of three—Clarence Rowland; Charles Graham, President of the San Francisco Seals; and Victor Ford Collins of the Hollywood Stars—was the committee selected to begin the negotiations and obtain the necessary approval and agreement [10]. The National League and the American League club owners met in Chicago, on December 11, 1945, one week after Rowland made the announcement to go rogue by starting a West Coast Major league. They quickly voted to put the concept of another major league to rest. While in agreement that Rowland’s Pacific Coast League should be given the consideration of one day becoming a part of Major league baseball, President Ford Frick of the National League announced NL and AL owners’ denial on the basis that the PCL “did not have enough income or seating capacity.” Frick also commented that issuing major league status to the West before it was ready “would serve to weaken baseball,” by “not being able to supply big time baseball, but could hold high class players on the Coast, since the league’s promotion would exempt the clubs from the annual draft.”[11]

Frick was a master of contradiction. It was another way of saying, ‘you’re good enough for us to farm your best players, but you’re not good enough to hold your own with the “bigs.’” While Rowland swallowed his pride and accepted the decision gracefully, the West Coast Baseball Association moved forward with its plan to create a stir.

The initial request by Ed Harris and C.C. Pittman to negotiate the use of Pacific Coast League baseball parks for West Coast Baseball Association games had been ignored. There was money to be made by PCL owners in renting out their fields. To band together and deny access to money required to fund the PCL’s advancement to big-league status illuminates the major leagues’ assessment of their business acumen. Abe Saperstein was a savvy negotiator when it came to gaining access to venues. In his letter to Yubi Separovich, one is given the sense that the unwritten policy of not renting parks on down time was part of the Pacific Coast League’s plan to disavow any and all knowledge that the West Coast Baseball Association even existed.

Men of the 1945 PCL: (L-R, back): Bill Keppler, Portland; Don Stewart, Sacramento; Los Angeles Angels; Yubi Separovich, Sacramento; Emil Sick, Seattle; Victor Ford Collins, Hollywood; Bill Starr, San Diego. Seated: Charles Graham, San Francisco; Commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler, PCL President, Clarence Rowland; Clarence “Brick” Laws, Oakland.

Men of the 1945 PCL: (L-R, back): Bill Keppler, Portland; Don Stewart, Sacramento; Los Angeles Angels; Yubi Separovich, Sacramento; Emil Sick, Seattle; Victor Ford Collins, Hollywood; Bill Starr, San Diego. Seated: Charles Graham, San Francisco; Commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler, PCL President Clarence Rowland; Clarence “Brick” Laws, Oakland.

Jimmy Powers of the New York Daily News had written in 1933, “Another trouble with major league ball certainly would seem to be the color line drawn in the big leagues. There have been good baseball players who were Indians or part Indians, Mexicans, Cubans, etc. A Chinese Hawaiian tried out for the Giants a few years ago, and would have been able to make the team if he had been able to play a little better ball. But good colored ballplayers aren’t eligible; and so there must be a lot of possible fans in Harlem who don’t step over to the Stadium or the Polo Grounds to baseball games. It’s a trend of the times, this decline of baseball. We don’t know what could be done to arrest the trend, unless the big league chiefs could bring themselves to erase the color line, and baseball fans in every city or state burdened with the blue laws could be lined up to fight those laws.”[12]

In 1945 the Pacific Coast League balked by unnecessarily delaying the game, a race game that was being played out on these West Coast baseball fields. The Pacific Coast League principals never saw the writing on the wall, that by year’s end Jackie Robinson would be signed by the Montreal Royals, pointing out the direction baseball was headed. The Pacific Coast League could have been the primary farm source, laying the groundwork for the majors’ intergration. That color line eventually vanished, and the Pacific Coast League never gained major league status. Instead, it was decimated by the 1958 move of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants.

Notes:

1. “Coast Magnates Draw Color Line”, The Morning Oregonian, January 24, 1914, Page 10.

2. Ibid.

3. Robert Petersen, Only The Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams, Oxford University Press, 1970, Page 147.

4. “Los Angeles Seeks Major League Ball,” The Montreal Gazette, January 14, 1944, Page 16.

5. “Minors Silent On Landis Successor,” The Montreal Gazette, December 6, 1944, Page 15.

6. “Seeking A New Deal,” Lawrence Journal World, March 1, 1945, Page 10.

7. “On The Level: Delegates Ignored,” The Oakland Tribune, November 1, 1945.

8. “Majors Rejects Minors Proposal That ‘AA’ Draft Price be Double,” The Montreal Gazette, July 24, 1945, Page 14.

9. “Coast Votes Major Status,” The Eugene Register Guard, December 12, 1945, Page 10.

10. “Pacific Coast Circuit Votes to Become A Major League,” The Spokesman Review, December 5, 1945, Page 11.

11. “Deny Pacific Coast Bid For Major League,” Lodi News-Sentinel, December 12, 1945, Page 9.

12. “More About Negro Ball Players”, The San Francisco Spokesman, March 3, 1933, Page 5.

5 Comments

Fascinating… and an appropriate post at the Robinson anniversary! This is the kind of history that needs to be cited…and cited again!

Reading Hirsch’s bio of Willie Mays. I did not realize even he, as a star, had trouble buying a house in San Francisco.

12) “More About Negro Ball Players”, The San Francisco Spokesman, March 3, 1933, Page 5 (Sorry John. My typo error. “Sportsman” should read “The San Francisco Spokesman”).

Pingback: Negro League Baseball: Ed Harris and the PCL | The Shadow Ball Express

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