March 18th, 2013

Thinking About Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson

Here’s a story about the bridge that Jackie Robinson crossed, and some of the men who built that bridge. I was going to deliver this as a speech last month,  to close out a regional celebration of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s traveling exhibition, Pride & Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience. But because I was suddenly laid low by a bout of ill health, from which I have since recovered, the event had to be cancelled and the speech shelved. Now, as we near Jackie Robinson Day, I thought I’d share these thoughts with you, in two parts. Please note that in some period accounts quoted below, language regarded as offensive today is reproduced verbatim.

A feature film, titled 42, about Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 will have its premiere pretty soon, on April 12 in fact. (Had the studio scheduled the opening three days later, they would have launched on the very date that Jackie first wore that number at Ebbets Field; oh well—I’m sure they knew that.) Harrison Ford will play Branch Rickey, Chadwick Boseman will play Jackie, and the screenwriters will get the story right, largely. However, a film will take dramatic license that the written word may not. Like the newsman in the great western picture The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the director of 42 must say, “This is baseball, folks. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

To a greater extent than Hollywood, a historian is obliged to follow the trail of fact. It diminishes Rickey and Robinson not one bit to think about all those black players of long ago who built the bridge, as my friend Buck O’Neil said, that Jackie Robinson walked across.

I will wish to talk about how African Americans came into the game—as early as slaves playing ball 25 miles south of my home, in Kingston, in 1820—then were excluded from it, and then readmitted only to have the gate close again. The story of the Negro Leagues, founded in 1920, has been amply covered by recent scholars, so I will skip over the well-worn tales of Josh and Satch and Rube and Oscar to focus on some stories and some names that most baseball fans may not know.

Sam Jethroe

Sam Jethroe

My dear departed friend Jules Tygiel and I broke a story back in 1988 which has gained little traction over these 25 years. The popular “frontier” image of Jackie Robinson as a lone gunman facing down a hostile mob has always dominated the story of the integration of baseball. But new information we uncovered revealed that while Robinson was the linchpin in the grand strategy to integrate major league baseball, in October 1945 Rickey intended to announce the signing of not just Jackie Robinson, but of several other Negro League stars too. Political pressure, however, forced Rickey’s hand, thrusting Robinson alone into the spotlight. He was to have been joined on the Brooklyn Dodgers by at least two other players, chosen from among Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Sam Jethroe. But that is another story from the one I propose to tell now. (For that earlier piece, see:

Even in its cradle, baseball was bound up with the issue of inclusion and exclusion—whom do we, the entrenched class, permit to play alongside us? In New York City around 1840 there were those who thought the newly codified game of baseball should model cricket—as a diversion for “gentlemen,” those with sufficient money and thus leisure to play an afternoon’s game of ball. William Rufus Wheaton, the man who drew up the rules of the first baseball club, the New Yorks of 1837, recalled in later years: “The new game quickly became very popular with New Yorkers, and the numbers of the club soon swelled beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw and found a new organization, which we called the Knickerbocker. . . .”

Clubs of working-class origin followed soon enough, to the dismay of the white-collar crowd. A largely Irish club, the Magnolia, formed in 1843; a more celebrated and long-lived one, the Atlantic, was created in Brooklyn in 1855. The first African American clubs, three in number, were thought to have been from Brooklyn as well, beginning in 1859: the Unknowns, the Monitors, and the Uniques of Williamsburgh were in the field that season, but little trace of their activities can be found in the papers of the day. Ball games were played on Emancipation Day, when, the Eagle admitted, “20,000 colored gathered in two suburban Brooklyn parks.” Only last month, however, researcher John Zinn discovered a reference in the press to a St. John’s “colored club” in Newark, New Jersey going back to 1855.

1848 North Star, Frederick Douglass

1848 North Star, Frederick Douglass

In those superheated decades before the Civil War, anti-black sentiment was no more prevalent than anti-Irish. The upper crust lumped the two together as a permanent problem. Even Henry David Thoreau, that apostle of independence and reason, wrote in his journal, “The question is whether you can bear freedom. At present the vast majority of men, whether black or white, require the discipline of labor which enslaves them for their good. If the Irishman did not shovel all day, he would get drunk and quarrel.” Such was the climate when baseball began in earnest.

In truth, young people of both colors and genders had played a game they called baseball long before New York snobs took to organizing clubs and restricting membership. A decade ago, I became fleetingly famous for discovering an ordinance from 1791 barring the play of baseball in Pittsfield, Massachusetts—a real shocker to those who thought baseball had begun in Cooperstown in 1839. We also know that young men and women played a game called baseball, without benefit of a bat, in England in the 1740s and probably long before.

Olympic vs Pythian, Sept 4, 1869

Olympic vs Pythian, September 4, 1869, Philadelphia

African Americans had played baseball near Madison Square in the 1840s, not far from the grounds of the New York and Knickerbocker clubs before they relocated to Hoboken’s Elysian Fields. In Rochester, in 1859, Frederick Douglass Jr., son of the great abolitionist orator, played baseball with the integrated Charter Oak Juniors. When young Douglass moved to Washington, he helped to form another baseball club, the all-black Alerts, which became the first such club to play against a first-rank white one, the Olympics of Washington, DC, in late September 1869. (The first interracial game took place in Philadelphia a few weeks earlier, with the black Pythians playing against the white Olympics, both of that city.)

Researchers had found reference to ball play by antebellum slaves in the South, but no evidence was put forth that the game they played was baseball as we might understand it—a game that went by that name, or another that bore the central feature of bases run in the round. (In Massachusetts well into the 1850s, for example, the names “base ball” and “round ball” were used interchangeably to describe the same game.) Frederick Douglass, Sr., wrote in his autobiography, published in 1845, that at holiday time “by far the larger part [of slave communities] engaged in such sports and merriments as ball playing, wrestling, running foot races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whiskey: and this latter mode of spending the time was by far the most agreeable to the feelings of our masters.” But only in the past year Randall Brown discovered an account in a Kingston newspaper of an elderly barber recalling that in 1820 or so—seven years before the “peculiar institution” was abolished in New York State—he and his fellow slaves had played baseball. The source was a story in the Daily Freeman, of August 19, 1881, headlined:

A Colored Resident. Henry Rosecranse Columbus, Jr. Some Incidents in the Life of an Old Resident of Kingston. Born a Slave, He Lives to Become Wealthy and an Example to His Race.

“We used to have a great deal better time than that you do now,” said Mr. Rosecranse, born in 1804. “We didn’t have a big city with lamps and curb stones and paved walks, and had to go round through the mud, but we had more holidays. There was the Pinkster holiday, the Great Holiday for the colored men. They used to meet at Black Horse Tavern … and shoot for turkeys. Then the colored men raced horses on Peter Sharpe’s lane…. After the races they used to play ball for egg nog.”

The reporter asked, “Was it base ball as now played?”

“Something like it,” came the reply, “only the ball wasn’t near so hard, and we used to have much more fun playing.”

This find may seem a small thing, but in my world, where such a discovery had been sought for decades, it was simply fantastic! Looking at records in the South all these years, it may not have occurred to anyone to look in the North, where slavery lived far longer than we may imagine today. (For more on this subject, see:

We do not have an unbroken record of blacks playing ball into the 1860s, but in the years following Emancipation black teams began not only to play against white ones but also to seek a level of acceptance in the larger society. Philadelphia’s Pythian Base Ball Club, a formidable African American aggregation of the 1860s, tried to gain admission to the all-white National Association of Base Ball Players, the regulatory and rulemaking body for all first-class clubs.  The Ball Players’ Chronicle, a sporting weekly, commented that the report of the Nominating Committee in 1867 recommended the exclusion of the Pythians and any other club that included even one African-American player.

Reconstruction after the defeat of the Confederacy was seen by many upper-class twits as a healing period to be approached with delicacy. In seeking to keep out of the convention the discussion of any subject that might be seen to have a political bearing, they had drawn game’s first overt color line. The committee further proclaimed, “If colored clubs were admitted there would be in all probability some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anyone.”

The Philadelphia City Item in 1869 pushed heavily for some white club to play the Pythians. The following, from the August 7, 1869 issue, gives some interesting insights into the difficulty. Richard Hershberger shared this with the SABR research community:

Athletics 1870

Athletics 1870

Five thousand persons would pay fifty cents each to see the Athletics play the Pythians. Now, as the Athletics want money, here is a chance to raise it in an honorable way. The Pythians think they can beat the Athletics. Why not give them a trial? Oh–but Fisler, who is a roaring, red-hot Democrat, objects; and so does that Black Republican Reach, and so does Curthbert [sic] , and so does that other fine gentleman–that refined, educated, tasteful young gentleman–who says “the Pythians are d–d niggers!” But, an intelligent public–a fair-minded, liberal generous public, would like to see this contest, and it should take place. Let the Pythians begin with the Athletics, then the Keystones, next the Olympics, then the City Item, and keep on until they find their playing level. We are sure they will play like gentlemen, and beat everything except the professionals. 

Speaking of this interesting proposition, the Sunday Dispatch says: 

“The propriety of playing the Pythian Club is now a subject of debate in base ball circles. The Pythians are a colored club, and that is an objection to playing them. But they are anxious to measure their strength against some first-class white club, and are especially desirous to play the Athletics. We have not seen the Pythians play, but are told they are a very strong club. They are stout, muscular, active colored men, well-behaved and genteel, who take a deep interest in base ball, but have been unable to find any club to meet them. Now the question is, “Will the Athletics or Keystones play them a match?” Some of our players think it would not be en regle for white men to play against colored men, and oppose any proposition for a match. But others say that if colored muscle can beat white muscle it ought to have a chance. For ourselves, we only state the fact that the Pythian Club is willing to play against any organization in this city, and that thus far no white club has consented to meet them. It is certain that any match of the kin would draw an immense crowd, and we are confident that such players as Reach, Foran, Cuthbert and Radcliffe would see that the modest colored youths would have fair play, and that the spectators would look at the game with unusual interest. One or two of the Republican papers have intimated that the Athletics are afraid to play the Pythians. This is merely one of the slanders to which the Athletics are exposed. They are not afraid to play any club in the country, and they will prove it in any proper way.”

In 1870 the New York Clipper, another sporting weekly, made bold to offer, “we would suggest that the colored clubs of New York and Philadelphia at once take measures to organize a National Association of their own.” In this remark one may detect the general direction for black baseball in all the years up to Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers … yet before blacks looked to a league of their own, there were notable forays into the mainstream of America’s game.

Part 2 tomorrow.