Although a white man, J.L. Wilkinson became one of the most respected and influential figures in the history of black baseball. His role in helping found the Negro National League in 1920 plus his founding and operating for many years the Kansas City Monarchs earned him a plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
James Leslie Wilkinson was born May 14, 1878, in Algona, Kossuth County, Iowa, about 30 miles south of the Minnesota State line. He was the oldest of Myrta “Mertie” Harper and John J. Wilkinson’s six children. The elder Wilkinson was a sometime teacher and local political figure, but mainly he was an insurance agent, who rose to become manager of Iowa National Life in Des Moines.
Young J.L. learned the basics of baseball on the sandlots of his home town in Northern Iowa. He became an accomplished pitcher in an Omaha high school, then returned to the Hawkeye State and emerged as one of the leading pitchers at Highland Park College. The Des Moines newspapers were filled with accounts of the wonderful pitching of Wilkinson.
As a teenager young Leslie Wilkinson pitched semipro baseball, using the pseudonym “Joe Green” at the age of 17 to protect his amateur standing so he could play college ball. In the 1900 census Leslie was listed as a clerk employed by Chase Brothers, a leading Des Moines grocery store. His real job was probably playing for the store’s outstanding semipro baseball team.
At the age of 22, however, any hopes he had of pitching professionally were dashed when a broken wrist brought his dreams to a halt.
In 1904 he joined a new semipro club organized by Hopkins Brothers Sporting Goods. This club traveled all over the state of Iowa, beating almost all comers, at one point winning 17 of 18 games. His broken wrist had healed to the point where Wilkinson could play a fair game at shortstop.
The Hopkins team closed its 1904 season with a doubleheader against the all-black Buxton Wonders. At the time Buxton was a thriving coal-mining town in Monroe County in southern Iowa. Buxton was unique; racial integration and harmony existed there on a scale seldom found in America at that time. The population was about 2700 blacks and 2000 whites, but the baseball team was all black. Its record of defeating opponents across the state was a source of great pride to the town. The teams split the doubleheader, played in front of a large crowd.
He became the club’s captain and manager in 1905. The decision to go into management may have been made after a Des Moines sportswriter opined that he was a good shortstop and plays with his head, but was unfortunate in not being able to hit.
In an effort to increase attendance at Hopkins games, Wilkinson came up with a new gimmick in 1907. He booked games that coincided with fairs, carnivals, festivals, and reunions. When people came to the games they saw a juggernaut. In one stretch in 1908 the team won 31 of 33 games.
At the end of that season, Wilkinson disbanded the team and created a barnstorming team of Bloomer Girls. He recruited the best female baseball players he could find, including a superstar from the Boston Bloomer Girls, who played under the name Carrie Nation. He augmented the team with at least three male players, including a catcher who was also a wrestler willing to take on all comers. The girls travelled in style when Wilkinson leased a Pullman Palace railroad car for their barnstorming tour. And he needed the room, too, for in addition to the players and a bulldog mascot, he took along a portable ball park, consisting of a canvas fence 14 feet high and 1200 feet long, and a canopy-covered grandstand that could seat 2,000 fans. The next year he added a lighting system, for use in night games.
Wilkinson was not finished with his bent for trying new ideas. No one had ever fielded a team made up of different nationalities and ethnic groups. Wilkinson recruited Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiians, Frenchmen, Cubans, Filipinos, Germans, Jews and white American players. He called them the All Nations and toured the countryall the way to the West Coast and back to Iowa. In 1913 the team won 119 games and lost 17. After the 1915 season he moved the operation to Kansas City. The club flourished there in 1916, but was disbanded in 1917 because of World War I. When Leslie Wilkinson registered for the draft in Des Moines in 1918 he listed his occupation as Business Manager of the Advance Specialty Company.
After the war Wilkinson, moved his family, consisting of wife Bessie, daughter Gladys, and son Richard, to Kansas City. He revived the All Nations club, which contained several players of major league caliber. Among them were African-Americans John Donaldson and Frank Blattner, as well as Cubans Jose Mendez and Cristobal Torriente. Donaldson was a left-hander with a good fastball and changeup, outstanding control, and a hard, sharp breaking curve. He averaged almost 20 strikeouts per game for the All Nations. He once pitched three consecutive no-hitters. Some of his feats were accomplished against semipro clubs, but he also fared well when pitching against top-flight organizations. John McGraw believed he was good enough to star in the major leagues, and Wilkinson told a reporter that Donaldson was one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived, white or black.
Mendez, known as the “Black Diamond,” was one of the first internationally known Cuban players. He had a blazing fastball and a sharp curve. He once pitched a 10-inning perfect game. Later, as a player-manager, he led the Kansas City Monarchs to three consecutive Negro National League pennants in the 1920s. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. His plaque at Cooperstown notes that “Pop Lloyd and John McGraw raved about Mendez’s skill on the mound.”
Torriente was perhaps the most famous Cuban player of his era. He was a left-handed power hitter, who was also an effective basestealer, and an outstanding center fielder with excellent range and a strong, accurate arm. After leaving the All Nations, he twice led the Negro National League in batting average, hitting .411 in 1920 and .412 in 1923. He was also inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Blattner was a native of Oskaloosa, Iowa, but in an effort to make the All Nations team appear more diverse, he played under the name “Blukoi” and often was called a Hawaiian. At other times he was introduced as a full-blooded American Indian. His ability to play every infield position and both corner outfield posts made his baseball playing as versatile as his heritage.
In 1920 another opportunity presented itself to Wilkinson when Rube Foster organized the Negro National League (NNL). Wilkinson formed a club he called the Kansas City Monarchs and applied for membership in the new league. At first Foster was reluctant to accept white ownership of a club in his circuit, but he relented because of Wilkinson’s reputation for integrity and fairness. He earned the respect of his fellow owners. He became the league secretary. Together he and Foster led the new league into a decade of success and prosperity. The Negro National League became the most prominent venue for African-American ballplayers.
Wilkinson took some of the best players from his All Nations outfit to fill his new club's roster, including Donaldson, Mendez, and Blattner (Torriente went to the rival Chicago American Giants, but joined the Monarchs in 1926.). Acting on a tip from Kansas City native Casey Stengel, Wilkinson added some players from the 25th Infantry Wreckers, an all-black U. S. Army team. Included were Bullet Joe Rogan, one of the top pitchers of any era and Dobie Moore. Moore, known as the “Black Cat” won the league batting title in 1924 with a .453 average and was considered the top shortstop in the loop for six years until his career ended in mid-season 1926 (He was shot in the leg by a girlfriend, then broke the leg jumping from a window to escape the lady’s wrath.).
Wilkinson, affectionately called “Wilkie” by his players, fans, and fellow executives, built the Monarchs into the most successful club of the 1920s. The team won the NNL pennant four times in the decade—1923, 1924, 1926, and 1929. In 1924 the Monarchs played the Eastern Colored League champion Hilldale club in the first Colored World Series. With the hard-fought best-of-nine series tied at four games, the great veteran Jose Mendez pitched a three-hit shutout and Kansas City captured the title. Although there are slight differences in reported league standings, during the decade of the 1920s the Monarchs won approximately 534 league games and lost 269, for a winning percentage of .665. In their first ten years the Kansas City club had the loop’s best overall won-lost record five times, finished second four times, and third once. Why more first place finishes than pennants won? In 1926 the league played a split season and the Monarchs played the St. Louis Stars for the championship. The Monarchs lost the playoffs to their cross-state rivals, partly because ace pitcher Bullet Joe Rogan was sidelined by a freak accident.
The Great Depression of the 1930s wreaked havoc upon baseball in general and black baseball in particular. The Eastern Colored League had folded in 1928. The NNL disbanded in 1931. The Monarchs survived because of Wilkie’s ingenuity. In 1929 he commissioned an Omaha company to design a portable light system for night games. Baseball had been played under the lights before, but this system was far better. Powered by a 250-horsepower motor and a 100-kilowatt generator, the equipment illuminated lights atop telescoping poles extending 50 feet above the field. Wilkie sold a half-interest in the Monarchs to Kansas City businessman Thomas Y. Baird and mortgaged everything he owned to purchase the system, but his gamble paid off. Wilkinson believed that just as talkies saved the movies, lights would save baseball.
The Monarchs went barnstorming, often playing in daylight and after dark on the same day. They became the most popular touring team in the nation. Frequently they were accompanied by the House of David, another barnstorming club. In order to enhance revenue, the Monarchs sometimes rented the lighting equipment to their friendly rivals.
In 1933 the Negro National League was revived, but no longer under the leadership of Wilkinson or Foster, who had died in 1930. Several of the new heads were allegedly involved in the numbers racket and other gangster operations. In 1937 Wilkie helped form a new circuit, the Negro American League, serving as the loop’s first treasurer. His Kansas City Monarchs continued to be a power in the new loop. They won the pennant in 1937, 1939, 1940, 1941, and 1942. In the latter year they swept the Homestead Grays four games to none in the first Colored World Series since 1927. Why were the Monarchs so dominant? Success breeds success. The best players wanted to play on a winning team. Also helpful were Wilkinson’s reputation for fairness and integrity and his efforts to secure proper accommodations for his players during the Jim Crow era. A mutual respect developed between the players and the ownership of the Monarchs.
The club was weakened by players entering the armed services during World War II. When war veterans returned the Monarchs won the pennant again in 1946 but lost the World Series to the Newark Eagles.
Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson were two of the stars who performed for the Monarchs in the postwar era.. The two men were quite different in background and temperament, but they shared one attribute—tremendous talent. Paige had been an outstanding pitcher for many years. In 1938 he was banned for life from the Negro National League for contract jumping. He joined the Mexican League, where he suffered his first sore arm in twelve years. Wilkinson took a chance and signed Paige to a team he christened Satchel Paige’s All-Stars and sent them barnstorming through the Northwest and Canada. By 1939 his arm had healed and Paige became the leading pitcher for the Monarchs in the Negro American League.
Robinson had starred in baseball, basketball, track, and football at UCLA, earning a reputation as one of the best all-around athletes in the country. While serving in the army and stationed in Texas, Robinson had the opportunity to play some baseball. He was spotted by Hilton Smith, the former Monarchs star pitcher, who recommended him to Wilkinson. Following his army discharge, Robinson joined the Monarchs for the 1945 season, but he was with Wilkie’s team for only one year. As is well known, Branch Rickey signed him to break Organized Baseball’s color line in 1946. Baird believed the Kansas City team should be compensated for the loss of Robinson. Wilkinson, however, was conciliatory: “Although I feel that the Brooklyn club or the Montreal club owes us some kind of consideration for Robinson, we will not protest to Commissioner Chandler. I am very glad to see Jackie get this chance, and I’m sure he’ll make good. He’s a wonderful ballplayer. If and when he gets into the major leagues he will have a wonderful career.”1
Suffering from ill health in 1948 Wilkie sold his interest in the Monarchs to Baird, and retired from baseball. He died in a Kansas City nursing home on August 21, 1964. His remains rest in the Garden Mausoleum at the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Kansas City.
Dozens of Monarchs who had played under Wilkie’s management or ownership went into Organized Baseball. Eleven Monarch players are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Cool Papa Bell, Willard Brown, Andy Cooper, Bill Foster, Jose Mendez, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Bullet Joe Rogan, Hilton Smith, Turkey Stearnes, and Willie Wells. Wilkinson, himself, was inducted posthumously in 2006, His plaque at Cooperstown is inscribed as follows:
J. LESLIE WILKINSON
“J. L.” “WILKIE”
KANSAS CITY MONARCHS, 1920-1948
AN INNOVATIVE AND GENEROUS OWNER WHO FOUNDED AND OPERATED THE KANSAS CITY MONARCHS FROM 1920-1948. RESPECTED FOR HONESTY AND FAIRNESS WITH HIS PLAYERS. HIS MONARCHS DOMINATED BLACK BASEBALL, WINNING THE MOST LEAGUE TITLES AND TWO NEGRO LEAGUE WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONSHIPS. CREATED MULTI-RACIAL ALL-NATIONS BARNSTORMING TEAM THAT FLOURISHED FROM 1912-1918, THEN HELPED FOUND THE NEGRO NATIONAL LEAGUE IN 1920. DEVISED PORTABLE LIGHTING SYSTEM WHICH ALLOWED TEAMS TO PLAY NIGHT GAMES AND SURVIVE THE GREAT DEPRESSION. SENT MORE PLAYERS, INCLUDING JACKIE ROBINSON, TO MAJOR LEAGUES THAN ANY OTHER NEGRO LEAGUES OWNER.
Ralph J. Christian, “Wilkie: James Leslie Wilkinson and the Iowa Years,” Iowa Heritage Illustrated (Spring 2006). This is by far the best account of Wilkinson’s early career.
Dick Clark and Larry Lester, eds. The Negro Leagues Book. (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1994.)
Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970.)
James Riley. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1994.)
Jules Tygiel, “Black Ball,” in Total Baseball: The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia, John Thorn et al., eds. (Wilmington, DE: Sport Media, 2004.)
1 J. L. Wilkinson, cited by Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970), 192.