1946, Abe Saperstein, and the West Coast Negro Baseball League

While Jackie Robinson prepared to break into the major leagues by getting a year of seasoning with the Dodgers’ AAA ball club, the Montreal Royals, Abe Saperstein diversified his minority sports portfolio beyond the Harlem Globetrotters by spearheading the creation of the West Coast Negro Baseball League.  This venture consisted of six teams:  Seattle Steelheads, San Francisco Sea Lions, San Diego Tigers, Portland Roses, Oakland Larks, Los Angeles White Sox.  Fresno was the original home city for the Tigers.

The WCNBL did not endure past July 1946.

Saperstein—the Steelheads’ owner—persuaded investors, including Olympics star Jesse Owens, to participate in the first organization for black baseball on the West Coast.  Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization on October 23, 1945 inspired rather than discouraged Saperstein to construct the WCNBL; despite the beginning of the major leagues siphoning black players from the Negro Leagues, an expanding population on the West Coast after World War II offered, seemingly, a formidable fan base for Saperstein and his group.  In her 2013 book The Negro Leagues: 1869-1960, baseball historian Leslie Heaphy explained, “They founded the league not as competition to the white leagues but to provide an opportunity for blacks in the west to play baseball for money.”

With a prosperous record as the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, Abe Saperstein represented credibility for the nascent league.  Eddie Harris of the High Marine Social Club also played a key role in organizing the league.

Finding ballparks proved to be a tricky task.  In a June 27th article, the Los Angeles Sentinel noted that the White Sox had games scheduled in Whittier after beating the Lions at Hollywood Park.  “This policy of playing games in and around Los Angeles was forced on the owner [Carlisle] Perry as Hollywood Park and Wrigley Field are virtually closed to the home team due to Pacific Coast League commitments leaving the Sox without a Home Ground,” stated the Sentinel.

Low attendance compounded the difficulties, resulting in the league’s dissolution.  Though its tenure lasted less than the projected 110-game season, the West Coast Negro Baseball League indicated Saperstein’s business approach.  In his 2013 book Abe Saperstein and the American Basketball League; 1960-1963, Murry R. Nelson wrote, “Saperstein always had contingency plans to maximize his revenue streams.  As owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, with at least two different squads, he had a team playing every day somewhere in the world.  He also was one of the key reasons that the NBA was able to pay its bills from the formation of the league in 1949 through the 1950s, as he had the Globetrotters play doubleheaders before many NBA games, often doubling or tripling the average attendance figures for those games,”

A year after the WCNBL, White Sox pitcher Nate Moreland, an Arkansas native, broke a racial barrier on the heels of Robinson’s début with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947.  A former teammate of Robinson’s at Pasadena Junior College, Moreland became the first black professional baseball player in California when he took the field in May for the El Centro Imperials in the Class C Sunset League.

In 1942, Robinson and Moreland had tried out for the Chicago White Sox at the team’s training camp in Pasadena.  Though they impressed White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes, they didn’t get any further.  Arkbaseball.com notes that the duo had a previous link in southern California—they played on a semi-pro team that won the California championship in 1939.

Moreland also played in:

  • Negro National League
  • Southwest International League
  • Arizona-Texas League
  • Arizona-Mexico League

According to baseball-reference.com, Moreland had a 152-104 record in his career.  Incomplete statistics render difficult a full evaluation of Moreland’s career.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 15, 2016.

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