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What I learned from Negro League Baseball

Along with the great personal milestone of marriage, it has been a hectic, life-changing and value-added summer and fall for me and Progress Strategies+ work. During that time I have enjoyed reading reply messages to the

ProgressPeeps blog entries.

Based on some questions about why I started my company and what I am learning, I will have a regular feature titled “What I learned from…….” Client projects and other issues will still be highlighted. “What I learned from…..” will briefly share business and social impact motivations that may be helpful.

To that end, I would like to share "What I learned from Negro League Baseball." This is based on a variety of questions I am asked merged into this query: “What motivated you to start your own business? How has that motivation helped you?”

I enjoyed my young baseball playing days. The experience was as unforgettable as the names of teams I played for like the Silverfish, Bumblebees, and Beetles. Towards junior high I stopped playing baseball but stayed a fan. I would later become a fan and fledging student of Negro League Baseball.

Reynolds and Sons Sporting Goods in Grand Rapids, Michigan was my second high school job. They sold a small inventory of replica Negro League Baseball apparel that helped keep me busy in sales. I was also motivated to take time after work to study the link between this league and economics.

Some of my favorite teams—most of which I have among my hat collection today—became my teachers of grassroots finance and social responsibility. Among my team favorites are the original Baltimore Black Sox, Homestead Grays, Saint Louis Stars, New York Black Yankees and Birmingham Black Barons. These teams and many more were formed and owned by individuals ranging from groups of excluded athletes of color to the highest-paid African-American performer of the 1930s, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.

I started out with the interest in great game play, scores and creative team names. After learning for the first time about the concept of entrepreneurship, I began to read books on the side narratives of gate receipts, team management, business risks and selling of athletic services among men that were excluded and not expected to do much simply because of their race.

A new world opened up to me of how Negro League Baseball teams in various cities formed entrepreneurial ecosystems, local economies and systems of self-reliance in the face of discrimination. From this history and what it means for economic security and respect for those who made sacrifices before me, I knew it was my obligation to one day attempt to start my own business merging profit and social responsibility.

Now today I can share what Negro League Baseball has taught me:

1. Opposition can be opportunity: Negro League Baseball pioneers endured opposition before the league was formed. The league was formed specifically because those players were not allowed to play en masse with or against their white counterparts. Even when black players were sometimes invited to bring their skills to an uncertain market and play within integrated settings, the players often faced opposition immediately when arriving on the field.

On any given week in the late 1880’s Moses Fleetwood Walker of the Toledo Blue Stockings would face the intolerance from the famous Cap Anson. Anytime that Walker was in the starting lineup, Anson would refuse to take the field and play against Walker. Walker’s journey was indicative of such actions experienced by African-American players throughout the country. However, instead of permanent bitterness, a new generation of men used these experiences as fuel to create a “League of Their Own.”

Lesson: When I started my own work and had my first client before the full project management service model, Progress Strategies+ name and brand, I faced an opponent. This individual provided me a litany of reasons why my endeavor would not be successful. He was an opponent by the literal meaning: An action of opposing, resisting, or combating. Like conflict, opposition can be positive but at its most negative it goes beyond someone being a contrarian to having hostility.

I sat quietly and heard all that he said could not be done and tested his complaints against my service processes. I slightly changed one of my processes. That process enhancement has remained a key, productive and successful approach for a client. The point that I learned from the baseball pioneers is that if you keep to your dream, product, asset and vision while standing firm in the face of opposition, you can often make opposition into an opportunity. At the least, just let opponents talk because they may give something away!

2. Patience and perseverance must keep pace with pride in your work: Jackie Robinson persevered and tended to his craft of controlled but aggressive athleticism for many years before the Negro Leagues and his 10 years in the Major League Baseball (MLB). During and after his collegiate football career at UCLA he kept honing his intellect and multi-faceted athleticism that would take him into one of the three career lanes of military, football or baseball. He could have easily abandoned all of them in the face of the racism he encountered in the U.S. Army or slights experienced playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.

He was confident in his abilities and the talent he offered to an array of industries. He kept cultivating those talents at every detour or bump that otherwise could have been a stop. His play matched his patience for the payoff. On August 28, 1945, Jackie Robinson met with Brooklyn Dodgers Owner Branch Rickey who gave him the ‘test’ that would take him into the MLB that he changed forever.

Lesson: Jackie Robinson was a proud man who was proud of his God-given ability supported by the vision to play in the major leagues. Throughout his time and tenure people told him why his goal would not work and how the odds were stacked against him. As I mentioned, I still encounter the cynics and challenges. What keeps me moving is partially the pride and self-realization that I have a good service to provide.

I believe in my service just as Jackie believed in his swing. At the same time I put time, experience and resources to make my work perform as high as the pride I have in it. Hone your skills at a higher level than what you believe in---and do it daily. Your skills, vision and talents are yours. Never quit refining them for the day that they are ready. Never quit.

3. Diversify: Negro League players and player/owners revealed much to me about having a core business area plus other essential products, services, enterprises, etc. to utilize one’s full set of skills and maximize impact and profit. Because of the need of supplemental income and more profits/investments that would be returned to their teams, Negro League Baseball was strengthened by other profit areas. Like owners, players also worked in entertainment and many areas. Robert A. Cole was the owner of the Chicago American Giants ball club. Mr. Cole also founded the Metropolitan Mutual Assurance Company. That company was one of the largest black-owned insurance companies that owned and secured entertainment venues----venues that grew when ballgames came to towns. I would also assume Mr. Cole’s company probably underwrote a healthy degree of player policies.

Lesson: This was a great example to me for having different—but interrelated and integrated---units under one entity not just to have ‘many fingers in many pots’ but project areas that create, cultivate and support others areas. It is not paying homage to the likes of Mr. Cole, but actually following a great lesson that serves as one of a few reasons that the + in Progress Strategies+ means one project business area plus other specialized areas. If it is sound in the business model along with being done right, it is good to have more than a few things going on.

4. Social and economic impact for others can coexist with profit: Negro League Baseball Players worked under long and rough hours in the barnstorming traveling of back-to-back games from city-to-city. They also had secondary jobs and/or a combination of jobs such as owner/player/groundskeeper! Like an entrepreneur’s vision they kept to those jobs, hours and travel because of the love of the game. They also believed the market would indeed pay them for their great play. The individual focus to play, win and make money did more than serve them. Forming, playing and profiting within a self-sufficient baseball league with high-quality games created a need of black designated hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, ballrooms, barrooms and barbershops. Those were welcoming places for performers, players, and their audiences. Those were places that made profits for people in league cities.

Lesson: The league’s founders and players served and paid Jackie Robinson and countless others who honed their skills towards new heights. Andrew “Rube” Foster was one of the best pitchers in baseball (once having a seven game stretch where he averaged 11 strikeouts), ball manager and team executive of the Chicago American Giants. His ability to make a living for himself added with his ability to seek out talented players to win pennants, improve their performance and manage them resulted in good economic and social outcomes for himself and others within and outside of Negro League Baseball.

I learned that having a business model that provides services for institutional profit and social progress defined by myself and the client could coexist. A free market and good mission can connect with each other and serve as a great tool to help change issues and institutions for the better.

5. Keep your head up---and everything else---during the inevitable setback: Satchel Paige’s storied career with a variety of teams in the Cuban League to the Kansas City Monarchs experienced a disappointing halt. The golden pitching arm he leased out to many teams and leagues that once produced 144 strikeouts and only 26 walks in 1934 was experiencing pain. He would be unemployed five years later and could not secure a job as a manager or coach. He took an offer outside of the Negro American League and played for a second-string team. He made the most of the time and opportunity, and regained his fastball. With treatment, self-care and playing other positions that relaxed his arm, Paige got back his ‘groove’ and returned to playing for major Negro League teams such as the New York Black Yankees.

Lesson: Paige had a constant determination for returning to baseball and playing with the best. What I appreciate and try hard to emulate is the series of activities such as taking care of his core business (arm) amid trials and tribulations. Also, I have become a better adherent of self-care and relax time.

At the same time, when the market and times are challenging I keep my head and eyes up toward the promise and prize. At bat and at the pitch Paige prepared that way. I learned to do the same because the opportunities of the market, needs of a client, and the challenges to successfully solve a problem that can benefit customers, consumers and communities will always be there. But you will miss them if you are looking down.

Playball everybody!

Eric K. Foster, a social entrepreneur, is Principal of Progress Strategies+, a project management firm. While his business motivations, life lessons and positive attitude can be derived from Negro League Baseball and baseball in general, he can no longer hit homeruns blindfolded every time at bat.

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