The Kings of Casino Park: Black Baseball In the Lost Season of 1932
The Monroe, Louisiana, Monarchs played one “major” league season in the usually-minor Negro Southern League (NSL). The Depression had cleared the Southern’s competition in 1932, giving the league a status it had never before enjoyed. The Monarchs hustled and cajoled their way into the NSL, and though they played in the smallest and most racially stifling environment in the major Negro Leagues, the team reached the Negro World Series—the first southern team, white or black, to reach a major league baseball championship. Its success alienated many in the baseball establishment, however, and the team reverted to minor league play the following season. The team and its 1932 successes have since drifted from black baseball’s historiography, but the team and season were integral to the creation of the new, more successful Negro National League the following year, and thus the Negro Leagues as now known.
Black baseball in the South was different from its northern counterpart, largely because of the Jim Crow atmosphere that surrounded it. And Monroe seemed to exhibit all the worst traits of that atmosphere in the early decades of the twentieth century. The hub of the cotton-farming parishes of northeast Louisiana had all of the racial codes and mores of other small Deep South cities. Its history of racial violence led one New Orleans newspaper to dub it “the lynch law center of Louisiana.” Monroe’s residents, black and white, limped into 1932 under the weight of depression and a disastrous winter flood. When baseball season started in the aftermath of both, interracial contact and black community development seemed unlikely. But sports mattered. In the face of losses to economic, environmental, and racial opponents, winning mattered. Black Monroe valued sport so much that crime rates fell with the Monarchs’ success in 1932. The team’s success contributed to the birth and high sales of a local black newspaper. And social contact between black and white citizens increased as more and more people of both races attended the ballpark.
The team managed to last from 1930 to 1936 within a segregated society many attempted to avoid. It helped shape Monroe in both black and white communities. It gave the black population a sort of cultural currency that is hard to measure but demonstrable in its success throughout the second half of 1932. It gave the white community a new definition of civic pride, one that included the successes of its black counterpart.
The team didn’t create some sort of utopia for blacks in an otherwise depression-era Jim Crow state. They weren’t exceptions to the entire realm of Jim Crow. They created, for the duration of one remarkably successful season, an exception to Monroe’s race relations. The representation of the black population in Monroe’s mainstream white dailies improved. Those same white dailies published accounts of the Monarchs’ games, printed their advertising, and aimed that advertising at white readers. As the team continued to win, as many as half of the grandstand seats at Casino Park—located on the edge of town in Monroe’s “Booker T. Washington” district—were reserved for white patrons. Winning baseball created a willingness on the part of whites to interact with the black community in ways they hadn’t before.
This culture-changing power of a baseball team demonstrates the importance of sport in cultural and social history. That importance comes not from community pride or other clichés that references to sport (and particularly references to black baseball) fall into. Black southerners cared about sports very deeply, and white Southerners, at times, cared about black sports too. This was one of those times. The positive self-identity associated with winning trumped (in part) white Monroe’s positive self-identity associated with being white. The intersection of white and black in 1932 Monroe, Louisiana, demonstrates that success in sport—even in the Deep South—could alter the power of race.