January 20, 2006
The Friday Flyer Assistant Editor
Rick Pond never met his great-grandfather, J.L. Wilkinson, but he is very proud of him nonetheless and has done extensive research into his contributions to the world of professional baseball. In early January, Rick attended the sixth annual Legacy Awards at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, where he had the opportunity to meet with Wilkinson’s old friend and professional baseball player/major league coach, Buck O’Neil, age 94.
He also visited with the daughter of baseball great, Satchel Paige, who still uses the dining table Paige purchased from the three-story antique store in Kansas City owned by Wilkinson and his wife. One of several Legacy Awards is named for Satchel Paige and was presented to the top pitchers in the American and National Leagues during the recent ceremony: Dontrelle Willis of the Marlins, and Johan Santana of the Twins.
But what business, one might ask, does this young white man from Canyon Lake have mingling with current and former Major League players – black ones at that? Simple. His great-grandfather J.L. Wilkinson founded and owned the Kansas City Monarchs from 1920 to 1949 and some of the players who played for him included Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil, Newt Allen, Cool Papa Bell, Elston Howard, Ernie Banks and a host of other exceptional black players.
Because of his contributions to professional baseball, specifically the Negro Leagues, and his invention of “night baseball,” among other accomplishments, Wilkinson is a candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame, with a committee of 12 set to vote on the finalists February 27. Electees will be enshrined in Cooperstown July 30, 2006, as part of the annual Hall of Fame weekend ceremonies.
Rick is not the only Wilkinson descendant campaigning to have him listed in the Hall of Fame. His mother, Diane Pond, also of Canyon Lake, worked tirelessly to have her grandfather’s name included on the list of candidates, summarizing his illustrious career as follows.
• He was a co-founder of the Negro National League in 1920 and the Negro American League in 1937.
• He created the Kansas City Monarchs dynasty, the only white owner to emerge when the Negro Leagues first organized into eight teams in 1920. Under his guidance the Monarchs won 17 Negro Leagues pennants and two of four Negro Leagues World Series. After the color line in baseball was broken in 1947, the Monarchs sent 27 players to the major leagues, more than any other black team.
• He signed the first black player, Jackie Robinson, and first black coach/manager, Buck O’Neil, to integrate Major Leagues. He signed several other players who were also the first to integrate their teams from 1947 to 1959.
• He was the innovator of night baseball in 1930, when he installed a $50,000 portable lighting system on a truck bed. “This system brought a whole new concept to the game because it allowed the working man in Middle America to see a ‘professional’ team play during the week,” says Diane.
• He was an innovator of team travel, media communications and player relations, including an open system of free player movement, i.e. free agency.
• He was a pioneer for the first use of professional Japanese and Hispanic players in organized baseball with the All Nations team in 1912.
• He established an all-women’s professional team in 1909.
• He was a supporter of other activities in the black community. For example, the baseball community and the jazz industry were intertwined in Kansas City in the early years, and Lionel Hampton was once an honorary Monarch and sometimes coached first base. Wilkinson was also close to Abe Saperstein and strongly supported the initial start-up of the Harlem Globetrotters.
As one black commentator writes in The Kansas City Star, “Wilkinson deserves consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame not just because he fielded great teams; not just because he put more players in the majors than any other black team; and not just because he embraced revenue sharing. In a time of great prejudice and inequality, Wilkinson possessed an impeccable reputation for treating African Americans humanely. Baseball owners today would be well served by studying the legacy of Wilkinson, a baseball owner who was light years ahead of his time.”
In remembering her grandfather, Diane says, “He was what every granddaughter would love to have – a gentle man with no vices. There was nothing wrong with him.”
Since her father worked for him after WWII, Diane spent a lot of time in her grandfather’s home in Kansas City and was used to the Monarch players coming and going. There was nothing unusual about meeting Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil (who is also up for the Hall of Fame this year.) “I didn’t understand the significance of what my grandfather was doing at that time,” she says. He died in 1964 at the age of 86.
Along with her husband Jerry, Diane and Rick are co-owners of DJR Insurance, United Agency, now located in the Towne Center. It has been in operation 35 years with the “R” originally standing for Diane’s father, Richard.
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