Negro Leagues enthusiast raises funds for black colleges

Phil Dixon, a Belton resident who grew up playing for an all-black baseball team, has dedicated much of his life to the history of the Negro Leagues.
Phil Dixon, a Belton resident who grew up playing for an all-black baseball team, has dedicated much of his life to the history of the Negro Leagues. The Democrat

For some, celebrating the great American pastime is reserved for summer and fall, when major-league baseball is at its height.

But Phil Dixon’s love for the game transcends such limits. After a career working in public relations for the Royals, Dixon pored over books, newspaper clippings and photographs dedicated to a lesser-known Kansas City baseball team: the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs.

His research stimulated his love for the ballclub, which got its start in 1920.

“The Monarchs mean to their league what the New York Giants do to theirs,” Dixon read from an Enid Morning News clipping from 1930.

Wanting to share his passion and knowledge with others, Dixon took to the road two years ago. He’s driven 35,000 miles since then. And on Tuesday, his travels led him to Harrisonville, where he presented his findings to the Civil War Roundtable group, which meets monthly at the Harrisonville branch of the Cass County Public Library.

After two years of traveling to small towns throughout the Kansas City area, much as the Negro Leaguers had done nearly a century before, Dixon has vowed that in the upcoming two years, he will visit 108 places.

The number has significance as it is also the number of historically black universities and colleges that he will donate $108 to, a total pledge of $11,664.

Dixon grew up in an all-black community in Kansas City, Kan., and before his graduation in 1974, he traveled from town to town as a member of a black baseball team, playing mostly all-white teams.

“We got a sense of what Negro Leaguers experienced,” Dixon said.

His love for baseball permeated all aspects of his life. By 19, Dixon had collected 50,000 baseball cards and went on to coach the sport for 35 years. He’s written nine books on the Negro Leagues. His book “The Negro Baseball Leagues: A Photographic History” won a 1992 Casey Award as the best baseball book of the year, an award sponsored by Spitball: The Literary Baseball Magazine.

“I can see when you get enthusiastic, you just start accumulating” information, said John Foster, who attended the presentation at the library. “It was very interesting, and he was most qualified to make a presentation of this.”

Dixon began his presentation with an introduction to the Monarchs. Its two owners, Tom Baird and J.L. Wilkinson, could not have been more different.

“In 1922, the governor of Kansas does an investigation to find out how much the Ku Klux Klan had infiltrated Kansas,” Dixon said. “And guess whose name was in the KKK chapter — the owner of the Monarchs.”

Baird’s money and influence helped fund a baseball club for black men in the 1920s, but the irony does not escape Dixon.

“He made a lot of positive changes in the Negro Leagues, but he has this interesting history,” he said.

Wilkinson was nothing like his counterpart. Dixon said Wilkinson once said he’d like his son to be like one of his black players.

“His black players loved him, called him a prince of a man,” Dixon said. “Chet Brewer (a Monarchs pitcher) said he was the only person he met who didn’t have an ounce of prejudice in his body.”

The Monarchs had stellar success, filling stadiums and winning virtually every game. And with Wilkinson’s foresight, the team implemented stadium lighting in 1930, making night games possible for the first time, five years before major-league baseball caught on.

“With the Depression, money was short, people were working longer hours, but the lights (and night games) saved baseball,” Dixon said.

Dixon also praised the many small area towns with all-white teams that played the Monarchs.

“Baseball history changed forever because of small towns giving them a chance at diversity and integration,” Dixon said. “They gave the Negro teams a chance when the big leagues didn’t.”

John Moloski, a Garden City man who attended the presentation, said the history of the Monarchs is a mystery to many but is detailed at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City.

“People should go every day,” Moloski said. “It’s baseball history, but (the players) don’t get the recognition that they should have. Some great players were playing in the small towns around here.”

Some of those featured prominently in Dixon’s presentation were Leroy “Satchel” Paige, James “Cool Papa” Bell and Wilber “Bullet” Rogan.

Dixon said he might just share his knowledge forever.

“I think it’s just good local history, and it’s fun history,” he said. “And it’s history that needs to be told.”

Follow Dixon’s journey online on his Facebook page, “Negro League Author Phil S. Dixon.”