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Effa Manley’s Hidden Life

The only woman in the National Baseball Hall of Fame had a fascinating — and confusing — past.

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Effa Manley Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony

Connie Brooks (2nd-R), the niece of Effa Manley, accepts Manley's Hall of Fame plaque for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

She was sure and confident in everything she did. She was tall, smart, and intimidating, a shrewd businesswoman unafraid to speak her mind. For years I’d recognized Effa Manley for many things: her civil rights work, co-owning and managing a Negro League baseball team, her stint as Negro National League treasurer, her role in Larry Doby integrating Major League Baseball’s American League, and being the first African-American woman inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

But for everything Manley was, there is one thing she really wasn’t: Black.

“Everything in my life has been Black,” Manley told sportswriter Henry Hecht of the New York Post in 1975. For many years, that’s seemed like the last word on the matter. While I knew Manley was not the first woman to own a team — a distinction actually held by Olivia Taylor, who became the owner of the Indianapolis ABC Clowns after her husband C.I. Taylor died 1922 — I had always assumed she was African American. Her race, however, has been a source of quiet controversy for years, one of which I was unaware. It wasn’t until I started researching more into her life I found out perhaps Manley wasn’t exactly who she seemed.

In the 1940 census, Manley is listed as 40 years old, female, and Negro. But her background is complex. Born March 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, to an interracial family, Manley believed her mother’s husband, an African-American man, was her father. It was when she was a teenager her mother Bertha Ford Brooks felt compelled to tell her the truth of her illegitimate parentage. Brooks revealed to her daughter that she had had an affair with an employer, John Marcus Bishop, and she was the result. Brooks told her on multiple occasions that she was white. Despite this information, for much of her life, Manley lived as a Black woman, and was known as such by the Black community. Throughout her life and career, people who met her assumed she was African American. Her Black identity was part of her legacy; finding evidence that hinted otherwise was shocking.

At 19, she married George A. Bush, an African-American man who worked as a chauffeur, and settled in Harlem. There, she lived as Black, but when she left the “Black Mecca,” she used her lighter complexion to get jobs. She would take the subway downtown as a white woman, and return to Harlem as a Black one.

After divorcing Bush, she married Abraham “Abe” Manley. She marked herself “colored” on their marriage license and changed her birth year from 1897 to 1900. (This new birth year would also appear on her tombstone.) A year after their marriage, the Negro National League owners awarded Abe a franchise, the Newark Eagles. She and Abe co-owned the team, but management was left to her. The Eagles had six eventual Hall of Famers on its roster: Larry Doby, Ray Dandridge, Leon Day, Monte Irvin, Biz Mackey, and Willie Wells. Effa Manley’s contributions to their team are where she forged her place in baseball history.

The importance of this place was recognized formally during Black History Month in 2006. The National Baseball Hall of Fame held a press conference to announce Manley would become its first woman inductee. Created to study Black baseball pre-1960, the Special Committee on Negro Leagues elected Manley to the Hall for her work as a baseball executive, managing and co-owning the Newark Eagles from 1935-1948. It was at this press conference that Jane Forbes Clark, a member of the hall’s board of trustees, referred to Manley as Black. Larry Lester, chairman of the Society for Baseball Research’s Negro League committee, immediately set the record straight; Manley was not, in fact, Black.

I can only imagine what it was like to be in the room when Lester dropped that bombshell. “There was a look of awe and surprise when I called Effa Manley the ‘Blackest white woman in Negro League baseball.’ Racial identity is mostly about visual perception,” Lester recalled to me in an email. I probed for more, but Lester didn’t have anything else to add, instead suggesting I check out her biographies. So I kept digging. Her life didn’t get any less paradoxical.

One of the things about Manley I’ve always admired was her long and vigorous fight against racial discrimination. She was the person who initially launched the historic “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” Harlem jobs campaign. In February 1934, she brought together a small group of progressive African-American women to see what they could do about the inability of Black people to get jobs, especially clerical, along 125th Street. Manley continued to be involved in civil rights work in her community. She raised funds for the victims of flooding in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, was treasurer of the New Jersey National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), hosted an anti-lynching campaign at Ruppert Stadium, where the ushers wore sashes that read “Stop Lynching.” During World War II, Manley supported the war effort through her work as a local warden for the Newark Defense Council and by purchasing bonds offered by the Colored Women’s Division of the Jersey City War Savings Committee. She also became secretary and treasurer of the Women’s Volunteer War Service Committee. Manley’s efforts to fight against racial discrimination made her relationship to race even more complicated.

Her activism and passion could be felt in her staunch defense of the league. When Jackie Robinson took to the Black press to voice his frustrations about the League’s disorganization and ethical lapses — “Negro baseball needs a housecleaning from top to bottom” — she shot back, calling the legend “ungrateful and more likely stupid” in a rebuttal published in Our World magazine.

“I do not think it’s fair for a half-baked statement to come from irresponsible members of our race and have it stand unchallenged. I think an apology is due the race that nurtured him — yes, the team and league which developed him,” she wrote.

Manley felt Robinson had betrayed the Negro league, and thus responded in kind. She deeply believed in the purpose of the league; that one of its own sons had publicly attacked it stung.

Manley’s feud with Robinson shows how race can frame history. If Manley was a white woman passing as Black, as modern baseball historians claim, her criticism of Robinson strikes an entirely different chord. The sheer audacity is unimaginable. There is a difference in believing you are socially Black and believing you have the right to speak about Robinson as if you are a Black woman. In that same year, she was featured in an Ebony magazine article as one of 15 Black women discussing “How to Stay Young After 40.” She never corrected this. Though she’d made her home in the gray area of racial identity, her rebuttal to Robinson and the Ebony article lead me to believe perhaps she thrived in the acceptance of appearing Black.

Through her marriage, team ownership, and civil rights activism, Manley firmly planted herself into the Black community. She performed Blackness, for the most part, on a day-to-day basis. However, whenever it was helpful, she would present herself as a white woman. Her niece, Connie Brooks, once said Manley “was white when she wanted to be and Black when she wanted to be.” While traveling, Abe pretended to be her chauffeur in order for them to find accommodations in a white hotel when no Black hotel was available.

In both her community and baseball-related roles, Manley seemed to have had the best interests of Black people in mind. Some might say her civic work was just the mark of a good ally. Is it possible that as she got older, Manley realized she might be “found out” and started to share her true genealogy? As I dug into her past, the many books and essays on Manley continued to sort of unravel the person I had heard of publicly.

I’ve mulled over the possible reasons she performed race for so many years. At the time in which Manley was married to Abe, interracial marriages were illegal. It was unsafe for them to be publicly married. What could’ve happened to Abe had it been known his wife was white? If Manley was in fact not Black, perhaps pretending to be was a deliberate act to keep her husband(s) from harm. When I view it from that perspective, the idea of her giving up white womanhood as a means of protection seems like a potentially radical act.

On Oct. 19, 1977, just three and a half years before her death, Manley finally addressed the confusion in an interview with A.B. Chandler for the University of Kentucky’s Oral History Project. It was then, without prompting by the interviewer, Manley explained her background in her own words. It seemed to me as if she felt she needed to explain why a white woman was so involved in a Black baseball league. Perhaps she assumed it was a question in the back of people’s minds. She knew people made the assumption of her race not simply based on how she looked, but with whom she associated. She offered up an explanation of her background that baffled me upon first listen. The woman I had believed for nearly my entire life was Black was telling someone she wasn’t. I listened to her words multiple times just to make sure I was hearing her correctly.

So I am really white, but I have come up as a Negro due to the fact that all my brothers and sisters were Negroes. I remember once — funniest thing how I remember it. When I was very young, in the first grade, the principal sent for me. At that time Negroes and whites just weren’t supposed to mix. You’re talking about — that was, [inaudible], well, it’s about 70 years ago. I’m 77 now. And she sent for me to ask me why I was always with these colored children. And when I went back home and told — I didn’t know what to say to her, I went back and told Mother. I’ve always felt how stupidly Mother reacted. I feel she should have made some effort to talk to the principal or something, explain things. But Mother said to me, ‘You go back and tell her you’re just as white as she is.’ Well, that was ridiculous. But I’m saying — telling you this to say I have come up in this entirely Negro atmosphere.

... I’ve often wondered what it would be like associating with white people ... and since Abe died I’ve married twice; again, both of them Negroes. It does seem funny that at some time I wouldn’t have gotten involved with some white per- man, you know. But in my long and unusual life history, and even being involved in the baseball and everything, I never — there was never any Caucasian. Of course, now, many occasions in my life I’ve always gone and traveled as white. I didn’t think about going visiting or going to any strange city or hotel anything or, you know, I’ve always — which I am white. My Mother’s father was Indian, so I do have a little bit of — Mother’s mother was a German woman and her father was an Indian, so my skin is kind of olive ... So I’m only telling you that because I know that even you must have been thinking that all this conversation, I’m always talking about the Negroes, and I guess you figured, ‘What’s this white woman doing so concerned about the Negro?’ So that’s what’s happened. I’ve just come up entirely in this Negro atmosphere.’

Manley’s status as a white woman wasn’t hidden; it was forgotten. It got lost in many years of assumptions based on the people with whom she was mostly affiliated. As a Black woman who often struggles with issues regarding race in general, but more specifically in baseball, this really got under my skin. We’ve seen movies and heard of stories of lighter-skinned Black people passing as white for a number of reasons, the main one being safety and insulation from racism, but, with the exception of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman passing as Black is pretty much unheard of in popular culture.

Regardless of her intent in creating the ambiguity around her race, Manley stands as an example of how messy our thinking about race can be. If Manley’s mother had not told her the truth of her birth, Manley may not have ever known she was white. Why would she, if she knew the circumstances of her birth, continue to hide it? Does social and self-identification supersede the biological? Perhaps Manley’s familial and emotional ties to the Black community are the reason why she maintained that she was Black for so many years. Her entire reality was just that. Despite that, she always had an out and her “Black experience” was performative and inauthentic.

But there’s yet another wrinkle in the Manley I thought I knew. Some historians suggest her mother was biracial or Black, which would mean Manley may actually have been mixed. Her descendants argue Manley was a Black woman who occasionally passed for white. In the October 2006 issue of Essence magazine, Connie Brooks, Manley’s niece, was quoted as saying, “Effa Manley was not white. I don’t understand reporters saying that she just liked Black people, what kind of ignorance is that?” She went on to say her aunt was of African American, Native American, and German descent. “I’m happy she’s been acknowledged, but it’s important that people know the truth. It’s a great achievement for a Black woman to be first.” Brooks was calling her own aunt, whom she was attempting to vehemently defend, a liar: it was Manley herself who told people she was white. It’s possible she enjoyed the confusion caused by her racial ambiguity. Was Manley really a biracial woman who had mastered moving throughout life simply being whatever people perceived her to be and was taking advantage of it?

Dr. Amira Rose Davis, a historian of race, gender, and sports and assistant professor of history and African-American studies at Penn State University, explained, “Effa Manley had a keen awareness of the color line and of how to navigate it. Her slippages in and out of whiteness and Blackness were always strategic. So much so that even posthumously some people, including family members, wondered if her declaration of whiteness was just another final slip, the product of a curious desire to continue to re-frame her story. A woman in baseball is interesting. A white woman in Black baseball? That’s downright compelling. Even on her death certificate you can just make out the B, underneath the word white, as if the Blackness was peeking out from the edges. Ultimately it was the ambiguity that came to define Effa’s racial identity, more than anything else.”

What if Davis is right? Her niece maintained that no white father was ever spoken of within their family. Was Manley Black? Are we all just playing the game she left for us nearly 40 years ago?

If Manley was, in fact, Black, I cannot understand the reasoning she could have had to deny her Blackness in her twilight years. Because she was such a chameleon, it’s easy to project on her. She was an influence on the baseball world at a time when Jim Crow and other forms of active discrimination ran rampant. She was a powerful and significant figure in sports, not because she was a woman, but in addition to being a woman. Manley’s racial background is so confusing my feelings about her are, as well.

I’m not sure if any other women will be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and that the only woman to hold the honor may or may not have been a Black American woman is important. I can’t help but, alongside my admiration, feel a little betrayed that one of the greatest women in professional sports was, perhaps, performing race. Professional baseball has regressed in such a way that many wonder what level of participation from Black Americans we’ll see in the future. A Black woman in Manley’s position, with her contributions, could have been inspirational for the next generation of Black baseball talent both on and off the field. Sure, a white woman in Black baseball is compelling, but a Black woman? That’s poetic.

More than 40 years after her death Manley remains one of baseball’s greatest mysteries. Perhaps this really was by design. There aren’t very many personal artifacts for preservation; there’s just her love of baseball and the legacy she left behind with the sport. Her journey began in Philadelphia and, ultimately, ended in Cooperstown. Manley’s tombstone reads “She loved baseball” and that’s all she wanted us to know. She was inspirational and confounding, audacious in every sense of the word. Maybe that’s all she needed to be.

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This post originally appeared on SB Nation and was published April 30, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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