I am a HUGE baseball fan, so I was really excited to learn about Effa Manley. In retrospect, I knew a little about her, simply that she was the first woman inducted into the Hall of Fame. This book, intended for a middle grade audience, taught me so much about the history of the Negro Leagues.

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The summary, from Amazon:

For fans of Hidden Figures and Steve Sheinkin’s Undefeated, Andrea Williams’s Baseball’s Leading Lady is the powerful true story of Effa Manley, the first and only woman inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Black athletes played in the Negro Leagues–on teams coached by Black managers, cheered on by Black fans, and often run by Black owners.

Here is the riveting true story of the woman at the center of the Black baseball world: Effa Manley, co-owner and business manager of the Newark Eagles. Elegant yet gutsy, she cultivated a powerhouse team. Yet just as her Eagles reached their pinnacle, so did calls to integrate baseball, a move that would all but extinguish the Negro Leagues.

On and off the field, Effa hated to lose. She had devoted her life to Black empowerment–but in the battle for Black baseball, was the game rigged against her?

Buy Baseball’s Leading Lady here.

Effa Manley was the co-owner of the Newark Eagles and a big player in the Negro Leagues. Williams starts off with Manley’s history, from her childhood in Philadelphia to her activism in Harlem as an adult. Later, Manley and her husband got into baseball, first in Brooklyn, then moving the team to nearby Newark.

However, this book is not just about Effa Manley. It branches off to discuss the detailed history of the Negro Leagues and how the various historical events surrounding their existence affected teams, players, owners, fans, and finances.

With little background knowledge, one might think that integration in baseball was a great thing. However, Williams explores how integration hurt Black baseball. When a player was signed on to a Major League team, the Negro League team he left wasn’t always recompensed, and rarely were the trades fair. With integration came the fall of these Leagues. Manley and her husband worked hard to keep the Eagles going for as long as possible, to ensure that their players had careers lined up, and to make sure they made a salary on the trade of these players. Though Manley and like-minded individuals sought to integrate by having the Major League teams absorb the Negro League teams as Minor League and farm teams, their efforts were unsuccessful.

Manley’s story is an inspiring one of passion, dedication, and hard work, even if here fight was a losing one. Williams draws some clear parallels to racial integration over the decades in all industries, and while not outright stated, to today: “Yet there was never any sacrifice required of white people, no demand that they, too, step outside of their comfort zones in the name of advancement.”

The epilogue was excellent. Williams calls out the disparity in baseball today. I’m a huge baseball fan and in my privilege did not realize that Black players make up only 8% of Major Leaguers, there aren’t many Black executives in the MLB’s front office, and there are no Black majority owners. Williams knows Effa Manley would be disappointed in these low numbers, something she knew and feared would happen when the Negro Leagues fell. “She knew that Black players, coaches, and executives were immensely talented, but she also knew that as Branch Rickey and others chose to exploit that talent while simultaneously stripping it of any power or authority, the impact would be felt for generations.” Clearly, that impact is being felt today.

This was a great read and I absolutely loved it. However, it’s marked as middle grade and I feel that unless a kid is a big baseball fan (and maybe familiar with history), this might be better suited for young adult readers. The language wasn’t to “kiddish” that a teen or adult (like myself) couldn’t enjoy. Overall, this was a solid 4 star read for me.

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Baseball's Leading Lady: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro LeaguesBaseball’s Leading Lady: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues by Andrea Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an excellent nonfiction title with plenty of rich detail. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, with lots of Negro League history, but Effa Manley is the common threat tying it all together. I expected this to be a middle grade read but I do think it might be better for YA, or a child with lots of baseball (and perhaps historical) knowledge. As an adult who is a baseball fan and history geek, I had the context and loved this one.

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Book Club Questions

  1. Did you know anything about the Negro Leagues or integration in baseball before this book? What did you know or think? How has this book changed those preconceptions?
  2. How did Manley’s activism relate to her experience as the co-owner of a baseball team? Did her ownership involve activism?
  3. What do you think the MLB would be like today had Manley gotten her way and Negro League teams were absorbed as Minor League or farm teams?

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