Baseball and African-American Life

Is baseball different from the other sports?

Is baseball different from the other sports?

Gerald Early’s meandering yet compellingly, beguilingly honest essay, “Baseball and African American Life”, asks, “Why have Negroes not truly accepted baseball?” The answers are complex and perhaps inconclusive.

A first questioning is, “In what way?” Jackie Robinson opened a door that was closed since the dawn of baseball in America, the period prior to the Civil War and especially after as the popularity of baseball spread concurrently with Emancipation, and the complexities and many larger un-successes of Recontstruction

Freedom from bondage, civil rights, race relations, the ultimate existence of a united states in fact are all of a piece, and at the core of baseball history. To this end, Early invokes William Wells Brown’s reaction to cultural Eurocentrism as well as James Weldon Johnson, a seeker of the preservation of Black culture against its appropriation (jazz the celebrated example) by white America—after all, Rube Foster created the Negro National League at the genesis of the Harlem Renaissance in 1920.

Such are connections not coincidences.

And there is Amiri Baraka, who in tumultuous 1968 writes:

We knew, despite the newspaper and the radio, who that was tearing around those bases. When we saw Mule Suttles or Josh Gibson or Buck Leonard or Satchel Paige and dug the Homestead Grays, Philadelphia Stars, New York Black Yankees, Baltimore Elite (pronounced E-Light) Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Birmingham Black Barons, and even the Indianapolis Clowns! we knew who that was and what they (we) could do. Those other Yankees and Giants and Dodgers we followed just to keep up with being in America. We had our likes and dislikes. “Our” teams. But for the [B]lack teams, and for us Newarkers, the Newark Eagles was pure love.

For Amiri Baraka, Jackie Robinson is a traitor—harshly put: an affirmative-action abomination. Integration ruined the unique African-American baseball experience.

– How extreme are these feelings?

– How many African Americans, to this day, attend Major League Baseball games?

– Are the individuals that do wearing the mask?

On exiting a St. Louis Cardinals game, encircled by white fans and having attended unaccompanied, Early encounters three Black youths. One sneers, “How was the game, brother?” “‘I don’t know’ I lied, ‘I wasn’t at the game. I don’t follow baseball’.”

The stats and lore, so beloved by SABR and analytics geeks as well as more casual fans, by Martin and me surely (the lore especially), are largely a white construct deriving from a sport that predates 1947 by more than a century and Henry Chadwick (he the missing link between cricket and baseball). Part of the lore is the dynastic handing down of the game from father to son: Teenage Bob Feller pitching to his dad behind their barn; zinc-miner Mutt Mantle teaching young Mickey to switch hit. It’s the white-world Father Knows Best setting, which informs even white blue-collar society—the ghetto family lives on the outskirts or perhaps somewhere approximating the perimeter of the Elysian Fields of white ball.


College recruitment within the inner cities is far stronger for football and basketball. Division I programs have only 11.7 scholarships to divide among 35 players on a squad. College baseball is a non-revenue sport compared to basketball and football. It is largely played in the summertime, the fallow period of colleges. Compare this to autumnal football and winter-into-spring (March Madness) basketball.

In Right off the Bat, a chapter is devoted to “Race and Empire.” We work in broad strokes and (to mix or coax a metaphor) without an overabundance of navel-gazing or embroidery. There are: the colonial dispensation; the brutal treatment and enslavement of Africans; the British boarding-school mise-en-scéne from which cricket culture emerged—the high and difficult technique of cricket and the individualism-versus-team effort of baseball being offshoots of white-English colonialism and its boosterism. (We also touch on the 1940s “League of Their Own” women’s-only baseball universe, which remained segregated: never “to integrate” with the other gender.The book is not edgy enough for us to have explored transgender issues, and the inevitability of new rounds of intolerance and prejudice.)

Black men in a predominantly white business…. Early also examines the matter in a defunct baseball magazine called 108, an allusion to the number of stitches in a baseball (white horsehide mostly sewn in the Caribbean once, though more recently [2021] in Costa Rica), as well as in a Time magazine article ironically (Could the song title and film it is drawn from be any more white?) called “Where Have You Gone, Mr. Robinson?”

(In September 2020, under Curtis Granderson et al, there is a significant investment to redress as reported by the New York Times.)

Early invokes August Wilson’s bitter play (1983), which had its Broadway opening on May 6, 1985 (a 2016 film), Fences (Viola Davis would win an Academy Award in 2017), about a Negro League player, representative of an oppressed (invisible) minority, and the contradictions of character required to participate amid and within the 1950s-white mainstream. The fences, Early points out, are not only symbolic of that mythical one that encircles (that word again!) a field and a ballpark, “the pastoral Eden of the white mind,” but also a symbol of the boundaries of social nonacceptance placed on the Black athlete and by (symbolic) extension the shoulders of every African American.

On MLK Day 2022, the New York Times reports on the subject.

On May 21, 2022, New York Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson crossed a line with Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson by nagging and dangling the name “Jackie” in Anderson’s direction.

Then we have Chris Rock….

(The last major-league clubs to integrate were the good [Yankees, 1955], the bad [Philadelphia Phillies, 1957], and the otherwise OK [Detroit Tigers, 1958; Boston Red Sox, 1959].)


About rightoffthebatbook

Co-author of the book, "Right Off the Bat: Baseball, Cricket, Literature, and Life"
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