“I is Unruffable”: Rereading African American Sports Performances as Unique Expressions of Dissent

Curator's Note

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.   



 Very insightful stuff here. I'm curious - do you think that any of this argument might hold true today, or rather serve as a platform for which to understand declining participation among African Americans in MLB? It is interesting that the Negro Leagues are held in such high esteem today (both in general American history and in MLB history, as well as African American history) yet so few young children are taking up the game through the professional ranks. At least, public discourse over the last few years has lamented dwindling numbers of African American youth playing the game of baseball for any number of reasons, ranging from a lack of facilities in urban environments to a preponderance of role models playing other sports (such as basketball and football). I"ve never really thought about this too much, but for the Negro Leagues having been as celebrated and important as they were, the identity seems so lost today. 

I wonder if some of the 'melting-pot' ideology that Elizabeth was discussing can be brought in to this discussion.  I wonder if the notion of baseball as avenue to success for African American men has become so passe (in a country that desperately wants to consider itself post-race) that fans actually reject it when the discussion arises.  I'm thinking specifically of the moment when Barry Bonds neared Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list. To even suggest that race was an important element to discuss in that moment was to invite online vitriol.  Has baseball culture effectively erased openly identifying oneself as a 'black player' from the discourse?

It would be interesting to answer yes, considering our discussion on the previous post about baseball stressing - among other nationalities - Japaneseness.

I keep thinking about a Sporting News editorial from December 6, 1923 that declared, "In a democratic, catholic, real American game like baseball, there has been no distinction raised except tacit understanding that a player of Ethiopian descent is ineligible." During the early history of baseball, the "melting pot" only extended so far: ethnicity yes, but race no. I find Pellom's idea that African American sports performance can be an expression of dissent very thought provoking in that context. I like the idea that it was a way to reclaim power.

That same Sporting News editorial goes on to declare that within the boundaries of whiteness a player's "'nationality' is never a matter of moment if he can pitch, hit, or field." In a truly democratic game, the only thing that matters (or should matter) is skill. And in order to truly be a post-racial society or sport, it probably goes without saying that the same needs to be true of race. Race shouldn't matter when discussing Barry Bonds. But given the long history of discrimination and segregation against African Americans, of course it’s a landmark. And given the bitter history it is worth noting.

I wonder if that lack of bitter history and Asian-specific (or even Latino-specific) discrimination is precisely what makes celebrating the heritages of Japanese and Dominican players acceptable?

The comments to Dr. McDaniel's article have been great.  Pellom is opening a new, long overdue, door to reflections on Negro Leagues history.  Only in recent years have we begun to see a closer reading of the history which takes into account the deeper issues of race, agency, masculinity, community, and even gender (see works by Rob Ruck, Adrian Burgos, Martha Ackmann, to name a few). 

Most discussions had centered around (1) trying to validate their performances in the context of white baseball contemporaries, (2) mildly successful attempts at statistical data gathering in an effort to prove "hall of fame" worthiness (3) focus on folklore and romantic notions of black players and black people becoming more "American" through baseball. Baseball is often viewed by the general public in this vaccum, above all that was happening in society.

McDaniels is among those moving towards more rigourous examinations, and this is welcomed. It opens the door to understanding the black experience from reconstruction to the early years of the Civil Rights movement (1880-1960). It must have an "Afro-Atlantic" focus, account for the impact of WWI and WWII, the great migration and urbanization.

This post is in response to Elizabeth Rawitsch's "The History of Discrimination in Baseball" and her comment "I wonder if that lack of bitter history and Asian-specific (or even Latino-specific) discrimination is precisely what makes celebrating the heritages of Japanese and Dominican players acceptable?" A color line was drawn against Asian players. The first attempt of a major league team to sign a player of Japanese ancestry occurred in 1897 when manager Patsy Tebeau of the Cleveland Spiders (now Cleveland Indians) announced that he was signing an outfielder known in the press only as "the brother of Japanese wrestler Sorakichi (Matsuda)". This signing never materialized. Eight years later (1905) NY Giants manager John McGraw announced that he invited a Japanese outfielder named Shumza Sugimoto to spring training. McGraw said the 23-year old outfielder had “all the goods” as a player and described him as “extraordinarily alert, a splendid batter and base runner and unusually quick and accurate picking up flies and grounders.” Impressive talent was not enough though. Sugimoto was not signed by McGraw for the 1905 season, and it appears that race was indeed the factor. Organized baseball was not comfortable with the idea of a Japanese player crossing the color line. Towards the end of spring training this uneasiness was expressed in a debate in the press. “Should the color line be extended to include Japanese players?” According to the Sporting News, the general consensus was “yes.” Sugimoto told the press that he “did not like the drawing of the color line in his case” and decided to instead join the semi-pro Creole Stars, an integrated team in New Orleans. The cases of Sorakichi (1897) and Sugimoto (1905) clearly demonstrate that there was “a yellow color line” drawn at the major league level that prevented Japanese American players from receiving the opportunity to compete at the highest level. 

“News and Comments,” Sporting Life Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 15, July 3, 1897, pg. 5

“Line Hits from the Bat,” The Evening Herald (Syracuse, NY), July 14, 1897, pg. 2

“Japanese for McGraw's Team, Special to The New York Times,” New York Times, Feb 10, 1905, pg. 8

“New York Nuggets,” Sporting Life Magazine, February 25, 1905, pg. 8

To pick up on the dilemma of athletes performing dissent: as MLB initially imagined and enacted something like "integration," it used Jackie Robinson. The many contradictions of that use and abuse are pretty well known, but it's worth noting the several instances of his difficult, complicated performances in this process, not least being his "playing himself" (Audie Murphy-style) in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). The film itself is quite perverse, at once celebratory, confused, sentimental, and highly fictional. (The very idea that he mght "play himself," given the many layers of "self" he played in baseball, on and off the field, is a problem worth pondering.) It's also striking that Robinson then took up political performance explicitly, rejecting Nixon (whom he once supported) and campaiging for JFK specifically based on their civil rights positions, and his complex relationship with MLK. 



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