Jules Tygiel’s monumental essay commenced here: http://goo.gl/re0w9Q. [You may have to cut and paste the link; clicking is iffy.] Although most blacks lived in the South, during the first two decades of the 20th century, the great black teams and players congregated in the metropolises and industrial cities of the North. Chicago emerged as the primary center of black baseball with teams like the Leland Giants and the Chicago American Giants. In New York, the Lincoln Giants, which boasted pitching stars Smokey Joe Williams and Cannonball Dick Redding, shortstop John Henry Lloyd and catcher Louis Santop, reigned supreme. Other top clubs of the era included the Philadelphia Giants, the Hilldale Club (also of Philadelphia), the Indianapolis ABC’s and the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City. Player contracts were nonexistent or nonbinding and stars jumped frequently from team to team. “Wherever the money was,” recalled John Henry Lloyd, “that’s where I was.”
Fans and writers often compared the great black players of this era to their white counterparts. Lloyd, one of the outstanding shortstops and hitters of that or any era, came to be known as “The Black Wagner,” after his white contemporary Honus Wagner, who called it an “honor” and a “privilege” to be compared to the gangling black infielder. A St. Louis sportswriter once said when asked who was the best player in baseball history, “If you mean in organized baseball, the answer would be Babe Ruth; but if you mean in all baseball. . . the answer would have to be a colored man named John Henry Lloyd.” Pitcher “Rube” Foster earned his nickname by outpitching future Hall of Famer Rube Waddell, and Cuban Jose Mendez was called “The Black Matty” after Christy Mathewson.
The talents of Foster and Mendez notwithstanding, the greatest black pitcher of the early twentieth century was 6’5″ Smokey Joe Williams. Born in 1886, Williams spent a good part of his career pitching in his native Texas, unheralded until he joined the Leland Giants in 1909 at the age of 24. From 1912-1923 he won renown as a strikeout artist for Harlem’s Lincoln Giants. Against major league competition Williams won six games, lost 4, and tied two, including a three-hit 1-0 victory over the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies in 1915. In 1925, he signed with the Homestead Grays and although approaching his fortieth birthday, starred for seven more seasons. A 1952 poll to name the outstanding black pitcher of the half-century, placed Williams in first place, ahead of the legendary Satchel Paige.
Oscar Charleston ranks as the greatest outfielder of the 1910s and 1920s. With tremendous speed and a strong, accurate arm, Charleston was the quintessential centerfielder. During his 15-year career starting in 1915, Charleston hit for both power and average and may have been the most popular player of the 1920s. After he retired he managed the Philadelphia Stars, Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, and other clubs.
Several major stars of this era labored outside the usual channels of black baseball. In 1914, white Kansas City promoter J.L. Wilkinson organized the All-Nations team, which included whites, blacks, Indians, Asians, and Latin Americans. Pitchers John Donaldson, Jose Mendez, and Bill Drake and outfielder Cristobel Torriente played for the All-Nations team, described by one observer as “strong enough to give any major league team a nip-and-tuck battle.” A black Army team from the 25th Infantry Unit in Nogales, Arizona, featured pitcher Bullet Joe Rogan and shortstop Dobie Moore. In 1920, when Wilkinson formed the famed Kansas City Monarchs, the players from the All-Nations and 25th Infantry teams formed the nucleus of his club. In 1921, the Monarchs challenged the minor league Kansas City Blues to a tournament for the city championship. The Blues won the series five games to three. In 1922, however, the Monarchs won five of six games to claim boasting honors in Kansas City. One week later, they swept a doubleheader from the touring Babe Ruth All-Stars.
In the years after 1910, Andrew “Rube” Foster emerged as the dominant figure in black baseball. Like many of his white contemporaries, Foster rose through the ranks of the national pastime from star player to field manager to club owner. Born in Texas in 1879, Foster accepted an invitation to pitch for Chicago’s Union Giants in 1902. “If you play the best clubs in the land, white clubs as you say,” he told owner Frank Leland, “it will be a case of Greek meeting Greek. I fear nobody.” By 1903, he was hurling for the Cuban X Giants against the Philadelphia Giants in a series billed as the “Colored Championship of the World”. His four victories in a best of nine series clinched the title. The following year, he had switched sides and registered two of three wins for the Philadelphia Giants in a similar matchup, striking out 18 batters in one game and tossing a two-hitter in another. In 1907, he rejoined the Leland Giants and, in 1910, pitched for and managed a reconstituted team of that name to a 123-6 record.
As a pitcher, Foster had ranked among the nation’s best; as a manager, his skills achieved legendary proportions. A master strategist and motivator, Foster’s teams specialized in the bunt, the steal, and the hit-and-run, which came to characterize black baseball. Fans came to watch him sit on the bench giving signs with a wave of his ever-present pipe. He became the friend and confidant of major league managers like John McGraw. Over the years, Foster trained a generation of black managers, like Dave Malarcher, Biz Mackey, and Oscar Charleston in the subtleties of the game.
In 1911, Foster entered the ownership ranks, uniting with white saloon keeper John Schorling (the son-in-law of White Sox owner Charles Comiskey) to form the Chicago American Giants. With Schorling’s financial backing, Foster’s managerial acumen, a regular home field in Chicago, and high salaries, the American Giants attracted the best black players in the nation. Throughout the decade, whether barnstorming or hosting opponents in Chicago, the American Giants came to represent the pinnacle of black baseball.
By World War One, Foster dominated black baseball in Chicago and parts of the Midwest. In most other areas, however, white booking agents controlled access to stadiums, and as one newspaperman charged in 1917, “used circus methods to drag a bunch of our best citizens out, only to undergo humiliation . . . while [they sat] back and [grew] rich off a percentage of the proceeds.” In the East, Nat Strong, the part owner of the Brooklyn Royal Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Cuban Stars, Cuban Giants, New York Black Yankees, and the renowned white semi-pro team, the Bushwicks, held a stranglehold on black competition. To break this monopoly and place the game more firmly under black control, Foster created the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, better known as the Negro National League, in 1920.
Foster’s new organization marked the third attempt of the century to meld black teams into a viable league. In 1906, the International League of Independent Baseball Clubs, which had four black and two white teams, struggled through one season characterized by shifting and collapsing franchises. Four years later, Beauregard Moseley, secretary of Chicago’s Leland Giants, attempted to form a National Negro Baseball League, but the association folded before a single game had been played.
The new Negro National League, which included the top teams from Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and other Midwestern cities, fared far better. At Foster’s insistence, all clubs, with the exception of the Kansas City Monarchs, whom Foster reluctantly accepted, were controlled by blacks. J.L. Wilkinson, who owned the Monarchs, a major drawing card, had won the respect of his fellow owners and soon overcame Foster’s reservations. He became the league secretary and Foster’s trusted ally. Operating under the able guidance of Foster and Wilkinson, the league flourished during its early years. In 1923, it attracted 400,000 fans and accumulated $200,000 in gate receipts.
The success of the Negro National League inspired competitors. In 1923, booking agent Nat Strong formed an Eastern Colored League, with teams in New York, Brooklyn, Baltimore, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. With four of the six teams owned by whites, and Strong controlling an erratic schedule, the league had somewhat less legitimacy than Foster’s circuit. Playing in larger population centers, however, the more affluent Eastern clubs successfully raided some of the top players of the Negro National League before the circuits negotiated an uneasy truce in 1924. Throughout the remainder of the decade, however, acrimony rather than harmony characterized interleague relations. A third association emerged in the South, where the stronger independent teams in major cities formed the Southern Negro League. While this group became a breeding ground for top players, the impoverished nature of its clientele, and the inability of clubs to bolster revenues with games against white squads, rendered them unable to prevent their best players from jumping to the higher paying Northern teams.
At their best the Negro Leagues of the 1920s were haphazard affairs. Since most clubs continued to rely on barnstorming for their primary livelihood, scheduling proved difficult. Teams played uneven numbers of games and especially in the Eastern circuit skipped official contests for more lucrative nonleague matchups. Several of the stronger independent teams, like the Homestead Grays, remained unaffiliated. Umpires were often incompetent and lacked authority to control conditions. Finally, players frequently jumped from one franchise to another, peddling their services to the highest bidder. In 1926, Foster grew ill, stripping the Negro National League of his vital leadership. Two years later, the Eastern Colored League disbanded and in 1931, less than a year after Foster’s death, the Negro National League departed the scene, once again leaving black baseball with no organized structure.
With the collapse of Foster’s Negro National League and the onset of the Great Depression, the always borderline economics of operating a black baseball club grew more precarious. White booking agents, like Philadelphia’s Eddie Gottlieb or Abe Saperstein of the Midwest, again reigned supreme. In the early 1930s, only the stronger independent clubs like the Homestead Grays or Kansas City Monarchs, novelty acts like the Cincinnati Clowns, or those teams backed by the “numbers kings” of the black ghettos could survive.
The Kansas City Monarchs emerged as the healthiest holdover from the old Negro National League. In 1929, owner Wilkinson had commissioned an Omaha, Nebraska, company to design a portable lighting system for night games. The equipment, consisting of a 250-horsepower motor and a 100-kilowatt generator, which illuminated lights atop telescoping poles 50 feet above the field, took about two hours to assemble. To pay for the innovation, Wilkinson mortgaged everything he owned and took in Kansas City businessman Tom Baird as a partner. But the gamble paid off. The novelty of night baseball allowed the Monarchs to play two and three games a day and made them the most popular touring club in the nation.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, former basketball star Cumberland Posey, Jr. had forged the Homestead Grays into one of the best teams in America. Posey, the son of one of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest black businessmen, had joined the Grays, then a sandlot team, as an outfielder in 1911. By the early 1920s he owned the club and began recruiting top national players to supplement local talent. In 1925, he signed 39-year-old Smokey Joe Williams, and the following year he lured Oscar Charleston, whom many consider the top black player of that era. Over the next several seasons Posey recruited Judy Johnson, Martin Dihigo, and Cool Papa Bell. In 1930, he added a catcher from the Pittsburgh sandlots named Josh Gibson, and in 1934 brought in first baseman Buck Leonard from North Carolina. Unwilling to subject himself to outside control, Posey preferred to remain free from league affiliations. Yet for two decades, the Homestead Grays reigned as one of the strongest teams in black baseball.
In the 1930s, Posey faced competition from crosstown rival Gus Greenlee, “Mr. Big” of Pittsburgh’s North Side numbers rackets. Greenlee took over the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a local team, in 1930. Greenlee spent $100,000 to build a new stadium, and wooed established ballplayers with lavish salary offers. In 1931, he landed the colorful Satchel Paige, the hottest young pitcher in the land, and the following year raided the Grays, outbidding Posey for the services of Charleston, Johnson, and Gibson. In 1934, James “Cool Papa” Bell jumped the St. Louis Stars and brought his legendary speed to the Crawfords. With five future Hall of Famers, Greenlee had assembled one of the great squads of baseball history.
The emergence of Gus Greenlee marked a new era for black baseball, the reign of the numbers men. In an age of limited opportunities for blacks, many of the most talented northern black entrepreneurs turned to gambling and other illegal operations for their livelihood. Novelist Richard Wright explained, “They would have been steel tycoons, Wall Street brokers, auto moguls, had they been white.” Like the political bosses of nineteenth century urban America, numbers operators provided an informal assistance network for needy patrons in the impoverished black communities and represented a major source of capital for black businesses. In city after city, the numbers barons, seeking an element of respectability or an outlet to shield gambling profits from the Internal Revenue Service or merely the thrill of sports ownership, came to dominate black baseball. In Harlem, second-generation Cuban immigrant Alex Pompez, a powerful figure in the Dutch Schultz mob, ran the Cuban Stars, while Ed “Soldier Boy” Semler controlled the Black Yankees. Abe Manley of the Newark Eagles, Ed Bolden of the Philadelphia Stars, and Tom Wilson of the Baltimore Elite Giants all garnered their fortunes from the numbers game. Even Cum Posey, who had no connection with the rackets, had to bring in Homestead numbers banker Rufus “Sonnyman” Jackson as a partner and financier to stave off Greenlee’s challenge.
In 1933, Greenlee unified the franchises owned by the numbers kings into a rejuvenated Negro National League. Under his leadership, writes Donn Rogosin, “The Negro National League meetings were enclaves of the most powerful black gangsters in the nation.” This “unholy alliance” sustained black baseball in the Northeast through depression and war. Even the collapse of the Crawfords and demolition of Greenlee Stadium in 1939, failed to weaken the league which survived until the onset of integration. In 1937 a second circuit, the Negro American League was formed in the Midwest and South. Dominated by Wilkinson and the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro American League relied less on numbers brokers, but more on white ownership for their financing.
The formation of the Negro American League encouraged the rejuvenation of an annual World Series, matching the champions of the two leagues. But the Negro League World Series never achieved the prominence of its white counterpart. The fact that league standings were often determined among teams playing uneven numbers of games diluted the notion of a champion.
Furthermore, impoverished urban blacks could not sustain attendance at a prolonged series. As a result, the Negro League World Series always took a back seat to the annual East-West All-Star Game played in Chicago. The East-West Game, originated by Greenlee in 1933, quickly emerged as the centerpiece of black baseball. Fans chose the players in polls conducted by black newspapers. By 1939, leading candidates received as many as 500,000 votes. Large crowds of blacks and whites watched the finest Negro League stars, and the revenues divided among the teams often spelled the difference between profit and loss at the season’s end.
By the 1930s and 1940s, black baseball had become an integral part of Northern ghetto life. With hundreds of employees and millions of dollars in revenue, the Negro Leagues, as Donn Rogosin notes, “may rank among the highest achievements of black enterprise during segregation.” In addition, baseball provided an economic ripple effect, boosting business in hotels, cafes, restaurants and bars. In Kansas City and other towns, games became social events, as black citizens, recalls manager Buck O’Neil, “wore their finery.” The Monarch Booster Club was a leading civic organization and the “Miss Monarch Bathing Beauty” pageant a popular event. Black baseball also represented a source of pride for the black community. “The Monarchs was Kansas City’s team,” boasted bartender Jesse Fisher. “They made Kansas City the talk of the town all over the world.”
In several cities, white politicians routinely appeared at Opening Day games to curry favor with their often neglected black constituents. When Greenlee Field launched its operations in Pittsburgh, the mayor, city council, and county commissioners lined the field boxes. Negro League owners also played a role in the fight against segregation. In Newark, Effa Manley, who ran the Eagles with her husband Abe, served as treasurer of the New Jersey NAACP and belonged to the Citizen’s League for Fair Play which fought for black employment opportunities. Manley sponsored a “Stop Lynching” fundraiser at one Eagles home game.
The impact of the Negro Leagues, however, ranged beyond the communities whose names the teams bore. Throughout the age of Jim Crow baseball, even in those years when a substantial league structure existed, official league games accounted for a relatively small part of the black baseball experience. Black teams would typically play over 200 games a year, only a third of which counted in the league standings. The vast majority of contests occurred on the “barnstorming” circuit, pitting black athletes against a broad array of professional and semi-professional competition, white and black, throughout the nation. In the pre-television era, traveling teams brought a higher level of baseball to fans in the towns and cities of America and allowed local talent to test their skills against the professionals. While some all-white teams, like the “House of David” also trod the barnstorming trail, itinerancy was the key to survival for black squads. The capital needed to finance a Negro League team existed primarily in Northern cities, but the overwhelming majority of blacks lived in the South.
“The schedule was a rugged one,” recalled Roy Campanella of the Baltimore Elite Giants. “Rarely were we in the same city two days in a row. Mostly we played by day and traveled by night.” After the Monarchs introduced night baseball, teams played both day and night appearing in two and sometimes three different ballparks on the same day. Teams traveled in buses–“our home, dressing room, dining room, and hotel”–or sandwiched into touring cars. “We had little time to waste on the road,” states Quincy Trouppe, “so it was a rare treat when the cars would stop at times to let us stretch out and exercise for a few minutes.” Most major hotels barred black guests, so even when the schedule allowed overnight stays, the athletes found themselves in less than comfortable accommodations. Large cities usually had better black hotels where ballplayers, entertainers, and other members of the black bourgeoisie congregated. On the road, however, Negro Leaguers more frequently were relegated to Jim Crow roadhouses, “continually under attack by bedbugs.”
The black baseball experience extended beyond the confines of the United States and into Central America and the Caribbean. Negro Leaguers appeared regularly in the Cuban, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, and Dominican winter leagues where they competed against black and white Latin stars and major leaguers as well. Some blacks, like Willie Wells and Ray Dandridge, jumped permanently to the Mexican League, where several also became successful managers of interracial teams. As Wells explained, “I am not faced by the racial problem . . . I’ve found freedom and democracy here, something I never found in the United States . . . In Mexico, I am a man.”
Part 3 tomorrow.
Jules Tygiel, already famous for having written Baseball’s Great Experiment (Oxford University Press, 1983), wrote this sweeping history of the African American experience in baseball in 1988, for the late lamented Total Baseball, in which it was published with minor updates in each of seven succeeding editions. In that same year Jules and I collaborated on “Jackie Robinson’s Signing: The Real Story,” which has been reprinted at Our Game. Other scholars have made notable contributions in this field, both narrower and deeper, but for one who would grasp the great story of black ball in broad strokes, this is, in my humble estimation, the best essay ever written. I have chosen to share the essay as it was published in the second edition of Total Baseball, in 1991. Certain historical facts herein have been amended or expanded by later research, but not the author’s basic treatment; his text is left intact except for his own corrections. I will offer, however, Jules’s last updated conclusion, referencing the 1997 celebration of integration’s 50th anniversary and Commissioner Selig’s retirement of Jackie Robinson’s uniform number 42 across all of Major League Baseball: “At times the commemorations threatened to be overwhelmed by nostalgia and commercialism. However the 1997 festivities reminded the nation once again of its past heritage—both the shameful and the heroic—and its ongoing obligations to seek greater equality in the future.”
In 1987, Major League Baseball, amidst much fanfare and publicity, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the finest moment in the history of the national pastime–Jackie Robinson’s heroic shattering of the color barrier. But baseball might also have commemorated the centennial of a related, but far less auspicious event–the banishment of blacks from the International League in 1887 which ushered in six disgraceful decades of Jim Crow baseball. During this era, some of America’s greatest ballplayers plied their trade on all-black teams, in Negro Leagues, on the playing fields of Latin America, and along the barnstorming frontier of the cities and towns of the United States, but never within the major and minor league realm of “organized baseball.” When slowly and grudgingly given their chance in the years after 1947, blacks conclusively proved their competitive abilities on the diamond, but discrimination persisted as baseball executives continued to deny them the opportunity to display their talents in managerial and front office positions.
Scattered evidence exists of blacks playing baseball in the antebellum period, but the first recorded black teams surfaced in Northern cities in the aftermath of the Civil War. In October 1867, the Uniques of Brooklyn hosted the Excelsiors of Philadelphia in a contest billed as the “championship of colored clubs.” Before a large crowd of black and white spectators, the Excelsiors marched around the field behind a fife and drum corps before defeating the Uniques, 37-24. Two months later, a second Philadelphia squad, the Pythians, dispatched a representative to the inaugural meetings of the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first organized league. The nominating committee unanimously rejected the Pythian’s application, barring “any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.” Using the impeccable logic of a racist society, the committee 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 Pythians, however, continued their quest for interracial competition. In 1869, they became the first black team to face an all-white squad, defeating the crosstown City Items, 27-17.
In 1876, athletic entrepreneurs in the nation’s metropolitan centers established the National League which quickly came to represent the pinnacle of the sport. The new entity had no written policy regarding blacks, but precluded them nonetheless through a “gentleman’s agreement” among the owners. In the smaller cities and towns of America, however, where underfunded teams and fragile minor league coalitions quickly appeared and faded, individual blacks found scattered opportunities to pursue baseball careers. During the next decade, at least two dozen black ballplayers sought to earn a living in this erratic professional baseball world.
Bud Fowler ranked among the best and most persistent of these trailblazers. Born John Jackson in upstate New York in 1858 and raised, ironically, in Cooperstown, Fowler first achieved recognition as a 20-year-old pitcher for a local team in Chelsea, Massachusetts. In April 1878, Fowler defeated the National League’s Boston club, which included future Hall of Famers George Wright and Jim O’ Rourke, 2-1, in an exhibition game, besting 40-game winner Tommy Bond. Later that season, Fowler hurled three games for the Lynn Live Oaks of the International Association, the nation’s first minor league, and another for Worcester in the New England League. For the next six years, he toiled for a variety of independent and semiprofessional teams in the United States and Canada. Despite a reputation as “one of the best pitchers on the continent,” he failed to catch on with any major or minor league squads. In 1884, now appearing regularly as a second baseman, as well as a pitcher, Fowler joined Stillwater, Minnesota, in the Northwestern League. Over the next seven seasons, Fowler played for fourteen teams in nine leagues, seldom batting less than .300 for a season. In 1886, he led the Western League in triples. “He is one of the best general players in the country,” reported Sporting Life in 1885, “and if he had a white face he would be playing with the best of them…. Those who know, say there is no better second baseman in the country.”
In 1886, however, a better second baseman did appear in the form of Frank Grant, perhaps the greatest black player of the nineteenth century. The light-skinned Grant, described as a “Spaniard” in the Buffalo Express, batted .325 for Meridien in the Eastern League. When that squad folded he joined Buffalo in the prestigious International Association and improved his average to .340, third best in the league.
Although not as talented as Fowler and Grant, barehand-catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker achieved the highest level of play of blacks of this era. The son of an Ohio physician, Fleet Walker had studied at Oberlin College, where in 1881 he and his younger brother Welday helped launch a varsity baseball team. For the next two years, the elder Walker played for the University of Michigan and in 1883 he appeared in 60 games for the pennant-winning Toledo squad in the Northwestern League. In 1884, Toledo entered the American Association, the National League’s primary rival, and Walker became the first black major leaguer. In an age when many catchers caught barehanded and lacked chest protectors, Walker suffered frequent injuries and played little after a foul tip broke his rib in mid-July. Nonetheless, he batted .263 and pitcher Tony Mullane later called him “the best catcher I ever worked with.” In July, Toledo briefly signed Walker’s brother, Welday, who appeared in six games batting .182. The following year, Toledo dropped from the league, ending the Walkers’ major league careers.
These early black players found limited acceptance among teammates, fans, and opponents. In Ontario, in 1881, Fowler’s teammates forced him off the club. Walker found that Mullane and other pitchers preferred not to pitch to him. Although he acknowledged Walker’s skills, Mullane confessed, “I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him I used anything I wanted without looking at his signals.” At Louisville in 1884, insults from Kentucky fans so rattled Walker that he made five errors in a game. In Richmond, after Walker had actually left the team due to injuries, the Toledo manager received a letter from “75 determined men” threatening “to mob Walker” and cause “much bloodshed” if the black catcher appeared. On August 10, 1883, Chicago White Stockings star and manager Cap Anson had threatened to cancel an exhibition game with Toledo if Walker played. The injured catcher had not been slated to start, but Toledo manager Charlie Morton defied Anson and inserted Walker into the lineup. The game proceeded without incident.
In 1887, Walker, Fowler, Grant, Higgins, Stovey, and three other blacks converged on the International League, a newly reorganized circuit in Canada and upstate New York, one notch below the major league level. At the same time, a new six-team entity, the League of Colored Baseball Clubs, won recognition under baseball’s National Agreement, a mutual pact to honor player contracts among team owners. Thus, an air of optimism pervaded the start of the season. But 1887 would prove a fateful year for the future of blacks in baseball.
On May 6, the Colored League made its debut in Pittsburgh with “a grand street parade and a brass band concert.” Twelve hundred spectators watched the hometown Keystones lose to the Gorhams of New York, 11-8. Within days, however, the new league began to flounder. The Boston franchise disbanded in Louisville on May 8, stranding its players in the Southern city. Three weeks later, league-founder Walter Brown formally announced the demise of the infant circuit.
Meanwhile, in the International League, black players found their numbers growing, but their status increasingly uncertain. Six of the 10 teams fielded blacks, prompting Sporting Life to wonder, “How far will this mania for engaging colored players go?” In Newark, fans marveled at the “colored battery” of Fleet Walker, dubbed the “coon catcher” by one Canadian newspaper, and “headstrong” pitcher George Stovey. Stovey, one of the greatest black pitchers of the nineteenth century, won 35 games, still an International League record. Frank Grant, in his second season as the Buffalo second baseman, led the league in both batting average and home runs. Bud Fowler, one of two blacks on the Binghamton squad, compiled a .350 average through early July and stole 23 bases.
These athletes compiled their impressive statistics under the most adverse conditions. “I could not help pitying some of the poor black fellows that played in the International League,” reported a white player. “Fowler used to play second base with the lower part of his legs encased in wooden guards. He knew that about every player that came down to second base on a steal had it in for him.” Both Fowler and Grant, “would muff balls intentionally, so that [they] would not have to touch runners, fearing that they might injure [them].” In addition, “About half the pitchers try their best to hit these colored players when [they are] at bat.” Grant, whose Buffalo teammates had refused to sit with him for a team portrait in 1886, reportedly saved himself from a “drubbing” at their hands in 1887, only by “the effective use of a club.” In Toronto, fans chanted, “Kill the Nigger,” at Grant, and a local newspaper headline declared, “THE COLORED PLAYERS DISTASTEFUL.” In late June, Bud Fowler’s Binghamton teammates refused to take the field unless the club removed him from the lineup. Soon after, on July 7, the Binghamton club submitted to these demands, releasing Fowler and a black teammate, a pitcher named Renfroe.
The most dramatic confrontations between black and white players occurred on the Syracuse squad, where a clique of refugees from the Southern League exacerbated racial tensions. In spring training, the club included a catcher named Dick Male, who, rumors had it, was a light-skinned black named Richard Johnson. Male charged “that the man calling him a Negro is himself a black liar,” but when released after a poor preseason performance, he returned to his old club, Zanesville in the Ohio State League, and resumed his true identity as Richard Johnson. In May, Syracuse signed 19-year-old black pitcher Robert Higgins, angering the Southern clique. On May 25, Higgins appeared in his first International League game in Toronto. “THE SYRACUSE PLOTTERS”, as a Sporting News headline called his teammates, undermined his debut. According to one account, they “seemed to want the Toronto team to knock Higgins out of the box, and time and again they fielded so badly that the home team were enabled to secure many hits after the side had been retired.” “A disgusting exhibition”, admonished The Toronto World. “They succeeded in running Male out of the club”, reported a Newark paper, “and they will do the same with Higgins.” One week later, two Syracuse players refused to pose for a team picture with Higgins. When manager “Ice Water” Joe Simmons suspended pitcher Doug Crothers for this incident, Crothers slugged the manager. Higgins miraculously recovered from his early travails and lack of support to post a 20-7 record.
On July 14, as the directors of the International League discussed the racial situation in Buffalo, the Newark Little Giants planned to send Stovey, their ace, to the mound in an exhibition game against the National League Chicago White Stockings. Once again manager Anson refused to field his squad if either Stovey or Walker appeared. Unlike 1883, Anson’s will prevailed. On the same day, team owners, stating that “Many of the best players in the league are anxious to leave on account of the colored element,” allowed current black players to remain, but voted by a six-to-four margin to reject all future contracts with blacks. The teams with black players all voted against the measure, but Binghamton, which had just released Fowler and Renfroe, swung the vote in favor of exclusion.
Events in 1887 continued to conspire against black players. On September 11, the St. Louis Browns of the American Association refused to play a scheduled contest against the all-black Cuban Giants. “We are only doing what is right,” they proclaimed. In November, the Buffalo and Syracuse teams unsuccessfully attempted to lift the International League ban on blacks. The Ohio State League, which had fielded three black players, also adopted a rule barring additional contracts with blacks, prompting Welday Walker, who had appeared in the league, to protest, “The law is a disgrace to the present age. . . There should be some broader cause–such as lack of ability, behavior and intelligence–for barring a player, rather than his color.”
After 1887, only a handful of blacks appeared on integrated squads. Grant and Higgins returned to their original teams in 1888. Walker jumped from Newark to Syracuse. The following year, only Walker remained for one final season, the last black in the International League until 1946. Richard Johnson, the erstwhile Dick Male, reappeared in the Ohio State League in 1888 and in 1889 joined Springfield in the Central Interstate League, where he hit 14 triples, stole 45 bases, and scored 100 runs in 100 games. In 1890, Harrisburg in the Eastern Interstate League fielded two blacks, while Jamestown in the New York Penn League featured another. Bud Fowler and several other black players appeared in the Nebraska State League in 1892. Three years later, Adrian in the Michigan State League signed five blacks, including Fowler and pitcher George Wilson who posted a 29-4 record. Meanwhile Sol White, who later chronicled these events in his 1906 book, The History of Colored Baseball, played for Fort Wayne in the Western State League. In 1896, pitcher-outfielder Bert Jones joined Atchison in the Kansas State League where he played for three seasons before being forced out in 1898. Almost 50 years would pass before another black would appear on an interracial club in organized baseball.
While integrated teams grew rare, several leagues allowed entry to all-black squads. In 1889, the Middle States League included the New York Gorhams and the Cuban Giants, the most famous black team of the age. The Giants posted a 55-17 record. In 1890, the alliance reorganized as the Eastern Interstate League and again included the Cuban Giants. Giants’ star George Williams paced the circuit with a .391 batting average, while teammate Arthur Thomas slugged 26 doubles and 10 triples, both league-leading totals. The Eastern Interstate League folded in midseason, and in 1891 the Giants made one final minor league appearance in the Connecticut State League. When this circuit also disbanded, the brief entry of the Cuban Giants in organized baseball came to an end. In 1898, a team calling itself the Acme Colored Giants affiliated with Pennsylvania’s Iron and Oil League, but won only eight of 49 games before dropping out, marking an ignoble conclusion to these early experiments in interracial play.
Overall, at least 70 blacks appeared in organized baseball in the late 19th century. About half played for all-black teams, the remainder for integrated clubs. Few lasted more than one season with the same team. By the 1890s, the pattern for black baseball that would prevail for the next half century had emerged. Blacks were relegated to “colored” teams playing most of their games on the barnstorming circuit, outside of any organized league structure. While exhibition contests allowed them to pit their skills against whites, they remained on the outskirts of baseball’s mainstream, unheralded and unknown to most Americans.
As early as the 1880s and 1890s several all-black traveling squads had gained national reputations. The Cuban Giants, formed among the waiters of the Argyle Hotel to entertain guests in 1885, set the pattern and provided the recurrent nickname for these teams. Passing as Cubans, so as not to offend their white clientele, the Giants toured the East in a private railroad car playing amateur and professional opponents. In the 1890s, rivals like the Lincoln Giants from Nebraska, the Page Fence Giants from Michigan, and the Cuban X Giants in New York emerged. From the beginning these teams combined entertainment with their baseball to attract crowds. The Page Fence Giants, founded by Bud Fowler in 1895, would ride through the streets on bicycles to attract attention. In 1899, Fowler organized the All-American Black Tourists, who would arrive in full dress suits with opera hats and silk umbrellas. Their showmanship notwithstanding, the black teams of the 1890s included some of the best players in the nation. The Page Fence Giants won 118 of 154 games in 1895, with two of their losses coming against the major league Cincinnati Reds.
During the early years of the 20th century many blacks still harbored hopes of regaining access to organized baseball. Sol White wrote in 1906 that baseball, “should be taken seriously by the colored player. An honest effort of his great ability will open the avenue in the near future wherein he may walk hand-in-hand with the opposite race in the greatest of all American games–baseball.” Rube Foster, the outstanding figure in black baseball from 1910-1926, stressed excellence because “we have to be ready when the time comes for integration.”
But even clandestine efforts to bring in blacks met a harsh fate. In 1901, Baltimore Orioles Manager John McGraw attempted to pass second baseman Charlie Grant of the Columbia Giants off as an Indian named Chief Tokohama, until Chicago White Sox President Charles Comiskey exposed the ruse. In 1911, the Cincinnati Reds raised black hopes by signing two light-skinned Cubans, Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida, prompting the New York Age to speculate, “Now that the first shock is over it would not be surprising to see a Cuban a few shades darker. . . breaking into the professional ranks . . . it would then be easier for colored players who are citizens of this country to get into fast company.” But the Reds rushed to certify that Marsans and Almeida were “genuine Caucasians”, and while light-skinned Cubans became a fixture in the majors, their darker brethren remained unwelcome. Over the years, tales circulated of United States blacks passing as Indians or Cubans, but no documented cases exist.
Part 2 tomorrow.
This is a guest column by two old friends and baseball savants. Mark Armour and Dan Levitt wrote the fine article below to give “Our Game” readers a taste of their forthcoming book, In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations From Deadball to Moneyball. It will be published this month (March 2015) by the University of Nebraska Press (for more, see: http://goo.gl/QFqb8E). This is Mark and Dan’s second book as a team, following Paths to Glory (Potomac, 2003); each is an award-winning and prolific researcher and writer. Mark (Twitter handle @markarmour04) received SABR’s Henry Chadwick Award–the “Chaddie,” the baseball researcher’s highest honor–in 2014. Dan was a finalist for the Seymour Medal in 2009, for Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty.
Seven months from now two baseball teams will meet in the 2015 World Series. Pitches will be thrown, balls will be hit, and catches will be made, as the fifty players on the two rosters rightfully take center stage. There may be a distraction or two over a manager’s decision or an umpire’s call, but we can be confident that the skills of the talented players involved will ultimately determine which side will hoist the trophy on that late October night.
Among the millions watching will be two groups of very interested people: the Baseball Operations staffs whose collective efforts to scout, evaluate, draft, develop, sign or acquire these players ultimately determined the composition of the two rosters. All of their decision making will have been analyzed and graded as never before by fans and writers, many of whom feel comfortable second-guessing not just major league trades but also the drafting of high school prospects. While most of us tried to play baseball and gave up our big league dreams as teenagers or earlier, that has not stopped us from imagining that we could be the general manager of our local nine.
There have always been debates in schoolyards and bars about trades that should be made or players who should be signed, but the discourse has become much more complex and detailed in the past generation with the explosion of available data about players and the rise of analytics. Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, released in 2003, was a best-selling book in which the heroes were not players performing wondrous athletic feats, but smart guys arguing about baseball, a demographic which is easier for most of us to imagine fitting into.
Moneyball depicts Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in a David-vs-Goliath story. Faced with a significant revenue disadvantage compared with nearly every other team, Beane prevails over his counterparts by finding ways to outsmart them. How much Beane prevailed and the reasons why will be debated forever, but one thing is clear: Lewis’s book unearthed (or inspired) an increased interest in how baseball teams are run off the field. Baseball fans are no closer to playing like Andrew McCutcheon, but they have no shortage of opinions about who the Twins should be targeting in the upcoming amateur draft.
In particular, Moneyball was about the rise of analytics in baseball front offices, with Beane’s A’s at the forefront. According to Lewis, Beane understood the concept of market inefficiencies and the analogous benefit of finding undervalued players, and he believed that these players could be better identified using statistical and analytical techniques than by traditional scouting. For example, players who had high on-base-percentages without other identifiable strengths were undervalued, as were college players in the amateur draft.
One reason that the book created such a stir is that to many of us, these ideas were not new. Baseball statistical analysis had been evolving and developing for roughly fifty years and had begun to find an audience with the writings of Bill James by the late 1970s. Sabermetrics, a word coined by James, did not prescribe a set of formulas and answers, as its critics might have charged. It prescribes a process, a philosophy that teams should make decisions based on evidence and data. This was not a wholly new concept—scouts had been using radar guns and stopwatches for decades rather than merely trusting their eyes—but sabermetrics suggested that baseball’s vast statistical record could better tell us which players were actually helping their team score or prevent runs, which game strategies would increase the team’s chances of winning, which minor leaguers were likely to be good major leaguers, and more. Much more, in fact. To the analytically inclined fan, Beane became their surrogate in the revolution that was (belatedly) taking place inside of the game.
Twelve years later, the debate is mainly over. The specific arguments raised by Moneyball have appropriately been adopted or rejected, the best run teams today are using both traditional scouting and evidence-based analytics, and the two schools are working together. Whatever advantage Beane held over his contemporaries in 2003 he holds no longer. Market inefficiencies last only as long as the market stands still, and baseball teams are constantly searching for a new advantage. Within a few years, Beane needed to think of something else.
For almost a century, the person in charge of bringing players into a team’s organization and constructing the roster has been called the “general manager.” These men have held various titles over the years, but if you were the guy who made the trades people called you the GM. Like any business model, the growing game has caused further departmentalization, resulting in farm directors, scouting directors, assistant GMs, player personnel directors, analysts, video coordinators, medical coordinators, and more. Some teams, like the Cubs, have muddied the waters further by giving Theo Epstein the title “President of Baseball Operations” and making Jed Hoyer the general manager. “Baseball Operations,” a relatively new term in the game, generally encompasses a few dozen people working 52 weeks per year trying to make their organization smarter or stronger.
The overarching job of Baseball Ops is the same as it was decades ago: to find, evaluate, acquire, and develop baseball players for their organization. Each of these four items has become more complicated over the years. Not long ago, players were best found by driving around the country watching games, while now scouts have to travel the world. Player evaluation used to involve a stopwatch and a few sets of eyes, while today computers are reading terabytes of pitch rotation data. How one acquires players (amateur draft, free agency, etc.) has changed many times over the years, of course. Player development and instruction is still evolving as well.
Building a championship team, 140 years after the start of the first professional league, is more challenging today than ever before. No matter the strengths of any organization, its management is competing against other smart, well-motivated people with significant resources of their own. In a direct competition, where every action draws a reaction, there can be no easy recipe for success. In an industry where people shift between organizations on a regular basis, it is not possible to maintain advantages for more than a short period of time.
Organizations are also dealing with imperfect information when constructing their teams. Which eighteen-year-old draftee will add five miles per hour to his fastball, and which will hit for more power? Which player is ready to be promoted to the majors, which declining player is over the hill and which will rebound, and which free-agent pitcher is least likely to break down due to arm troubles? The list of things one cannot know, at least precisely, is endless. Nevertheless, teams must make decisions.
Most baseball franchises recognize the limitations of their knowledge and spend time and money to improve their analysis and decision-making, some more successfully than others. However, there is still much that can be learned from studying the history of Baseball Ops. Looking carefully, one can often identify differences between teams that have consistently succeeded and teams that struggle.
While the rise of analytics in the game, ten to fifteen years ago, was new, the pattern of its evolution was not. Billy Beane’s “Goliaths”—well-heeled teams—have always been around, have always had an advantage, and have always won more than their share of pennants and championships. But the most successful organizations have also generally been the smartest, in particular the ones that have either fundamentally changed the way baseball teams are built, or have best adapted to changes in the environment in which teams operate.
In Only the Paranoid Survive, Andrew S. Grove, a onetime Intel CEO, called these transitions “strategic inflection points,” moments “when the balance of forces shifts, from the old structure, from the old ways of doing business and the old ways of competing, to the new.” Changes within the technology industry, where Grove worked, are usually more dramatic and momentous, but the concept he describes is certainly useful for thinking about changes in baseball.
No man illustrates Grove’s point better than Branch Rickey, the game’s most legendary and successful GM. Among other things, Rickey is largely responsible for the two most important inflection points in the game’s history.
In the 1920s Rickey was running the Cardinals and did not believe that his team could afford the high prices being charged by independent minor league teams for their players. Instead, he proposed that the Cardinals acquire their own teams and develop their own players. Baseball rules prohibited much of Rickey’s plan for a few years, but eventually the Cardinals and Yankees successfully lobbied for the requisite rules changes and both teams immediately set up huge farm systems. Over the next two decades, they were the dominant teams in the game. The clubs that were slow to create farm systems were soon unable to compete.
By 1945 Rickey was running the Dodgers, and that August he signed Jackie Robinson to a contract. In so doing, Rickey opened up, as a practical matter, the largest pool of untapped talent in the history of the game. Within a few years Robinson, Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella were playing in Brooklyn and winning pennants. Soon other teams followed suit, and now-legendary black players were starring throughout the game and winning championships.
This great story is usually told through a moral lens, through which Rickey had the courage to do the right thing and, thanks to his great players, triumphed. But Rickey and other GMs who subsequently integrated their teams needed more than courage, they needed to hire scouts and direct them to places where black people would be playing, places that they were not currently scouting, like Latin America or small towns in the segregated South.
The lessons of the 1950s have played out many times since, as teams have established advantages in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Japan, and, just recently, Cuba again. It sounds obvious—go where the players are—but pennants have been won or lost due to teams’ willingness to heed this simple commandment. Pat Gillick, a great scout and talent evaluator who became one of history’s best GMs, made inroads into the Dominican Republic that forever changed the game, as one look at today’s All-Star rosters and league leaderboards can attest. His later acquisition of Japanese stars, especially Ichiro Suzuki, ended any misconceptions Americans might have had about the talent there.
In the first half-century or so of the professional game the job of finding players fell to either the owner or field manager. Barney Dreyfuss owned the Pirates for more than 30 years and assumed the responsibility for finding many of the players for his great teams. He studied the baseball periodicals of the day, had connections around the country, and kept detailed notes in a notebook. Branch Rickey once suggested that Dreyfuss, who had never seriously played the game, was the best judge of baseball talent he had ever been around. John McGraw, whose Giants dominated the National League for a quarter century, completely ran his team on and off the field, with little interference from ownership. Both models, in the hands of a man of sufficient talent and genius, could and did work.
The first innovation, or “inflection point,” in Baseball Ops was the creation of the general manager position. There are many men who could lay claim to being baseball’s first GM, a non-owner non-manager in charge of finding and acquiring players. The best candidate for defining the position is probably Ed Barrow, hired by Yankee owners Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston in late 1920. Barrow’s unqualified success, building a great scouting staff and soon a dynasty, helped make the GM the dominant model in baseball front offices. Rickey held a similar role with the Cardinals, and had comparable success in the National League. The best GMs in later years—the Yankees’ George Weiss in the 1950s, the Reds’ Bob Howsam in the 1970s, the Blue Jays’ Gillick in the 1980s, the Giants’ Brian Sabean in recent years—were known for building top-notch baseball organizations by finding, motivating, and listening to scouts, player-personnel people, and, more recently, analytics and video staffs. Almost all great teams have done this better than their competition.
The evolution of team building also involved an increasing sophistication of front offices. In addition to Rickey, in the mid-1920s the Cardinals front office consisted of owner Sam Breadon (occasionally), treasurer/key assistant Bill DeWitt Sr. (the father of the Cardinals’ current owner), traveling secretary Clarence Lloyd, and two secretaries. Today, the Baseball Pperations side alone of the San Francisco Giants employs 33 executives.
Some of the biggest challenges faced by Baseball Ops over the years are due to changes to the game off the field. After experimenting with bonus rules for 20 years, in 1965 baseball held its first amateur draft. No longer could teams like the Yankees and Dodgers rely on their advantages in money and prestige. Scouts could still provide an advantage in deciding who to draft, but everyone had the same shot at the same players. The A’s and Dodgers, in particular, had several great early drafts that propelled them to excellence in the 1970s. Fifty years later, even with all of the international inroads that have been made, the draft still provides nearly 70 percent of the talent to the major leagues.
Baseball underwent another major change with the advent of widespread free agency in 1976. From a Baseball Ops standpoint, free agency put an even larger premium on evaluating veteran players—not only their present, but also their future. In an age of one-year contracts, players would hold down a job until they showed they could not, and then the team found someone else. But now most important decisions—signing free agents, signing your own players to keep them from free agency, making trades—had long-range implications. Understanding how players—both generally and specifically—are likely to age is crucial, and analytics have played an increasingly large role in this understanding.
Twelve years ago Moneyball shone a light on analytics, another chapter in the continual evolution of Baseball Operations. But it was not the final chapter. The recent marriage of video technology and high-speed computing, which has led (so far) to increased defensive shifts, a better understanding of swing mechanics, and further advances in pitch selection, was but a dream when Moneyball was published.
What’s next? Imagine a team that figures out how to reduce pitcher injuries—how big of an advantage would that be? You can be certain that the best organizations are working on this problem as you read this. Teams are also using the latest research from neuroscience and other disciplines to try to better understand the mental side of player performance.
The best organizations have always been ones that looked for new solutions, or better ways to implement the old solutions. New challenges will inevitably lead to larger and more complicated Baseball Operations departments, working ever harder in their search for an increasingly valuable extra win.
And now we head for the last roundup. You, having arrived here presumably after a spin through the previous four parts, might offer radically different selections, or at the least rank them differently. The selection process, I can say, was difficult and the rankings no less so. But I have been thinking on this subject for a good long while, so it could be that I overstate the effort. A Facebook friend asked in midweek, “Will these perhaps be a part of a future book with corresponding text?”
I replied: “Mark Rucker and I had thought to create precisely such a book in the mid-1980s, when both baseball and photography were nearing their 150th anniversaries, as they were then identified. Publishers didn’t go for it. If this idea does a Lazarus, I’m all over it–and would always wish to work again with Mark, via www.theruckerarchive.com.” The limit for this week’s posts to “Our Game” I set at 25 for reasons of bandwidth consumption and user friendliness. But could this topic–baseball’s greatest photographs–go ten times larger, to 250 images? Absolutely.
I could make the additional selections, ideally with my old friend Mark, but wouldn’t it be great if we could work in your suggestions, too? You know, when we came up with the idea almost thirty years ago, a book was the obvious way to present such an array. But the web may be even better. The first of this five-part series drew three times more views than a typical “Our Game” blogpost; the next went on to triple that day-old high-water mark.
So maybe we do not end here, on this day, but only pause and regather.
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This marks the end of the five-part series that commenced here: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2015/03/02/diamond-visions-baseballs-greatest-photographs/
Roger Kahn had it right when he titled his wonderful book about aging Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer. There is a special poignancy to the passage of time in baseball. As all clocks are stopped in the confines of the ball park, where the game ain’t over till it’s over, so is the fan impervious to the slipping sands of time. The heroes of our youth grow old–“the boys of summer in their ruin,” in Dylan Thomas’s full phrase—yet we seem the same. That’s why such occasions as Old Timers’ Day or the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies are so sadly sweet; better, we may think for a moment, to preserve these heroes in our memories as they were, frozen in a baseball-card pose, so that we too might stay young forever.
But often we say our baseball heroes age and stumble, foretelling our own fates.And when photographs depict, say Babe Ruth or Willie Mays in their primes, and are on hand to record the sad final days of their storied careers, that is the glory of the game. For even when we see the boys of summer in their ruin, we recall them ever after at their peaks, when they were young and so were we. Like a photograph, baseball stops time and holds it.
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Photos 21-25 tomorrow! This series commenced here: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2015/03/02/diamond-visions-baseballs-greatest-photographs/
Many baseball fans love the old ballparks, as much or more than they do the old players and teams. These hosts to great days, these halls of fame–they have a romance about them out of all proportion to their architectural merits. Soon, I expect, we will experience a nostalgic glow when recalling Shea Stadium. If the America that was survives anywhere, it is in baseball, that strangely pastoral game in no matter what setting—domed stadium or Little League field. There were baseball photographers who specialized neither in portraiture nor in game action but in sweeping vistas of these green cathedrals. George H. Hastings in Boston, George R. Lawrence in Chicago, Irving Underhill in New York, and a legion of unnamed practitioners of the panoramic art working for the Bain News Service or the Pictorial News Company.
The wooden ballparks of the early period were firetraps–even those as gorgeous as Boston’s South End Grounds, which succumbed to flame in midgame on May 15, 1894, a footnote to the Great Roxbury Fire. The concrete-and-steel palaces that sprang up liked dandelions as baseball boomed, beginning with Shibe Park and Forbes Field in 1909, became long-standing museums of a million memories, and even when we see a panoramic view of an old ballpark into which we never set foot, we feel good about baseball, and America, and ourselves.
In this next set of great photos, it may be said that the ballparks and the fans rise to the fore, with the players retreating for a moment.
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Photos 16-20 tomorrow! This series commenced here: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2015/03/02/diamond-visions-baseballs-greatest-photographs/
I would have liked to feature an image from each of the great baseball photographers, but as there are more than 25, it was impossible. Hy Peskin, Charles Conlon, Neil Leifer, George Silk, Walter Iooss, Louis Van Oeyen, Charles Williamson, Joseph Hall, Paul Thompson, James Wallace Black, Carl Horner, Gilbert Bacon, Ozzie Sweet … the list runs on and on, to well beyond the 25 that forms my upper limit this week. Maybe one of you out there in the dark, dear readers, might wish to tackle a guest piece here on the subject of the great baseball photographers?
Over the years, with advancing technology and instant access to mass media, much has been gained, but something has been lost too. The telephoto lens makes easy what once was hard, but beauty has generally been the casualty of technical proficiency. Long distance shots of such great moments as Hank Aaron’s 715th home run or Carlton Fisk’s imploring his drive to stay fair will not make the cut here. Great moments make for iconic images, but seldom artistic ones. My two cents, of course; feel free to box my ears.
And then there are the photographs that tell a richly layered story. I am a sucker for such images; they are the spur to memory, and a writer’s friend. But the beautiful image speaks unaided, so I have not felt compelled to provide back-story in this week’s blog entries. You could look it up, or send me a note by wire, or whatever the kids do these days.
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Photos 11-15 tomorrow! This series commenced here: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2015/03/02/diamond-visions-baseballs-greatest-photographs/
What are baseball’s greatest photographs? That question came up on Twitter over the weekend. Some fellow tweeps offered World Series highlights, others offered sterling Sandy Koufax moments, or inspiring Jackie Robinson shots. It all boils down to criteria, I countered. Do you mean a great moment captured by the camera? An evocative portrait? A sweeping landscape? A favorite ballplayer or ballpark? A favorite photographer? For me, any of these groupings is sensible–and large enough that to select a top ten would be tough. But I promised to offer my thoughts here at Our Game, where the 140-character limit holds no sway.
In a way, I have tackled this question previously through subsets, most recently “Lost Ballparks” (http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2014/09/03/picture-portfolio-no-7-lost-ballparks/). I devoted separate 15-picture portfolios to Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Jackie Robinson; another to the game in the 1880s; and yet another to women in baseball (http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2014/03/28/picture-portfolio-no-3-women-in-baseball/). At the site I created to accompany publication of Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I provided many of the best images (not only photographs) from the period covered in that book: https://baseballeden.com/Images.html. So this subject has interested me ever since I became a fan, back in the Pleistocene Era.
But let’s return to that big question of the game’s greatest photographs, cutting across all imaginable subsets. For this, I think the criterion must be … beauty.
Baseball and photography were made for each other, and in fact they share a traditional, if erroneous, birthdate of 1839. In that year Abner Doubleday is supposed to have had the brainstorm that we now know as baseball—a pretty tale, but one that scholars have winked at for years—and Louis Daguerre presented to the French Academy of Sciences a new process for capturing images on light-sensitive coated plates that he immodestly named daguerreotypes. One baseball “dag” survives from the mid-1840s, depicting six members of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club (a dispute has lately arisen over the identities of those depicted). The first photograph of a baseball team survives only in a newspaper halftone from the 1930s: the Gotham Base Ball Club of 1855. Salt prints survive of the Knickerbockers and Excelsiors, posed on the playing field in 1859; and another of the Excelsior with Jim Creighton from 1860. These are beautiful to those of an antiquarian bent, but if they are among the game’s greatest photographs it is because of their historical importance.
I was asked on Twitter to offer my personal top five, and with trepidation I do so below, reserving the right to post five more tomorrow, and maybe five more each day of this week. (We’ll see about that.) To limit the millions of candidates just a bit, I have not considered any photos of Little League, amateur, collegiate, semi-pro, or minor-league baseball. Many posed images are gorgeous testaments to the skill of the studio or sideline photographer, but these take a back seat here.
I caution readers that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so I offer my selections from no perch of special expertise. You will have your own favorites, and I’ll be happy if you share them with me. A story could be written about each of the photographs to follow, but not today. Enjoy, and argue, and enjoy.
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This issue comes up a lot with fans, especially those who know quite a lot about baseball history. A tweet this morning persuaded me (#AskTheHistorian) to dash off a reply longer than 140 characters.Fans will assume that because the pitching distance in was 50 feet in 1892 and 60’6″ one year later, the poor pitchers had to throw 10’6″ farther. Further, they assume, this “fact” explains the offensive explosion of 1894, when NL pitchers had an all-time-high ERA of 5.33, the league batted for an average of .309, and five men hit over .400–four of these in the Philadelphia outfield alone. Here’s the real story.
From 1845 to 1880 the pitching distance was 45 feet. The pitcher had to deliver the ball from behind a 12-foot line, at least until 1863. At that point a back another 12-foot line, 48 feet from home, was added, in effect creating the pitcher’s box. In many of the years that followed, the dimensions of the box changed, but until 1880 the front line stood at 45 feet. Now I repeat from an earlier post:
“[In the 1870s] baseballs were now being manufactured in mass, with deplorable quality control: The dead ball was, by midgame, often the mush ball. The fans no longer considered low scores so remarkable. National League batting averages declined every year from 1877 to 1880, falling from .271 to an alarming .245. The number of strikeouts nearly tripled as pitchers perfected the curves and slants introduced only a decade before. The league ERA was 2.37. The fledgling circuit, which in those years included franchises in such marginal sites as Troy, Syracuse, Worcester, and Providence, was losing money and in big trouble.
“To the rescue came Harry Wright, the organizer of the Cincinnati Red Stockings and ‘Father of Professional Baseball.’ He perceived the threat as early as 1877 when, in the Boston Red Stockings’ final exhibition contest, he had the pitcher’s box moved back 5 feet. The following year, in a September exhibition contest against Indianapolis, he arranged for the game to be played with: a walk awarded on six balls rather than the nine that then prevailed; every pitch counting as either a strike or a ball, thus eliminating the ‘warning’ call an umpire made when a batter watched a good pitch sail by; and complete elimination of restrictions on a pitcher’s delivery—he might throw any way he wished. In the winter prior to the 1880 season, Wright proposed a flat bat and a cork-centered lively ball. And in December 1882, by which time most of the above proposals had been tried and some instituted—the front of the pitcher’s box at 50 feet, the abolition of warning pitches, the walk awarded on seven balls, soon to be six—he proposed denying the batter the right to call for a high or low pitch and, most dramatically, a pitcher’s box of 56 feet—very much the pitching distance of today. (The pitching distance at that time was measured from home plate to the front of the box, or true point of delivery, while today’s distance is measured from the plate to the rubber, from which the pitcher’s front foot strides some 4 to 4.5 feet forward.) [NOTE: my friend Bill Deane has corrected me thus in a note below and, as usual, he is right: “It was actually only 4’3½” shorter, as the pre-1893 distance was measured from the center of the base instead of the rear point, as it is today. See the appropriate chapter in Baseball Myths (Scarecrow, 2012).”]
“Hitting revived briskly in 1881, the first year of the new 50-foot pitching distance, but soon slid back again. The rule makers continued their tinkering with the ball/strike count (raising the strike count to four for 1887–in effect raising it to former levels, since the old warning pitch had prevailed until 1880 and was granted with two strikes until 1881–and lowering the ball count to four by 1889); the length of the pitcher’s box (from 7 feet to 6 feet to, in the final adjustment before replacement by the rubber, 5.5 feet); the pitcher’s windup (banning the running start and, for 1885, the raised-leg windup); and, most important, the delivery itself.”
To recap: In 1892 the pitching distance was truly only four feet, 3-1/2 inches shorter than that of today, because before the introduction of the slab, from which the 60’6″ distance is taken, the pitcher threw from a box, the front of which was 50 feet from the plate. However, the back line was five and a half feet farther back. In that last year of the old distance, which had been in force since 1880, Amos Rusie, may have been, from the batter’s perspective, the fastest pitcher ever.
Ever wonder how the New York Yankees got their name? Some of my correspondents have speculated that the name would have made a better fit for a Boston club, and they are right. When the National Football League placed a franchise in Boston in 1933 it was nicknamed the Braves, after the baseball team, or the Redskins. The club took the latter with it when it relocated to Washington, D.C. A subsequent NFL reentry into the Boston market in 1944-1948 was named the Boston Yanks. But the Yankees name goes way back, in a serpentine story with not a blessed thing about sports, let alone baseball. And yet, dear reader, you may like it anyway. A portion of this ran originally in Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore.
In September 2009 Tom Brady and the New England Patriots opened their NFL season at home on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. I had been worried about him. A nagging injury, cloaked in mystery in the typical Belichick style of the club, had kept him out of all four preseason games. Leaks to the press had localized the problem in his right foot but I had come to suspect that Brady had in fact hurt himself at a midsummer photo shoot for Esquire magazine, when the play calling may have stretched the quarterback beyond his natural limits.
For the cover of the magazine poor Tom was poured into a wasp-waisted wool suit by Gucci which forced him to hold his breath dangerously. The tightness of the two-button jacket was rakishly offset by an unbuttoned collar and a tie positioned strategically askew. His shoes were credited—and I’m not making this up—to a cobbler named A. Testoni. Brady’s raging five o’clock shadow was not credited to Richard Nixon, but his close-cropped hair was ascribed to “Pini Swissa for Pini Swissa Salon.” (This was clearly the head guy at the shop on Newbury Street in Boston—he even traveled with Brady to the Super Bowl and, ignoring Delilah’s cautionary model, cut his locks the night before the game. The Giants are properly grateful.)
Two crotch-focused shots offset the crotch-focused prose of the story inside, ostensibly the inside story about Tom Brady, superstar. “A big man. Taller, thinner, slower, quieter, and—it must be said—a little more milky white than one might expect. In the glinting angle of a limousine-crafted profile, he brings to mind someone beautiful and iconically male—Tyrone Power, perhaps.” Really.
Further into the story the writer, Tom Chiarella, quotes Tom as saying, “I like home magazines.” … “It’s hard,” Chiarella smarmily continues, “to think of the Brady all squoogie at the sight of a duvet cover or a teak spice rack.”
Is this male impersonator in Esquire the stoic quarterback whom sports fans had cast in the mold of Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees? Or is he truly a Yankee Doodle Dandy, a mincing cartoon? Before we hit the table of contents of the September issue we are made to run a gauntlet of 34 pages of soft-porn ads, from the glowering ambisexual models promoting Hugo Boss or Prada to the glistening torso of David Beckham to the artfully moussed Roger Federer.
What is going on here? Have our sports heroes and our media culture gone metrosexual? The unexpectedly high viewership of the Summer Olympics on NBC owed much to the record performances of swimmer Michael Phelps, but maybe even more, in this new age of spornography, to his Speedo.
Oh, why should I grumble? Has it not been ever thus? In the years before the Revolution made it America’s patriotic anthem, “Yankee Doodle” was a song of derision that the British heaped upon ignorant colonists hoping to attain foppish stature by aping English gentlemen. The first verse and refrain, as generally sung by children today, run thus:
Yankee Doodle went to town,
A-riding on a pony.
He stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni.
Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy.
Yankee Doodle round the world,
As sweet as sugar candy.
This seems a mild enough if not fully fathomable jest—hardly a slander. How then to account for the eponymous hero’s enduring power as a figure of fun? What precisely was a Yankee, or a Doodle, or most intriguingly, a macaroni?
Some savants trace the history of “Yankee Doodle” back to a harvesting song of fifteenth century Holland, “Yanker dudel doodle down,” sung by laborers who were paid with a tenth of the grain they harvested and all the buttermilk they could drink. Others find echoes of the melody in the equally old English rhyme “Lucy Locket” (“Lucy Locket lost her pocket, / Kitty Fisher found it; / Nothing in it, nothing in it, / But the binding round it”). In the days of Oliver Cromwell, one of the nicknames that the Cavaliers bestowed upon the Puritans was “Nankee Doodle.” An Albany-area tradition attributes a 1758 incarnation of “Yankee Doodle” to Dr. Richard Shuckburgh–a British army surgeon, wit, and musician who is said to have written it at Fort Crailo to mock the ragtag New England militia serving alongside the redcoats.
No matter; the essence is that it is a song of insult. The Yankee—as Captain Yankey (the Dutch pirate), or Jan (pronounced “Yan”) Kees (the Dutch for John Cheese), or James Fenimore Cooper’s Algonquian Yengeese, or Washington Irving’s fanciful tribe of yanokies—was a strong, silent sharpster who was after your money. A doodle was simply a fool, and so we may fairly term Yankee Doodle a sophomore, which translates from Greek to a wise fool.
Although earlier clues abound, we need look back no farther than 1775, when after the battle of Bunker Hill, the Continental army, under General Washington’s command, was encamped in the vicinity of Boston. The Tories were then singing to the old tune of “Lucy Locket” these lines:
Yankee Doodle came to town
For to buy a firelock;
We will tar and feather him,
And so we will John Hancock.
Thomas Ditson, of Billerica, Massachusetts, was the one actually tarred and feathered for attempting to buy a musket in Boston in March 1775. The Battle of Bunker Hill in June turned the tables, however, as “Yankee Doodle” came to be sung by the patriots. The complete Americanization of the song ensued as Harvard student Edward Bangs penned the following during George Washington’s presence at the provincial camp in Cambridge in 1775:
Father and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain Gooding,
And there we seed the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding.
Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
Yankee Doodle Dandy;
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.
Following General Burgoyne’s surrender of British troops to the Continental Army on October 17, 1777, British officer Thomas Anburey wrote:
The name [of Yankee] has been more prevalent since the commencement of hostilities…. The soldiers at Boston used it as a term of reproach, but after the affair at Bunker’s Hill, the Americans gloried in it. “Yankee Doodle” is now their paean, a favorite of favorites, played in their army, esteemed as warlike as the “Grenadier’s March”—it is the lover’s spell, the nurse’s lullaby … it was not a little mortifying to hear them play this tune, when their army marched down to our surrender.
Although musicologists have not found an 18th-century version of Yankee Doodle with the immortal line “He stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni,” the jibe may well have originated about the time of the Macaroni Club, established in London in the 1760s for men of polymorphous sexuality. By 1772 the macaroni was a national infatuation, even spawning a magazine not unlike the current Esquire (it was called The Macaroni and Theatrical Magazine). According to contemporary Thomas Wright, “the macaronis were distinguished especially by an immense knot of artificial hair behind, by a very small cock-hat, by an enormous walking-stick, with long tassels, and by jacket, waistcoat, and breeches of very close cut…. Macaronis were the most attractive objects in the ball, or at the theatre. Macaronis abounded everywhere. There were macaroni songs; the most popular of these latter was the following: —
“Ye belles and beaux of London town,
Come listen to my ditty;
The muse, in prancing up and down,
Has found out something pretty;
With little hat, and hair dressed high,
And whip to ride a pony,
If you but take a right survey.
Denotes a macaroni.”
Although musicologists have not found an eighteenth-century version of “Yankee Doodle” with the immortal line “He stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni,” that jibe may well have originated about the time of the Macaroni Club, established in London in the 1760s by men of polymorphous sexuality. By 1772 the macaroni was a national infatuation, even spawning . According to contemporary Thomas Wright:
The macaronis were distinguished especially by an immense knot of artificial hair behind, by a very small cock-hat, by an enormous walking-stick, with long tassels, and by jacket, waistcoat, and breeches of very close cut. . . . Macaronis were the most attractive objects in the ball, or at the theatre. Macaronis abounded everywhere.
Named for the vermicelli-based pasta enjoyed by cultivated young Englishmen of the 1760s on their tours of Italy—a nation thought by the English to be a particular den of perversion, even more so than France or Spain—the macaroni embodied the consumption of continental fare in intellectual and moral spheres, as well. Old-fashioned Englishmen came to identify macaroni culture with all that was outlandish and effeminate.
As “The Macaroni; A New Song” put it in 1772:
His taper waist, so strait and long,
His spindle shanks, like pitchfork prong,
To what sex does the thing belong?
‘Tis call’d a Macaroni.
Between yesterday’s macaroni and today’s metrosexual there may not be much to choose. Mark Simpson coined the term in a 1994 article in the Independent titled “Here Come the Mirror Men.” Eight years later, in Salon, he wrote:
For some time now, old-fashioned (re)productive, repressed, unmoisturized heterosexuality has been given the pink slip by consumer capitalism. The stoic, self-denying, modest straight male didn’t shop enough (his role was to earn money for his wife to spend), and so he had to be replaced by a new kind of man, one less certain of his identity and much more interested in his image….
A Yankee Doodle Dandy indeed.