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 chained and bolted 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 Reconstruction. 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. 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 for 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 black 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 geeks as well as more casual fans, by Martin and me surely, are largely a white construct deriving from a sport that predates 1947 by more than a century. 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; lead-miner Mutt Mantle teaching little 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 enslavement, total exploitation 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. (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.)
Black men in a predominantly white business…. Early also examines the matter in a defunct baseball magazine called 108, a slick allusion after the number of stitches in a baseball (white horsehide sewn in the Caribbean), 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?”
Early invokes August Wilson’s bitter 1983 play (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.
And then, we have Chris Rock. (Thanks to friend Phil for putting this on Facebook.)