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Kansas City Monarchs founder, owner played 'vital' role in race relations

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Posted at 3:57 PM, Feb 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-18 14:27:25-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — You've likely heard the story of the Negro Leagues. Established in Kansas City in 1920, some of the best baseball players in the game got their start in the league.

What you may not have heard though, is the story of J.L. Wilkinson, one of the only white owners in the original eight teams.

Wilkie, as he was called, owned the Kansas City Monarchs. His grandson.

"The Monarchs were the first ones to play night baseball games so he's considered the father of night baseball. The Monarchs were the first ones in professional sports to do free agency, first ones to do revenue sharing. Almost anything you can think of today in professional sports kind of started with the Monarchs," Ed Catron said.

Negro Leagues historian Phil Dixon said Wilkie "loved his ball players and he paid them well."

If his black players were not welcome at a hotel, Wilkie wouldn't stay there either.

Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, said that was "vital."

"I tell people all the time. Here's this diminutive white man who is as large a figure in black baseball as anyone," Kendrick said.

Dixon told 41 Action News that although the fans didn't integrate until the 1930s, "from the very beginning, [Wilkie] did not segregate his audience at Kansas City Monarch games."

Wilkinson served as the secretary of the Negro National League, and made his living from baseball for 50 years as a player and owner.

Catron said even now, "people ask, 'Well, why did he own a black team?' And he just wanted the best team he could possibly put together."

In 1948, Wilkinson sold his interest in the Monarchs.

He was posthumously inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, but his legacy as a pioneer in race relations and inclusion through baseball will last forever.

41 Action News is celebrating the Negro Leagues centennial in collaboration with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Click here to see more #NLB100 stories.