Sol White’s History of Colored Baseball, with Other Documents on the Early Black Game: 1886-1936.

Sol White’s History of Colored Baseball, with Other Documents on the Early Black Game: 1886-1936. – book reviews

Reed Browning

In bringing these three useful volumes about the early years of baseball before the public, the University of Nebraska Press provides still another sign that baseball history has entered the mainstream of historical studies. In retrospect it is easy to see why. Defenders of the game, after all, have long claimed that baseball is a peculiarly U.S. enterprise. In its rapid nineteenth-century rise to preeminence among U.S. sports and then in its protracted commitment to racial segregation, organized baseball has seemed to many observers to offer important hints about the U.S. character – perhaps even to be a microcosm of the wider nation. Furthermore, even a cursory inspection of much of the writing about the game reveals that baseball studies desperately needs the cool hand of the scholar, for in few other areas of writing can a reigning tolerance for mendacity, exaggeration, and misconstruction – think only of official baseball’s silly and contrived founding myth – be so profound. How could historians resist the invitation to bring sobriety to a subject that generates such nonsense?

The current scholarly interest in the game has four major focuses: the excitement inherent in oral history research; the widening interest in the Negro Leagues; the application to baseball of the historian’s traditional concern with the exercise of power; and the recent revolution in gathering and interpreting baseball statistics. Each of these merits comment.

The rich potential of using oral history techniques – of interviewing baseball veterans from the 1920s and 1930s and allowing them to reminisce with the tape recorder rolling – was first revealed by Lawrence Ritter in The Glory of Their Times, which was published in 1966. Other writers have followed Ritter’s path, and a collage of published recollections has emerged. Of course, memory is selective, focusing on highlights and triumphs and tending to efface unpleasant moments.

Oral histories have therefore contributed to the already excessive romanticizing of baseball history. We also now realize that opportunities were missed in these early interview sessions: for example, questions about batting and pitching strategy or about the deployment of fields were largely unexplored. Still, oral historians have enlightened us about life when ball games were played under the sun. As the 1950s and 1960s become distant eras, we are positioned to profit from the experience of our inquiring predecessors by posing more focused questions to later generations of aging veterans.

The rediscovery of the richness of Negro League life is one of the major achievements of recent baseball scholarship. Forced out of organized baseball before the end of the nineteenth century, African Americans formed their own clubs and leagues and created their own version of the national pastime. Mark Ribowsky’s, A Complete History of the Negro Leagues, 1884-1995, which appeared in 1995, is an example of the recent effort by historians to make sense of these events. The emerging tale features bigger-than-life heroes like Rube Foster and Cool Papa Bell while providing ample occasion for might-have-been speculation about, for example, home run chases that pitted Josh Gibson against Lou Gehrig and Jimmy Foxx. In addition to its interest as a sheer narrative of accomplishment, the story of black baseball is a vital component of the broader story of U.S. race relations that has assumed such a central location in the historiography of our era. It is probably no coincidence that baseball and Jim Crow were institutionalized at about the same time.

Historians have long been interested in the uses of power, and the almost invariably uneasy relationship between players and management that has characterized baseball since it became a professional sport has naturally attracted attention. The heavy-handed maneuvering of management has invited its being cast in the role of the heavy, making the subject of labor relations more engaging. Written more than thirty years ago, Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out, is a celebrated example of baseball history as morality play. However, more sophisticated analyses of baseball’s labor history are now appearing. Robert Burk’s Never Just A Game: Players, Owners, and American Baseball to 1920, which appeared in print in 1994, represents this category well. As additional materials bearing on the intentions, planning, and financial capabilities of owners come to light, we can expect to gain a more nuanced understanding of the enduring tension.

Baseball’s capacity to generate statistics has long been a singular reason for its popularity. Because so many of its on-the-field actions are discrete and therefore countable, baseball excels all other sports – and conceivably all other human activities – in providing data that can become the grist for the accumulation of tantalizing totals or the calculation of revelatory ratios. A corps of statistics buffs, often called sabermetricians (after the acronym SABR, which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research), has been gathering diamond data for several decades, meanwhile struggling to find better statistical instruments for assessing the quality of a player’s performance than such relatively primitive devices as the batting average and the earned run average. Sabermetrics has corrected such once-celebrated numbers as Walter Johnson’s lifetime victory total from 414 to 417 and Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average to .366 rather than .367. More provocatively, it has suggested some revisions in conventional wisdom: e.g., that Mel Ott was a more useful outfielder than Joe Dimaggio. Conclusions of this sort, whether right or wrong, appeal to the revisionist in all of us. It is therefore understandable that, fueled by the results of scrutinies of ancient box scores and facilitated by the calculating speed of computers, the statistical analysis of baseball history is a flourishing field.

The reappearance of Sol White’s Official Guide: History of Colored Base Ball restores a singularly important book to currency. First published in 1907, it is the earliest history of black baseball. White had been a fine player (a much better hitter, for example, than Fleet Walker, but he is chiefly remembered as “the Livy of African American baseball.” To supplement White’s slender volume, Jerry Malloy appends a helpful introduction, a set of shorter pieces, a list of all African Americans known to have played in organized baseball between 1878 and 1899, and some data about a few of the better nineteenth-century black minor leaguers. White explicitly wrote to celebrate the achievements of African Americans in the face of their expulsion from organized baseball. Celebration was in order for among the great African American ensembles that he described were the Cuban Giants of 1887 (a black team, despite the name) that almost defeated the world champion Detroit Wolverines, and the Philadelphia Giants of the early twentieth century that he regarded as the equal of Connie Mack’s Philadelphians or John McGraw’s Giants.

White treated many subjects in his book: remarkable feats by black pitchers, the problems facing managers, the relative skills of various black stars, the art of pitching (Bud Fowler contributed this section), and – inevitably and recurrently – the unfairness of segregation. He likened Cap Anson, the early superstar whose racial attitudes helped regularize segregation within organized baseball, to Pitchfork Ben Tillman and James Vardaman. He declared that “in no other profession has the color line been drawn more rigidly than in base ball” (74). Yet he was not without hope: in encouraging the young black man to consider a baseball career he explained that “honest efforts with his great ability will open an avenue in the near future wherein he may walk hand-in-hand with the opposite race in the greatest of all American games – base ball” (67). The integration of baseball proceeded far more slowly, of course, than White had hoped, but it is worth noting that, although he became so obscure in his later life that his year and place of death are unknown, he was still alive in 1947 – able (we may hope) to savor Jackie Robinson’s appearance with the Dodgers.

Historians like their sources to be faithful to fact, and Malloy commented White for his accuracy. However, grounds for caution remain, for by Malloy’s own evidence White’s colorful tale of the origins of the Cuban Giants – a story now embedded in the history of black baseball – is a myth. Moreover, and again by Malloy’s own account, White sometimes misidentifies teams. It is also notable that no matter how one juggles the figures on page 26, White’s statistical conclusion is wrong. None of these errors invalidates the work, of course: its uniqueness makes it invaluable. But like all texts that warrant the scrutiny of historians, it needs to be used with appropriate care.

A year after Sol White’s History appeared, Moses Fleetwood Walker’s Our Home Colony was published. Like White, Fleet Walker was a black professional ballplayer, one of two to make brief major league appearances, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. However, the two books are startlingly dissimilar Where White looked forward to the day when blacks and whites would play professional baseball on the same field, Walker argued that black and white were so hopelessly at odds in the United States that blacks ought to emigrate to Africa. Walker’s life had had its turbulent moments. In 1891 he stabbed a white man, and although he was acquitted by a white jury of the murder charge, in 1898 he was convicted of mail robbery. David W. Zang, author of Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart, contends that Walker’s life of frustration – much but not all of it a consequence of his struggle against the indignities of segregation – led him to his bleak conclusions about the future of U.S. race relations.

Zang’s book is less a study of baseball history than an exploration of race psychology, between 1880 and 1920. He is too quick to label confusion as irony and not always sensitive to the ways in which his tale undermines (or at least complicates) his thesis about the unremitting pressures of segregation. By erecting his work on the “themes of division and paradox,” Zang sets the bold goal of understanding the soul of Walker. Zang portrays his subject as the embodiment of W.E.B. DuBois’ famous question: “Am I an American or a Negro?” (95). Calling Our Home Colony “the agonized outline of an autobiography, a prima facie case for a bitterly divided heart,” Zang concludes that Walker, like DuBois, was uneasily both (97). As a biographer, Zang is hampered by a paucity of firsthand testimony. The earliest of Walker’s authentic words date from 1899. Therefore, although some biographical facts can be assembled, the matters with which Zang is most concerned can only be approached conjecturally. He makes much of the fact that Walker saw himself as biologically divided – a mulatto – and of the fact that he was named after the man who rescued Israel from captivity. But Zang’s style can confuse indecision with profundity; rather than framing answers to various questions affirmatively, he sometimes prefers to explore them interrogatively or to string out a set of possibilities, blurring the force of each suggestion with a “maybe” and affording to none of them a priority in plausibility.

Zang’s belief that Our Home Colony is the means through which to understand Walker’s life is not unreasonable. However, before assenting to it entirely, it is useful to recall that Walker, instead of taking his own advice after 1908, established himself in Cadiz, Ohio, as the owner of a successful opera house that under his management featured segregated seating and welcomed minstrel shows. He was also a Knight of Pythias and a Mason. To be sure, when a thesis rests on the postulate of contradiction, then almost any evidence can be used to confirm it. One might well conclude from the final stages of Walker’s career that Our Home Colony, far from being the key to understanding his soul, was simply an episode in the shifting structure of coping strategies adopted by an African American in the era of Jim Crow.

Those who teach baseball history will find Dean Sullivan’s Early Innings a joy. It contains 120 documents that address a wide variety of subjects: the origins of the game, the emergence of professionalization, the creation (and frequently the demise) of the various major leagues of the early era, the geographical spread of the game, the enforcement of segregation, and the course of player-owner antagonism. John Ward’s dissection of the “reserve rule” combines the passion of the player with the logic of the lawyer, and he was both. Some of the pieces even suggest (as does an occasional newspaper quotation in Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart) that baseball fans disapproved of efforts to exclude African Americans from the game.

Looking ahead to the next edition of Early Innings, I suggest that the example of a nineteenth-century contract include the “reserve clause” and that fuller documentation of significant rule changes be provided. If it is possible to move behind the newspaper accounts of important decisions to the relevant documents themselves, that too would be an enhancement. These remarks treat only small matters. Early Innings will be a useful volume to almost all students of the early game.

Jerry Malloy calls African American baseball “the national pastime’s last historical frontier” (xiii). Actually, it isn’t. How about finance? What did major league teams do with their revenues? How about the minors? What role did they play in the course of baseball history? How about other ethnic groups? How are we to interpret the influx of Latin American players into the game in the 1950s and 1960s, and why have Japanese (and Taiwanese) players been so slow to appear in the majors? Beyond these queries lie some larger questions. Why did baseball sweep through the national consciousness in the second half of the nineteenth century? What is the proper periodization to impose on the narrative of baseball history? Finally, there is the separate challenge of synthesis that identifies ways to integrate the various branches of baseball research, or to put it more precisely, to meld the labors of the sabermetricians, the analyses of the students of power and race, and the skills of the storytellers. Baseball history is a booming enterprise. Whether the question under investigation is the effects of rule changes on the character of play or the effects of wartime bali on the character of the country, students of the game are feeding streams of knowledge and understanding. We will be even better served as confluences convert these streams into rivers.

Reed Browning is professor of history at Kenyon College, Ohio.

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