According to the Boston Globe, pitcher Ben Henderson may be the first individual to have used the word jazz. An April 2, 1912, headline says so. Different dictionaries, such as Webster’s Third and The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, furnish alternate etymologies: TCOED places the first use in 1909; Webster’s has its own funky (and wagnalls) origins and meanings.
In Right Off the Bat, Martin and I recount something of the historic relationship between baseball and race. (We touch on music and baseball, but only to the degree that the sport inspired a couple of memorable songs, mainly about legendary players.) The story is well known; and not writing a history but more of an appreciation, there was no attempt to belabor it.
If the Civil War marked a sea-change (a term from The Tempest) in race relations within American society, the struggle continued in baseball till Jackie Robinson took a big-league field, and still (sadly, in baseball as in life) continues. As the United States healed and grew, baseball became the National Pastime. There are complex, prismatic reasons for this, but whatever each of them may be, such is a truism.
Henderson was white, using a term that was not generally part of “a white vocabulary” one-hundred years ago. Of course since then, Africa and African-Americans have much to do with the music (and dance and literature and film and the general culture) enjoyed by a good portion of the world, of which jazz is a kind of cynosure or essence.
On this centennial (in a couple of days) of the use of the word jazz, as well as the recent one-hundredth anniversary (November 13, 2011) of the birth of legendary Buck O’Neil, I present the list of greatest Negro Leagues players as compiled in a recent issue of the Sporting News. Catcher: Josh Gibson (who may or may not be the only player to have hit a fair ball clear out of the old Yankee Stadium, during an exhibition). First Base: Buck Leonard. Second Base: Newt Allen. Third Base: Ray Dandridge. Shortstop: Willie Wells. Outfielder: Turkey Stearnes. Outfielder: Oscar Charleston. Outfielder: James “Cool Papa” Bell. Right-handed Pitcher: Satchel Paige. Left-handed Pitcher: Willie Foster. Manager: C.I. Taylor. The collective active dates are fifty, from 1904 (C. I Taylor) to 1954 (Willie Wells’s last season). Paige is the only one to have a career in Major League Baseball in addition to his playing days in the Negro Leagues.
It is amazing that a century removed from the Negro Leagues, and fewer than two by half from the Civil War, Magic Johnson is the face of a group purchasing the Los Angeles Dodgers for a record sum: the same franchise for whom Jackie Robinson, who changed everything, played.