The New York Black Yankees
Chapter 1 — Hope For Harlem Via Baseball
In 1931, The Great Depression had sunk its teeth into the American people. Unemployment in the United States soared to eight million. Central Park had turned into “Hooverville,” where the city’s homeless huddled beneath cardboard shacks and rubble. Bread lines were getting longer, stocks kept plummeting and yet, 1931 was still one of the most amazing years in history. The Empire State Building was completed, Al Capone was finally put in prison, and the George Washington Bridge opened, connecting New York and New Jersey. New York City was still the place that everyone wanted to be.
The Harlem Renaissance, known at the time as the “New Negro Movement” was still chugging along. Performers like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway tearing up the night clubs with their quick jazz and tantric blues. The nightclubs in Harlem were always hopping until the early morning hours. Girls of all races in beaded dresses, with beaded purses, and red lipstick would dance down the streets. They would laugh about doing the jitterbug, the snakehips, or the hindy hop. Men in suits with shiny black shoes would walk together talking about the performance they just danced to at The Cotton Club or The Savoy Ballroom. Prohibition was still in effect until early 1933, but the speakeasies were cracking open bottles of bathtub gin without fail. The streets smelled like sewage and cigarettes, but that was okay. There was music and baseball.
They would laugh about doing the jitterbug, the snakehips, or the hindy hop.
The atmosphere in 1931 on through 1932 was one of impatience and frustration at the lack of change in the economy and the incompetence of the lawmakers that were supposed to be working for the people. The black population in New York City was the highest in the country at the time, soaring at about 300,000. The way in which the African American population in New York City were treated by the white population was with disdain and condescension. The black population responded by inculcating themselves against white society. If white people had doctors, so did Harlem. If white people had lawyers, so did Harlem. If white people had grocery stores and department stores in Manhattan, Harlem did too. Harlem was the sexier, more creative mirror of white society in Manhattan.
The Harlem that we remember from the 1960s, even the Harlem that we know today, that is starting to come back, was not the Harlem of the 1930s. The Harlem of the 1930s was a buzzing bee hive of activity. It was pulsing with life, and the community that tended it were tight-knit and voracious self-promoters. Even with Prohibition, with the Great Depression, and worst of all, segregation, Harlem was still an amazing place to be, and people came from all over the world to experience it, and the variety of performances, shows, and sporting events it had to offer.
Even with Prohibition, with the Great Depression, and worst of all, segregation, Harlem was still an amazing place to be, and people came from all over the world to experience it…
Tickets to a baseball game in the 1930s were unbelievably cheap. It cost only a couple cents to a dollar and you had yourself a ticket to a full-scale, day-long entertainment extravaganza. You could see some of the heroes of the athletic world pit themselves against one another, like the titans of ancient lore. It must have been like watching a movie while it was being made, especially in black baseball. It was a means of escape for many from the terrible troubles they faced. Players like Satchel Paige, Willie Wells, Larry Doby, and Cool Papa Bell would not only play baseball, they would do shows at half-time on the pitcher’s mound. One would play a snare, one a horn, and another a saxophone, perhaps.
In 1931, everything in black baseball was changing. Rube Foster, one of the fathers of black baseball, had held everyone together. He had been the president of The Negro National League until his mental breakdown in 1926. His Vice President took the helm until Rube’s death at the end of 1930. After that, the Negro National League collapsed. New alliances formed between the black team owners. The black baseball community waited for the formation of a new league. Everyone desperately wanted a winning black baseball team in New York City. Reporters for black newspapers all over the country wrote about it the whole year.
The team would “…have the best players, and be the best team that New York had ever seen…,”
In 1931, the report was definite. On March 28, 1931, The Pittsburgh Courier’s uppity and brazen sports writer W. Rollo Wilson hinted at a new team being revamped: The New York Black Yankees. The team would “…have the best players, and be the best team that New York had ever seen…,” said the baritone voice of John Henry “Pop” Lloyd.
Pop was one of the founding fathers of black baseball. His roots stretched all the way back to when the color line began in organized sports. Baseball enthusiasts up and down the East Coast had been complaining for months about the iniquities of the Harlem Stars. They couldn’t keep the Polo Grounds or Yankee Stadium for their home games, and the team owners couldn’t pay their players. The Black Yankees would emerge out of the Harlem Stars.
It had a star lineup, and a star owner, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, one of the greatest tap dancers that ever lived. Bill was a man of the people, the unofficial “Mayor of Harlem,” and beloved by both black and white Americans.
He would dance his way into the hearts of the American people with his performances on-screen with Shirley Temple in 1935. He did a joyful stair dance with his split clog tap shoes that he tried to patent (his patent application was turned down).
Unfortunately what happened was disastrous. The team cost too much, again they couldn’t maintain a home field, and there were too many cancelled games. The people of Harlem were disgusted and angry. The Black Yankees were falling into ruin until a mysterious hero came and rescued the club from certain doom.
The New York Black Yankees is a serial story with a chapter being published every week.
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