At the end of the nineteenth century, amateur sports in American society were recognized as effective methods for boys and men to identify with a privileged class: wealthy white men who not only owned their time, but were morally upright and honorable. Indeed, besides those white men born citizens of the United States and inheriting a sense of entitlement that position allowed, newly arrived immigrants endeavored to pursue the freedom found in physical play and competition. Not to be denied the opportunity, African Americans also pursued the rewards associated with agonistic contests of strength, speed and skill. Participating in organized sports often times in segregated venues, many succumbed to the capitalistic impulse associated with sports such as horseracing, boxing and baseball.
During the first half of the twentieth century, sports participation for African American men became a unique opportunity to project in full view a particular species of masculinity that not only challenged canned definitions of blackness worn thin, but created new models for pursuing a sense of freedom, social mobility and political equality believed unattainable. Sports maintained a transformative power for athletes like Jack Johnson, Andrew “Rube” Foster and Paul Robeson. Their athletic talent, coupled with their desire for full-citizenship and need to be recognized for their “balls and their brains,” meant sports blurred racial and class boundaries, revealing the possibilities of a world unhinged from tradition. Indeed, this was a world where the rewards granted to those able to succeed in the athletic arena reflected their potential for success in the “real” world.
For the African American men who played in the Negro Leagues from 1920-1960, there were certain aspects of the game that could not be overlooked. Tied to America’s tradition of racial segregation was the constant need of black men to validate themselves publicly in an effort to claim their citizenship, manhood and masculinity. Within the context of the game of baseball, its rituals and evolving traditions, the complex nature of race in America was revealed in terms closely connected to the athletic performances of some of the games’ greatest players. In demonstrating their athletic abilities publicly in an attempt to erase the lie perpetuated against them, black men pushed back against white supremacy. In drawing attention to their creativity and athletic ability, black athletes defined themselves as unique expressions of dissent.