An announcement late last year casts Iowa’s baseball history in a new light. Commissioner Rob Manfred announced in December that Major League Baseball was elevating the Negro Leagues that operated from 1920 to 1948 to “Major League” status.
The announcement meant that current baseball officials now consider the about 3,400 Negro Leagues players during the designated era as major league-caliber ballplayers, and that the statistics and records of these players will become a part of Major League Baseball’s history.
“It puts them on par with other major leaguers,” said John Pregler, a baseball historian from Dubuque. “It allows their stats to be included in Major League stats, and it also opens up all of those players to be eligible for the Hall of Fame. It helps balance out the playing field from a historical perspective.”
As the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox prepare to play a major league game at a ballpark adjacent to the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville, Pregler said the Negro Leagues announcement also provides a new distinction on a baseball game played 83 years ago in Des Moines.
The game between the Kansas City Monarchs and Chicago American Giants of the Negro American League played on July 28, 1938, at Des Moines’ League Park was considered a regular league contest and counted in the official standings.
The means the upcoming White Sox-Yankees game — which at the time of its announcement in August 2019 was billed as “the first-ever major league game in the Hawkeye State” — will not actually hold that distinction.
“The matchup between the White Sox and Yankees is no less historic — it is just not the first major league regular-season game to take place in Iowa,” Pregler commented. “Out of respect to history and to the Negro Leagues, this clarification is warranted.”
Phil S. Dixon, a baseball historian, author and co-founder of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, said the Monarchs were accustomed to playing in Iowa.
“The Monarchs visited Iowa a lot in the ’30s because of Ray L. Doan, a promoter based in Muscatine,” he said. “The Monarchs played in Iowa many, many times.”
Dixon said the Monarchs embarked on a tour in July 1938 that included Sioux City, Iowa; Fargo and Bismarck, N.D.; and the Canadian cities of Winnipeg, Brandon and Estevan.
“A lot of times, they stepped outside the (Negro American League), and they would play the Western (minor) League,” Dixon said.
Dixon, who discussed the Monarchs during a presentation in 2018 at Dubuque’s Carnegie-Stout Public Library, said the Monarchs and Giants were among the leading Black teams when they met in 1938 at Des Moines.
“The Monarchs lost the first half (of the split season) to Memphis, and they lost the second half to the Atlanta Black Crackers,” he said.
The Monarchs did finish the two-halved season with the best combined record, however, with 45 wins, 25 losses and a tie.
Sec Taylor, who spent more than 50 years writing about sports in the Des Moines Register, detailed the Monarchs-Giants game in a contemporary column.
Taylor wrote that the two teams were vying for first place in the league heading into the game. The Giants’ 11-4 victory in Des Moines enabled Chicago to maintain a narrow lead in the standings.
Taylor reported that 1,500 “enthusiastic” fans watched the contest, which featured a pair of triples by Alex Radcliff. A 32-year-old native of Alabama, Radcliff socked five triples in 1938.
Taylor wrote that the Monarchs were hampered by the absence of two regulars: right fielder Ed Mayweather and second baseman Newt Allen.
“Allen was missing due to ulcers,” Dixon said. “Mayweather was injured because he and Willard Brown collided in the outfield in a game against Memphis on the Fourth of July.”
Taylor reported that the Monarchs were never in the running after the third inning of the Des Moines game. Joe Sparks and Billy Horne homered for the Giants.
Dixon said several notable athletes took the field that day in Des Moines. Manager Andy Cooper and Willard Brown are members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“(Pitcher) Buster Marcum pitched the first modern-day no-hitter at night, in 1930 in Texas,” Dixon said. “(Outfielder) Henry Milton was an eighth of a second off the record in the 100-yard dash in the Tuskegee (Ala.) relays in 1930.”
Pregler is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, an organization of historians devoted to expanding knowledge of the game.
He said Dubuque has had a lengthy history of Black baseball.
“We had Black teams playing White teams as far back as 1879, and nonprofessional Black city teams in the 1880s,” he said.
Dubuque boasted an integrated team in 1894, and Hall of Famer Satchel Paige pitched in Dubuque both before and after he played for the Cleveland Indians.
“We have a tremendous amount of positive Black history with baseball,” Pregler said.