Running the Numbers

Bookies and gamblers bailed out blacks during The Depression. Who will save us now?

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baseball

Despite its failure in the House yesterday, a massive taxpayer-financed bailout of the nation's various financial institutions remains a near certainty.

Black taxpayers in particular, who have been disproportionately affected by the housing crisis, have reason to be anxious about how they will fare in the rescue scenario. If only numbers runners held the kind of clout today that they did during the Great Depression.

In the 1930s, at the height of the Depression, black gamblers rescued the Negro Baseball Leagues from going under—an action that would have repercussions for years to come.

African-American workers, always the "last hired, first fired," were vulnerable during the Depression. Black-owned businesses, which depended exclusively on black consumer support, also suffered mightily. High black unemployment rates associated with the Depression meant fewer sales and profits for African-American enterprises. In 1929, aggregate sales for black America's 24,969 retail stores was $98.6 million. Six years later, in 1935, there were 22,756 black-owned retail stores, and their aggregate sales had plummeted to $47.9 million.

At the same time that black-owned retail outlets, banks and manufacturing concerns were either closing or losing money across the country, the "numbers racket," or "policy" (an off-the-books lottery run by private individuals), took off. In fact, numbers rapidly eclipsed legitimate black businesses as the primary economic force in Depression-era black communities.

Although the numbers racket targeted working-class and poor communities, and were unregulated and untaxed by the local governments, there was little, if any, stigma among blacks to being involved with policy. Numbers bosses nevertheless sought respectability by investing gambling profits in legitimate businesses. During the 1930s, black baseball attracted a great deal of this money.

Gus Greenlee, who was known as the "numbers king" of Pittsburgh, was the most influential black-gambler-turned-baseball-team-owner. He organized the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1931, and Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and James "Cool Papa" Bell were among the stars Greenlee's laundered gambling profits attracted. Other prominent East Coast gambling figures who revived black baseball included Alex Pompez, owner of the New York Cubans; James "Soldier Boy" Semler, owner of the Baltimore Elite Giants; Abe Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles; and Ed Bolden, owner of the Philadelphia Stars.

Another prominent African-American gambler who revitalized his city's Negro Leagues team was Robert A. Cole Sr. One of the more intriguing figures in African-American history, Cole was not only considered one of the best poker and blackjack players in Chicago, but he also was president of the Metropolitan Funeral System Association. The company would later be reorganized as the Chicago Metropolitan Assurance Co. and at its peak was the sixth-largest black insurance company in the United States.

Cole purchased the Chicago American Giants in early 1932. Like his gambler cohorts in other cities, he viewed ownership of a team as a means to enhance his respectability and prestige. While Cole's ownership of the American Giants can be seen as self-serving, it also appears that he bought the team to ensure the survival of a black Chicago institution.

Rube Foster, the Chicago American Giants' first owner, has been described as the most important figure during black baseball's early years, for having organized previously barnstorming black baseball teams into a Negro National League and building the American Giants into the league's powerhouse.

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