Beating the KKK, giving back and more: Wichita’s 1st all-Black baseball team was ahead of its time

The Wichita Monrovians existed in a time where historical records about their achievements weren’t kept, but their legacy endures thanks to a victory over hate
The Wichita Monrovians existed in a time where historical records about their achievements weren’t kept, but their legacy endures thanks to a victory over hate.
Published: Aug. 3, 2023 at 10:05 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - This isn’t one of those stories that builds to a dramatic moment by appealing to the senses.

There’s no smell of freshly cut grass. No bright sun shining against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. No powerful feeling of an entire community uniting against an antagonistic force. No sound of a baseball skidding across the dirt as a capacity crowd cheers in unison.

The list of what we don’t know about the baseball game between the all-Black Wichita Monrovians and Ku Klux Klan No. 6, held at Wichita’s Island Park on June 21, 1925, is longer than the list of what we do.

Nearly 100 years later, we can imagine ourselves there. But, due to a conspicuous lack of historical record about the game, or even many of the people who played in it, we can’t feel what they felt. We can’t hear what they heard or see what they saw.

What endures, though, after nearly a century, is a victory on the field for the Monrovians against a racist organization quickly becoming obsolete in Kansas – and a triumph over hate.

“It was a community that was together,” said Brad Richards, outreach director for the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita. “But they had to go against different things – racial tension, discrimination. African Americans didn’t have access to certain movie theaters, certain restaurants, or even opportunities of education and employment.

“But African Americans continued to persevere, and through the story of the Monrovians serving their community, they really just tried to be a light in the darkness of that time.”

Baseball display at the Kansas African American Museum.
Baseball display at the Kansas African American Museum.(KWCH)

A brief history

If you’ve never heard of the Monrovians, you’re not alone. Even though they were the first All-Black team in Wichita, they aren’t regularly mentioned in conversations including the Wranglers, Aeros, or even the Monrovians’ 1920s contemporaries the Jobbers and the Witches.

Originally the Black Wonders, club president J.M. Booker changed their name to the Monrovians after the capital of Liberia.

They played in the Colored Western League in 1922, with a reported record of 52 wins in their first 60 games. When that league folded after a year, the Monrovians kept going as a barnstorming team that would take on all comers.

The Monrovians weren’t just a flash in the pan, either. Though many of their accomplishments are lost to history, Black baseball was difficult to sustain and the Monrovians lasted longer than most. They produced three players who played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League – Thomas Jefferson Young, Newt Joseph and Andy Cooper.

They also pulled off the unheard-of feat of purchasing their own ballpark, Monrovian Park, at 12th and Mosley in 1922.

“I think they actually proved pretty resilient,” said Brian Carroll, a professor in Georgia and historian who wrote extensively about the Monrovians-KKK game for the 2008 Baseball Research Journal. “To run a Black ballclub in that period was impossible.

“…The fact that they lasted as long as they did is remarkable. I think the question is how did they last so long in an environment that was so hostile to black-owned baseball ventures, generally speaking.”

A history of the Monrovians from the Kansas African American Museum.
A history of the Monrovians from the Kansas African American Museum.(KWCH)

Bigger than baseball

That’s the “who,” but what about the “why?”

Why did the Monrovians exist?

Considering their legacy is a win over the KKK, it’s probably not a surprise to learn that, from all indications, the Monrovians understood their importance extended beyond the diamond.

Yes, they played to make money and to advance as far in baseball as they could – which, at that time, was only to the Negro National League. Major League Baseball would not be integrated until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

But they also played to advance the causes of their race. Proceeds from their games went to Black-owned businesses, most notably to Phyllis Wheatley’s Childrens Home.

“Even just talking about this history just shows what people have done in this community,” Richards said. “Examples of entrepreneurship, community, collectiveness. Not just from organizations that are known; there are people who may forever go unmentioned that have been putting in work in their respective communities.

“Highlighting the stories of the Monrovians and keeping that history alive, not only does it keep people educated, but it empowers our community to know that there were teams like the Monrovians and other teams who were invested in their community. Not just from a form of entertainment, but economically.”

And at their core, the Monrovians played just to play. They stayed home at Monrovian Park, and they traveled around the region to play anyone who agreed to a game. There was literally – as evidenced by the game against a hate group – no discrimination.

They were pretty good, too.

“At their peak they certainly were the best Black team,” said Bob Rives, who wrote the book Baseball in Wichita. “They had an outstanding record against white teams when they played. (Three) of their members went on to play for the Kansas City Monarchs, so they had a high level of talent.”

An agreement between the Monrovians and their league on display at Riverfront Stadium.
An agreement between the Monrovians and their league on display at Riverfront Stadium.(KWCH)

Here for the game

There’s another “why” that’s important to the story of the Monrovians: Why did they agree to play the KKK? Like many other aspects of the Monrovians and their legacy game, we don’t really know.

On the surface, it looks like a favor. The Ku Klux Klan was in danger of losing its charter in Kansas, which it would in the same month as the game, and a gubernatorial candidate and writer, William Allen White, was outspoken in his belief that the group had no place in the state.

The KKK was looking for any good publicity and an image repair to help reestablish its future in Kansas and in Wichita, where it had about 5,000 members at the time.

We can be assured, though, that the Monrovians had no concern for the destiny of the KKK.

“It was an Oklahoma-based Klan guy who drove into Wichita and just sort of planned the event,” Carroll said. “It really was just a gimmick for the Klan and then just another game for the Monrovians. Based on coming off the tour and the dissolution of the Colored Western League, they really just needed playing dates, they needed a ticket.

“I think the explanation of “why” is actually pretty mundane, but what a neat snow globe to shake up – 1925 in Wichita.”

A display dedicated to Thomas Jefferson "T-Baby" Young, who played for the Monrovians.
A display dedicated to Thomas Jefferson "T-Baby" Young, who played for the Monrovians.(KWCH)

The good fight

The Monrovians won the game just by showing up. The Ku Klux Klan lost simply by existing. Then the Monrovians won on the field, too, turning an early pitchers’ duel into a late-inning slugfest in a 10-8 victory.

No box score exists. The newspaper the next day had a short recap, likely sent in by Monrovians manager Lascelle Dortch, which was standard practice at the time. Otherwise, the game was little more than a blip on the radar.

Reading what little is available about it nearly 100 years later paints a colorful, almost whimsical picture, though the threat of violence was real at the time. Strangle holds, razors, horsewhips and “other violent implements of argument” were banned from Island Park, a city-owned field where interracial activities were permitted, according to the Wichita Beacon.

The umpires were World War I veterans W.W. “Irish” Garrety and Dan Dwyer, which was seen as a compromise because they were Irish Catholics, a group targeted by the KKK. They were instructed to call an automatic out on any player who attempted to bat with a cross.

The game was played in 102-degree heat, accompanied by searing winds, and in front of a “good-size crowd,” according to the following day’s report. There is no record of the KKK No. 6 team existing prior to the game against the Monrovians – or after it.

And that’s what we know.

“Black baseball was simply almost not covered at all by the mainstream media,” Rives said. “Which basically was the Eagle and the Beacon at that time (in Wichita). But the Black media didn’t cover it, either. What would typically be the main part of the historical record just doesn’t exist.

“The fact that the team was organized to play on the road much of the time, the fact that it was headquartered in a part of town that was all torn down to make way for the courthouse, also probably got rid of many of the records for the baseball team.”

Wind Surge players Tanner Schobel, DaShawn Keirsey and Regi Grace don the Monrovians jerseys.
Wind Surge players Tanner Schobel, DaShawn Keirsey and Regi Grace don the Monrovians jerseys.(KWCH)

We can only imagine

So what do we do with history that is almost lost?

Baseball historians like Carroll and Rives, Richards and the Kansas African American Museum, and the Wichita Wind Surge are trying to keep it alive.

On Saturday, the Wind Surge uniforms will pay homage to the Monrovians, and Richards has spearheaded a documentary about the team that will be shown on the video board at Riverfront Stadium after Saturday’s game.

The Wind Surge tribute is part of The Nine, a Minor League Baseball initiative that celebrates Black baseball pioneers. It’s named for the uniform number Jackie Robinson wore for the Triple-A Montreal Royals in 1946.

“The first thing you have to do when you move to a new city is you have to learn the history,” said Wind Surge general manager Bob Moullette, who moved to Wichita when the New Orleans Baby Cakes relocated here in 2020. “Learning about baseball and the rich history that it had, the Monrovians story had come up and it was very intriguing.”

The legacy of the Monrovians is one built around mystique, about the unknown. So little has been found about their existence that we must rely on our imaginations to fill the gaps – because we can’t rely on our senses.

The mystique and aura grow with what we know, but they truly come to life because of what we’ve lost with time.

“This was a good team,” Carroll said. “I would love to know so much more about, well, everything. Who these guys were and what did they do in their day jobs. And the Monrovian Park, one of the few parks in the country owned by Blacks for Blacks. I’d love to know more about that.

“We need to know more.”