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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS
Baseball's Forgotten Man:
Eddie Klep and the Integration of the Negro Leagues
By Larry R. Gerlach
When Jackie Robinson took the field in spring training with the Montreal Royals in March 1946, the nation's eyes, even those unaccustomed to viewing sports, watched with keen anticipation the progress of what Jules Tygiel has aptly called baseball's "great experiment"the racial integration of white professional baseball.1 Ever since October 1945 when news that Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had signed Robinson to a Montreal Royals contract captured headlines in newspapers across the country, Americans black and white wondered not only how Robinson would fare on the field in attempting to become the first African American in the twentieth century to play white major league baseball, but also how he would fare off the field in confronting the legal and social manifestations of apartheid in Florida and elsewhere in the Deep South. Through unprecedented press coverage of spring training, they watched as Robinson with bat and glove, as well as extraordinary determination and resilience, breached the color line in Organized Baseball. Given the place of baseball as America's national pastime, Robinson's encounter with Jim Crow was both an immediate challenge to racial segregation and a harbinger of profound social change.2
While Jackie Robinson pursued his personal and sporting odysseys with the Montreal Royals under the unremitting glare of national publicity in the spring of 1946, another pioneer of racial integration in baseball labored in relative obscurity with the Cleveland Buckeyes. His name was Eddie Klep, the first white American to play in the Negro leagues.
Whereas the Jackie Robinson story is an extensively chronicled chapter in American history, Eddie Klep's tale is largely unknown. The lone history of the Negro leagues to note Klep's existence, Robert Peterson's Only the Ball Was White, accords him mere mention, misspells his surname, and inaccurately describes his brief career; the few historians who subsequently mention Klep repeat Peterson's errors.3 The autobiographies and published oral remembrances of contemporary Negro leaguers do not mention him.4 Far less significant than Robinson's historic achievement, the saga of Eddie Klep and the Cleveland Buckeyes nonetheless affords an instructive "reverse angle" from which to view race both in American society and in the world of sport.
At the end of World War II, professional baseball was a conspicuous feature of America's separate and unequal racial landscape. At the apex of black professional baseball were the various Negro major leagues, offspring of the Negro National League founded in 1920 by Andrew "Rube" Foster, the "Father of Black Baseball." Until abandoned in the late 1950s owing to the integration of white organized baseball, the Negro leagues not only afforded professional sports opportunities for talented black ballplayers, but also served important social and economic roles within urban African American communities.5 The title of Peterson's pioneering history, Only the Ball Was White, is arresting but inaccurate: Whites sometimes umpired games, especially in the 1920s, and white owners, financial supporters, and promoters were always a significant presence behind the scenes. Like white organized baseball, the Negro leagues had an unwritten code of racial exclusion.6 Light-skinned Hispanics periodically appeared on black teams, but they were always identified by nationality rather than race. Prior to Klep, no white American had ever played in the Negro leagues.
Just as Branch Rickey initiated Jackie Robinson's historic quest, Ernest P. Wright Sr., owner of the Cleveland Buckeyes, launched Eddie Klep's diamond adventure. Ernie Wright was a prominent Erie businessman and sportsman. The kingpin of the local numbers racket, Wright also had many legitimate enterprises, including ownership of Erie's most renowned black hostelry, the Hotel Pope, and nightclub, the Ramblers Club, as well as a pool hall, barbershop, and restaurant. His longtime efforts to enter black major league baseball reached fruition in 1941 as the result of a partnership with Wilbur "Hurricane" Hayes, a prominent Cleveland sports promoter.
With owner Wright providing the money and general manager Hayes contributing a keen eye for baseball talent, the Buckeyes progressed from also-rans to World Champions. After dividing the 1942 season between Cleveland and Cincinnati, the Buck-eyes established permanent residence at Cleveland's League Park in 1943. The club blossomed after acquiring veteran catcher Quincy Trouppe in late 1944. Under player-manager Trouppe, the Buckeyes in 1945 posted an extraordinary record of 53161 (.768) in winning the championship of the Negro American League, a far-flung midwestern and southern circuit that included the Birmingham Black Barons, the Chicago American Giants, the Indianapolis Clowns, the Kansas City Monarchs, and the Memphis Red Sox.7 At the conclusion of the season, Wright, who operated the Buckeyes out of Erie until moving to Cleveland in the winter of 1945-46, brought the championship ball club to his hometown on September 11 to play the Glenwood All-Stars. Besides keeping the Buckeyes sharp while awaiting the start of the Negro World Series against the Homestead Grays (Negro National League champions), the benefit game was to generate money "to pay the [medical] expenses of players injured during the Glenwood League season."8 One of the local all-stars who took the field against the Buckeyes was Eddie Klep.
To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Spring 2002 issue.
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