The Tenacity of Phil Dixon
The 60-year-old historian is on a mission to improve race relations by keeping the story of the Negro Leagues alive.
Long before the recent escalation of tensions between police officers and members of the black community, Kansas City area resident Phil Dixon felt something needed to be done to improve race relations, and he decided he was the one to do it.
That was in 1981, 35 years ago. He set out from his home and began telling the story of the Kansas City Monarchs baseball to anyone who would listen. He has never stopped. “I felt race relations were deteriorating,” he says. “I wanted to do something about that. I wanted to make my own personal contribution, and I’ve done a pretty good job of it.”
The Monarchs, a charter member of the Negro National League, haven’t played for more than a half-century, but they come back to life 50 or more times each year when Dixon puts on a Monarchs cap and jersey and goes out to tell their story.
As a lifelong Kansas City area resident, Dixon grew up living alongside many of the Monarchs players. The team was founded in 1920, when black players were excluded from playing organized baseball. Born in the ‘50s, Dixon had an interest in the team for as long as he can remember.
“They were such an interesting team from the start,” Dixon says, “with Bullet Rogan and, a little later, Cool Papa Bell. I grew up around some of these players and got to know them. Eddie Dwight of the Monarchs lived in back of us on the next block.”
Initially, Dixon, 60, drew up a map with the name of virtually every town within a 100-mile radius of Kansas City so he could go to his destination, speak and return home the same night. He arranged his engagements with letters, phone calls and later, emails.
“I could go to places in Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska and still get home the same day,” he says. “I had no funding. People might have thought I was making a bundle, but I didn’t make a dime. It was a labor of love, and it still is.”
He doesn’t limit his engagements to small towns any longer. Dixon has spoken in Detroit, Houston, Boston, Chicago and St. Louis.
A recent incident reminded him of the importance of his message: “There was a series of Tweets from some Tea Party type who was always posting anti-Obama stuff, but one day he wrote, ‘If you ever get a chance to hear Phil Dixon speak on baseball, drop everything and go see him.’ When I saw that, I knew I had to keep on going.”
Dixon, who is black, doesn’t limit his comments to the Monarchs. “It’s not just black baseball, it’s all ethnicities,” he says. “The black teams would frequently travel throughout the Midwest and play town teams that were exclusively white. The great game of baseball includes everyone.”
His interest in baseball and in writing dates back to the seventh grade; one of his teachers was a fan and introduced him to the game. Another was an English teacher who pointed out to him that he could combine his interest in baseball with his interest in writing.
Two years ago, he began a campaign to speak in 90 towns and cities where the Monarchs had played in 1924, 90 years earlier, when they won the first Negro League World Series. The pilgrimage took him nearly two years. He covered 14 states and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. “I went up through Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota and Saskatchewan,” he says. “Just the same way the Monarchs had.” In Rossville, Kansas, he found the ballpark where the Monarchs had played in 1925. “It was still intact,” he says. “There are probably more of them than most people would have thought.”
In Junction City, Kansas, where the Monarchs had played a white team that included Cleveland Indians pitching great Bob Feller, he discovered that the park where the Monarchs had played, Rathert Stadium, was also still intact. “I always take a camera with me,” he says. “One year, I took 10,000 photos.”
He has high praise for J.L. Wilkinson, the owner of the Monarchs now in the Hall of Fame. “By 1930, he had created light towers he could take on trucks and allow for night games,” he says. “Ban Johnson, the former president of the American League, called it a fad that would never last, but it revolutionized baseball everywhere.”
Wilkinson also made the decision to take the Monarchs beyond Kansas City to reach a larger audience. “He went as far as the Pacific Coast,” Dixon says. “Portland, Washington, Idaho, up to Saskatchewan and Alberta, down to Mexico. This was a time when racial divide could be pretty tough, but the Monarchs were welcomed everywhere.”
Dixon speaks in city halls, churches, former train depots that now serve as museums and at historical societies that meet in what used to be banks. He once drew a crowd of 500 students at an Indianapolis college. “I try to differ the program for schools,” he says. “I try for more audience participation.
“And it’s not all baseball. We blend in a lot of historical material that ties into baseball. That has worked well. People have told me, ‘I don’t like baseball, but I’m glad I came.’ I listen to the people and try to give them what they want. I truly love what I’m doing.”
He tailors each presentation for the audience. “If I’m in Spring Valley, Illinois,” he says, “I’m going to talk about Spring Valley. If I’m in Sioux Falls, I’m going to talk about Sioux Falls. I might talk about the times the Monarchs played the House of David. They played lots of games against each other.”
The House of David was a Michigan-based religious group known for, among other things, its semi-pro baseball team. The men wore full beards as required by their religion. They crisscrossed the Midwest from the 1920s to the 1940s, playing minor league, town teams and Negro League clubs.
“I’ll talk to kids who know who Ronald Reagan was, but they have no idea he once portrayed [Hall of Fame pitcher] Grover Cleveland Alexander,” Dixon says. “I talk about ballplayers who came from their community but have been forgotten. I was in Concordia, Kansas, and I got a call later from a lady who said, ‘You were talking about Chet Titus. He was my dad.’ She lived in Carthage, Missouri. She brought her family to Kansas City, we went to dinner, and she pulled out pictures of her dad. If I don’t go to Concordia, this never happens. It’s most rewarding. It lets me keep these names alive for another generation. Around the same time, I met a former ballplayer who played against the Monarchs in 1939. I’ve even met people who caught Satchel Paige.
“If I don’t go on these tours, lots of old-time ballplayers are forgotten forever,” he says. “It’s sad, but ordinary people don’t know anything about any of this. I can go 100 miles out of Kansas City, and most people have never heard of the Monarchs.”
When Dixon wrapped up the 90-city tour, he said he wasn’t sure what to do next. “A pastor told me, God will tell you what to do,” he says.
What followed was an even greater challenge. He decided to begin a 108-city tour to honor the nation’s 108 historically black colleges and universities. He has a personal interest in the subject. His youngest son is a senior at Fisk University in Nashvillle, Tennessee. His daughter graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and his other son graduated from Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma.
He started this tour in May and returns to Kansas City between legs of the program. He publicizes his upcoming appearances with emails to radio stations, newspapers and historical societies; and posts on his Facebook page, Negro League Author Phil S. Dixon. “The newspapers do a real good job,” he says. “I do radio programs before the appearances and then of course historical society people have their mailing lists.”
He described a recent visit to Winfield, Kansas, a town of about 12,000. “I got there early and decided I’d go downtown and walk around,” he says. “Every store had a flier with my appearance on it. I had an overflow crowd.”
He recently returned from McCracken, Kansas, which has a population of 190. “There was a former ballplayer there,” Dixon says, “who was the last surviving member of a local team that had played the Monarchs in 1950. There were at least 40 people at my appearance out of a population of less than 200.” That former ballplayer was Wilfred “Hoop” Higgins, 90, who was second baseman for the McCracken Boosters team. “We had a pretty good team,” Higgins said in a recent telephone interview, “but playing against them [the Monarchs], we didn’t have a chance.”
Of Dixon, Higgins says, “He gave a real nice talk. He’s very interesting, and he’s up on everything. He found out the Monarchs had played here, and that’s why he spoke here. There must be a lot of people here, but there would have been more if people had known he was coming,” Higgins says.
“Dixon gave a fantastic show,” says Ruth Crawshaw, director of the McCracken Public Library. “He did a good job. He spoke, showed photos and old newspaper clippings and answered questions from the crowd. People from outside the community came, too. He knows what he’s talking about. I had seen him in a nearby library — I think he was coming back from Colorado — and I asked him to speak to us.” He said, ‘I think I could do that.’”
Another supporter is Leslie Von Holten, director of programs at the Kansas Humanities Council. She says his presentation “is fun and fascinating for audiences because he takes the time to research the experiences of the Monarchs in town and around each host community. This is a nice personal touch.” She says Dixon “…has presented his talk to 26 area communities so far. His talk not only features his deep knowledge of baseball, but also items from the era such as jerseys, bats and player cards for audiences to see in real life. This makes for an enriching experience. He goes above and beyond in the communities he visits.”
Von Holten cited a 2015 incident in which Dixon, following a presentation, went to a nursing home to visit Jack Haller, a former ballplayer who had a contract with the New York Yankees that was cut short by Word War II. After the war, he returned to Kansas where he coached and played semi-pro ball. Less than two weeks after Dixon visited him, Haller died. Lori Parker of the Blue Rapids Historical Society said of the visit, “For a short while, the two visited about baseball, about coaching, about baseball’s greatest players. Dixon didn’t have to, but he did, and it made all the difference in a man’s final days.”
Even though Dixon has been speaking publicly since 1981, he still updates his appearances with research. “I usually speak between 45 minutes and an hour,” he says. “When I went to McCracken, I didn’t have any record of the Monarchs having played there, but I’m always learning things. A librarian told me the Monarchs had scheduled a game against a team from McCracken, but they moved it 10 miles down the road because it had rained in McCracken and hadn’t in the other town. That’s information I wouldn’t have had.
“Another time, Jimmy Gleeson [ex-Chicago Cubs outfielder] told me he had played against the Monarchs in Leavenworth, Kansas, and that it was a night game. The Monarchs carried their own portable lighting equipment with them so they could play at night. I discovered it was the first night game played in Leavenworth. That’s why my research continues.”
When Dixon was a child, he began collecting baseball cards, a collection that at one point numbered 100,000 and is still “about half that,” he says. He has thousands of historical photos, more than he can estimate, but recalls that he used more than 600 in his book, The Negro Baseball Leagues: A Photographic History. He has written eight books on Negro League baseball.
He played baseball in high school but gave it up because “I was also a musician. I was a trumpet player in some local bands in the late 1970s,” he says. “I’d like to play the national anthem on the trumpet in my programs, but that hasn’t happened yet.” Many people who once collected baseball cards but stopped, gain a renewed interest in their collection after hearing him speak, Dixon says.
He’s still adding destinations to his list. “I just came back from Colorado for the first time,” he says, “and I’m going to Mississippi, also for the first time. Doing this has all been rewarding. All the things I’ve learned in life truly are fascinating.”
After high school, he graduated with a liberal arts degree from the University of Missouri – Kansas City. He began coaching youth baseball and spent 35 years as a coach and volunteer, much of that time with Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), a major-league-sponsored program that promotes the game in urban areas.
Along the way, he began writing, selling an article on James “Cool Papa” Bell to The St. Louis American newspaper. “I knew Cool Papa Bell very well,” he says. “I have pictures of him with my son and daughter. I knew Buck O’Neil and Chet Brewer [both of whom starred with the Monarchs for many years] very well. I can tell you that the Monarchs sent 17 players — more than any other team — to the major leagues.”
The Monarchs operated for 45 years before disbanding in 1965, by which time the major leagues had become integrated. Among the best-known stars who played for them were Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Joe Rogan and Ernie Banks, today all members of the Hall of Fame.
In 1990, Dixon and O’Neil, along with several other former players and fans, founded the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, now a major attraction in Kansas City. O’Neil remained an executive with the museum until his death in 2006.
There are many pictures of Dixon on his Facebook page, but few of his wife, Kerry. “My wife is rarely in them because she’s taking the pictures,” Dixon says. “She’s the brains of the family.” The family lives in Belton, Missouri, a Kansas City suburb. He is a licensed agent for Lockton Companies, an insurance firm.
With the Monarchs long since gone, Dixon follows the Kansas City Royals and says he encourages others to follow the game. He recently appeared in Joplin, Missouri, where, speaking of the societal causes that made the Negro Leagues necessary, he told reporter Jim Henry: “The interaction that the black ballplayers and the white ballplayers had and the positive aspects of that, so much good came out of that — even in the worst conditions socially at that time. Because of that, you can watch a baseball game today with players from all over the world, and the Monarchs had a little role in that.”