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.
Foster suffered a mental breakdown (caused by overwork) in 1926, and he died in 1930. During that period, as his health deteriorated, the Chicago American Giants and the Negro National League also declined. Consequently, when Cole came along in 1932, the American Giants were a shadow of their former selves.
Shortly after purchasing the team, Cole announced plans for a rejuvenation. In a Feb. 25, 1932 interview with the Chicago Defender, Cole said his first priority was renovating Schorling Park, the Giants' home field on the South Side of Chicago. The American Giants purchased Schorling Park, the first home of the Chicago White Sox, after Charles Comiskey moved the White Sox to their current location.
Schorling Park, named for Rube Foster's business partner John Schorling, fell into disrepair during Foster's prolonged illness. Among the improvements that Cole subsequently made were replacing the bleachers and stands with new seating, installing modern dugouts and showers for players, and constructing a press box.
Besides renovating Schorling Park, renamed Cole Park, Cole sought to rejuvenate the team itself. Although he failed in his quest to secure Satchel Paige from the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the American Giants once again became a powerhouse of black baseball. Cole also was directly involved in starting the Negro Baseball Leagues' Annual East vs. West All-Star Game, which was played in Comiskey Park starting in 1933.
The Negro Baseball Leagues may not have survived the Great Depression without the financial support of such black gamblers as Robert A. Cole Sr. and Gus Greenlee. The survival of the Negro Baseball Leagues provided black players a continued opportunity to play organized baseball and ultimately led to their recruitment onto major league teams. Had the Negro Leagues dissolved in the 1930s, white major league teams probably would not have immediately recruited Negro league stars like Paige, Gibson and others.
The sport of baseball has black gamblers to thank for their timely assist.
Robert E. Weems Jr. is a professor of history at the University of Missouri-Columbia and author of 'Desegregating the Dollar: African American Consumerism in the Twentieth Century' and the forthcoming (January 2009) 'Business in Black and White: American Presidents and Black Entrepreneurs in the Twentieth Century.'