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A Modest Proposal

As Paul Dickson describes in part 5 of his series on the history of MLB All-Star Games, while Cubs President William Veeck Sr. was pushing for a permanent All-Star Game, he received a letter from Syd Pollock, owner of the Negro League Cuban Stars. Pollock proposed a solution to baseball’s financial woes: integration.

By Paul Dickson, March 5, 2017
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Oscar Charleston
Original artwork by Duane Corey

For all of its popularity, the All-Star Game did not prove to be the shot in the arm baseball needed. Fans continued to stay away from ballparks in droves. In fact, the situation seemed to get worse. Cubs President William Veeck Sr. was in New York City on August 22 for a Cubs-Giants game, but the game was rained out. The writers who covered the National League were “looking for a rainy day story,” which Veeck gave them. With an eye to Cubs attendance, which despite the Century of Progress and the Game of the Century drawing more people to Chicago, the situation was grim. Cubs attendance had already shrunk by another 400,000 during the 1933 season, which still had weeks to go. As he had before, he proposed a series of midseason games between American and National League teams as a means of stimulating interest in the game. He maintained that the game was in “critical condition” and that aggressive action had to be taken to revive interest before the 1934 season. “There is no use kidding ourselves any longer,” Veeck told Alan Gould of the Associated Press. “Only one big league club of 16 made money last year.” He pointed out that anyone who looked at the attendance figures from July 5 until the middle of August saw that the game was in the doldrums and teams might soon go out of business.[i]

Veeck called these five or six weeks the game’s “dog days,” and he claimed that their monotony needed to be broken up with interleague games that were not exhibition games but rather games that counted in the standings. Veeck’s plan was quite specific: 32 interleague games for each club, with four against each team from the other league—two home two away.[ii]

Gould’s story appeared in every major city. The reaction to what the Chicago Daily News called a “radical prescription” was immediate. “Team Presidents Alva Bradley of Cleveland and Stephen W. McKeever of Brooklyn had declared themselves definitely in favor of the idea, and the Cardinals’ Sam Breadon and the Pirates’ William Benswanger said it was worth considering. AL detractors’ objections bordered on the irrational. “Nuts,” came from the cranky voice of Calvin Griffith, the gray-haired president of the Washington Senators. “Nobody thinks of that sort of stuff unless he’s deaf, dumb, and blind.” Colonel Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees dismissed the notion by saying that he had not given it “a single thought.”[iii] The American League believed itself to the superior circuit and did not want to share the superior box office draw of Ruth, Cobb, Gehrig, and others.[iv]

The day after Veeck’s interview was published, a letter dated August 23, 1933, was sent to Veeck’s Chicago office from Syd Pollock, owner of the Cuban Stars, a team playing in the Negro Leagues. It addressed the crisis and Veeck’s statement that only one club was profitable. It said that the answer, in a nutshell, was to lift the ban on the Negro League teams, which would boost the gates throughout baseball. He proposed “. . . placing an entire Colored club to represent a city like Cincinnati in the National League and Boston in the American League.”

With baseball at all levels in financial trouble, and as a business that furnished sport and entertainment to the American people, it needed a boost to bring people back to the box office. “My solution is simple,” he wrote, “yet would meet with plenty of opposition from league moguls, but only because of social pride. Social pride and prejudice must be overlooked where business enterprise is at stake, and no one can dispute Major League ball is a business.”

Pollock was basing his argument purely on business, and it was not an abstraction. His Cuban Stars had played in 32 states during the previous season, in the process beating every white minor league team they faced. He also wrote about one of his stars, Tetelo Vargas, whom he predicted would steal more bases during the length of the season than any two present players combined. The same player hit seven consecutive home runs in two days against top semipro competition in 1931, but this feat was entirely ignored by the white press. “With a colored club in either or both circuits, these feats, common among colored ballplayers, would not go unnoticed and bring greater interest in baseball, with the necessary publicity to go with it.”

Outfielder Vic Harris was a proven hitter, batting .342 in 1935. He later became a successful coach for the Homesteads Grays, winning eight pennants during his tenure.

To buoy his argument, Pollock quoted Babe Ruth—“The colorfulness of Negroes in baseball and their sparkling brilliancy on the field would have a tendency to increase attendance at games”; Hans Wagner—“The good colored clubs played just as good as seen anywhere”; and former Major League catcher and then-Yankee coach Cy Perkins, who had played exhibition ball against the Homestead Grays, and said that Vic Harris and Oscar Charleston of the Grays would “grace the roster of any big league club.” Perkins also thought that Johnny Beckwith, a 230-pound right-handed slugger who smashed some of the longest and most memorable home runs in Negro League baseball during the 1920s and early 1930s, could hit a baseball harder than any man he had ever seen.

The letter ended with assurance that Pollock was in a position to assemble such a team or teams for the 1934 season. Within a week, Margaret Donahue of the Cubs’ front office acknowledged receipt of the letter. She wrote that Veeck was on the road with the team and said it would be given to him for his personal attention when he returned.[v]

Pollock, a resident of North Tarrytown, New York, sent a copy of the letter to the local North Tarrytown Daily News, which published it the day after it was mailed to Veeck, and in due course, the entire 20-odd paragraph letter was picked up by the Chicago Defender, Pittsburg Courier, New York Amsterdam News, and other African-American newspapers in the weeks following. It does not seem to have been published in any major non-black newspapers beyond North Tarrytown.[vi]

As proven by history, Pollock’s proposal was just that—a proposal—and was not acted on, but it underscored one important fact: there was an increased movement in the Negro Leagues to achieve some level of parity with the Major Leagues. A first step would be a Negro Leagues All-Star Game.

Oscar Charleston, known for his temper on and off the field, was a versatile player and powerful hitter. Considered one of the greatest ballplayers of the Negro Leagues, Charleston was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.


[i] Associated Press, cited in St. Joseph News-Press, August 22, 1933, 4.
[ii] Associated Press, cited in Miami News, August 22, 1933; Chicago American August 4, 1933.
[iii] Associated Press, cited in Hartford Courant August 24, 1933, p. 13. Sun, August 24, 1933, 16.
[iv] Chicago Daily News, August 22, 1933.
[v] Alan J. Pollock, Barnstorming to Heaven: Syd Pollock and His Great Black Teams (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2006), 81.
[vi] The Amsterdam News published the letter on the September 13, 1934.

 

 

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