On Sunday, June 21, 1925, on Ackerman Island, in the part of the Arkansas River that flows through Wichita, Kan., the unlikeliest of baseball games was played. On that day—two decades before the color barrier was broken in Major League Baseball, three decades before Brown v. Board of Education desegregated public schools, and nearly a hundred years before a Minneapolis police officer pinned his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes—the Ku Klux Klan swapped their white robes for baseball uniforms, took the field at Island Park Stadium, and squared off against the all-black Monrovians.
This was the golden age of baseball, the days of Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, and Ty Cobb. The sport, at the time, was ubiquitous. “I think there were probably about sixty organized teams in Wichita at that time playing in various leagues around town,” says Wichita resident and historian Bob Rives. “There were a lot of church teams and civic clubs. Just about any kind of institution with nine people had a baseball team.”
And so, in a city rigidly segregated by Jim Crow, where blacks and whites rarely mixed, the KKK and the Monrovians faced each other in a friendly game of baseball.
The Wichita Beacon, one of the city’s two white-owned newspapers, ran the headline, “Only Baseball is on Tap at Island Park: Klan and Colored Team to Mix on the Diamond Today.” According to the Beacon, “The colored boys are asking all their supporters to be on hand to watch the contest, which besides its peculiar attraction due to the wide differences of the two organizations, should be a well played amateur contest.” Tellingly, the Beacon followed its headline by warning that “strangle holds, razors, horsewhips, and other violent implements of argument will be barred.”
Although the 5000-seat Island Park offered interracial seating for this game, the sport itself was no more integrated than the black and white pieces on a chessboard. So why did such a game take place? For the Monrovians, the game was a payday. For the Klan, the answer is more duplicitous.
In 1925, the Ku Klux Klan was well entrenched in American culture. Many historians estimate that national membership, which peaked during the decade, was as high as six million. The year before the game, Time magazine put the Klan’s Imperial Wizard, Hiram Wesley Evans, on its cover. The following year, the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, addressed a women’s auxiliary of the KKK.
The Klan’s platform, in the words of William Joseph Simmons, the founder of the reborn organization, was: “We believe in the exclusion of the yellow race and in the disfranchisement of the Negro. It was God’s act to make the white race superior to all others.”
Shamefully, the federal government went along for the ride. If anything, it worked to advance the Klan’s agenda. The Immigration Act of 1924, which was the most restrictive policy to date, went after the very people the Klan targeted. Known as the Johnson-Reed Act, it limited the influx of foreigners considered not fully white. Asians, already blocked from entering the country, would continue to be excluded. Italians, under discussion in Congress as to whether those from Italy’s Southern regions were “Negroid,” were reduced from 200,000 to fewer than 4,000.
It should come as no surprise that the following year, 50,000 Klan members proudly paraded through the nation’s capital. In a show of strength and solidarity, they marched 20 abreast along Pennsylvania Avenue for three-plus hours, the organization’s leaders decked out in satin robes, the rank-and-file in white. The Washington Evening Star described the scene as a pageant “of striking beauty and compelling admiration,” and said of the multitude of onlookers, “Men, women and children stood five and six deep to watch. Other thousands occupied windows of office buildings and precarious perches on lofty sills.”
Still, the Klan had an image problem in Kansas. In 1922, Governor Henry Justin Allen had launched a crusade to oust the organization from the state. By early 1925, the State Supreme Court had banned the KKK on the grounds that it had been operating without a state charter. While the decision was on appeal before the US Supreme Court, the Klan was free to continue to operate—and to roll out a full-court press to prove it wasn’t the hate-mongering machine so many feared, but, rather, made up of solid citizens.
The Klan had already used its PR smoke-machine to embed itself into local communities, sponsoring parades, picnics, and beauty contests. It donated money to churches and hospitals. Its members showed up at Christmas parties for orphans, wearing Santa suits and handing out gifts to children. And it backed state and local politicians.
Now, with its case pending in the country’s highest court, it was looking for still more favorable ink—and got wind that the Monrovians were looking for paydays. (In all likelihood, the Klan had been reading the Wichita Eagle, the city’s other white paper. A few weeks before the game, the Eagle wrote that the Monrovians were “open for a game with any team in Kansas.”)
For the white-robed, playing a black team was a gift-wrapped photo op, a chance to show that the Klan was part of the local community—and friendly toward Wichita’s black citizens.
For baseball fans in Kansas, it was a chance to see the Monrovians play. The team had won the Colored Western League pennant in 1922, the one and only year the league existed. The following year, with no league left to champion, the Monrovians continued as an independent team, scratching together a living by playing any game that came with a paying audience.
The Klan’s Chapter No. 6 took the challenge—and to show that the game would be an above-board contest, it hired Catholic umpires. Bob Rives has his suspicions about the choice. “I think the Klan was fearful that it would lose, and if it lost, it would be considered inferior to the black team. And so they announced in advance that the two umpires would be Irish Catholics. The Klan in Kansas then was at least as anti-Catholic as it was anti-black. My opinion is that they were paving the way to be able to say, well, we really didn’t lose. Look at who the umpires were.”
It turned out it didn’t matter. The Eagle described the affair as the “best attended and most interesting game in Wichita” that day, a seesaw battle that began as a pitcher’s duel and ended in a flurry of runs. Bigotry lost the game, 10-8, and it also lost the bigger prize: The Klan was evicted from Kansas two years later, when the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
But the battle rages on—and we see the same kind of PR stunts today. After a number of police officers took a knee alongside recent civil rights protesters, at least one disavowed his actions by writing an apology letter to his fellow officers. So when watching those in power appease protestors, we should remember that even the KKK played ball with an all-black team.