Text written by Albert Kilchesty
Race Pennant Brand (Baseball Reliquary collection)
The continued use of racially insensitive images and names in professional sports has been at the center of protest and debate for some time. Native-American activists in particular have demonstrated continually for change. This issue came to a head when the Atlanta Braves met the Cleveland Indians in the 1995 World Series. Each team had long used their respective nicknames, but over time their logos became more cartoonish and offensive. The Indians have since unofficially retired their mascot, Chief Wahoo, but the Braves and their fans continue to embrace the screaming Indian logo. Additionally, Braves fans have adopted a tomahawk-chop motion accompanied by a “warpath” chant. For years the Braves also had a teepee in the left-field stands, home to mascot Chief Noc-a-homa, who would emerge to perform a silly, celebratory dance after each Braves home run. The pennant race pole at left, showing Negro League teams through history, replicates those seen at some ballparks—Wrigley Field in Chicago, for example—to indicate current league standings. Felt banners of this sort are popular souvenirs sold at all parks. One can observe that in this league the Cleveland Indians occupy a customary position: last place.
Gentlemen's Agreement Brand (private collection)
Institutionalized racism in Organized Baseball has been a blot on the game since . . . forever. But most trace its genesis to comments made in 1885 by Cap Anson, then the game’s greatest star. After spotting a black player on an opponent’s roster, Anson vilely expressed displeasure and refused to take the field until the player was gone. That’s all it took. Baseball never had an official policy excluding African-Americans, it didn’t need one: no white man of influence would have given the matter a second thought after Anson’s outburst. This tacit understanding among so-called gentlemen continued into the twentieth century among a cabal of influential magnates and officials, a number of whom are depicted here. At center is Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1866 ‒1944), the first Commissioner of Baseball, who repeatedly deflected questions about integration by stating coyly that a team could sign anyone it wanted. This was unlikely to occur among such a bigoted group of owners and executives as Tom Yawkey (Red Sox), Charles Comiskey (White Sox), Dan Topping (Yankees), Clark Griffith (Senators), Sam Breadon (Cardinals) and Connie Mack (Athletics). Today, more than sixty-five years after Jackie Robinson integrated Organized Baseball in 1947, bias against players of color still affects the game, a bit less egregiously, but evident nonetheless.
Rednecks Brand (private collection)
This riff on the Stars and Bars features a rogue’s gallery of baseball racists. The cynosure is Adrian “Cap” Anson (1852‒1922), whose name, it was said, was better known than that of any statesman of his time. He played 27 professional seasons, compiling nearly 3,000 hits with a .329 lifetime batting average, stellar Hall of Fame credentials. He was one of nineteenth-century baseball’s most visible and vocal racists, famed for refusing to play against black opponents. Radiating out from Anson are other infamous bigots from the twentieth century, including the notorious Ty Cobb, Ben Chapman, Jake Powell and Dixie Walker. Cobb’s virulent behavior is legendary, of course, but the others are deserving of more attention. Ben Chapman was a former Yankees outfielder who, while managing the Phillies in 1947, led his team in a torrential outburst of racist epithets directed at Jackie Robinson during his first weeks with the Dodgers. Those on hand claim that never before had they heard taunting and bench-jockeying of such viciousness. One of Jackie’s teammates, Dixie Walker, “The People’s Cheerce” loved by Brooklyn fans, led an aborted walkout in protest of Robinson’s presence on the Dodgers; he was soon dispatched to Pittsburgh. In 1938, Jake Powell of the Yankees replied to a radio interviewer’s question about how the player enjoyed his off-season job as a policeman by saying that he enjoyed “cracking niggers over the head” for recreation. More of similar ilk applies to the other “stars” depicted here.
Red, Right & Wrong Brand (Baseball Reliquary collection)
Few white journalists lobbied more steadily and vociferously for the integration of baseball than Lester Rodney (1911‒2009), sportswriter for The Daily Worker, the house organ of the Communist Party USA. Rodney developed a love for baseball as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, where he was exposed to both the Dodgers and issues of social justice. In 1936 he joined the staff of The Daily Worker, using his position there to battle against segregation in American society, with an emphasis on black athletes and baseball. He was given wide latitude to criticize politics, anti-Semitism and other issues through the prism of sport, an approach that did not endear him to his sportswriter peers. A decade prior to Jackie Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball, Rodney had openly criticized Branch Rickey, general manager of the Dodgers, for failing to take steps to integrate the game. When the Dodgers inked Robinson to a minor league contract, Rodney’s editor gave the lion’s share of praise to the writer. Rodney stayed with the paper until the mid-1950s, continuing to write on racial issues in sport.
Color Blind Brand (private collection)
This juxtaposition of Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, each depicted as the object of adoration by fans of a different hue, illustrates a point that escaped baseball executives in their pursuit of racial homogeneity, viz. many fans, particularly younger ones, cared less for a player’s race than they did his talent. Black kids, naturally, worshipped Robinson as a god, while to white youth Jackie represented a break with tradition, a revolutionary who appealed to their natural rebelliousness and willingness to push the envelope. Ruth’s relationship to black fans, more of whom saw him during off-season barnstorming tours against Negro League players than at Major League games, was enhanced by persistent rumors that Babe was part African-American. Numerous observers pointed to Ruth’s “Negroid” facial features, particularly his nose, as evidence of mixed heritage. Former Negro League star Judy Johnson insisted this was true, although he admitted he couldn’t prove it.
First American Brand (private collection)
It’s well known that Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to break baseball’s color line, but few recall that Larry Doby (1923‒2003) was the second. Purchased from the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues by visionary owner Bill Veeck, Doby took the field for the Cleveland Indians on July 5, 1947, less than three months after Robinson debuted for the Dodgers. The fleet, powerful outfielder was the first black player to appear in the American League, literally the first Indian. The seven-time All Star played on two AL pennant winners while with Cleveland and sparked the club to its last World Series victory in 1948. He retired after 13 seasons with a career average of .283 with 253 home runs, and gained election to the Hall of Fame in 1998.
Green Black Red Brand
The text tells the tale: Elijah “Pumpsie” Green (b. 1933) was the first black player to appear for the Boston Red Sox, the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate. The switch-hitting infielder grew up in the Bay Area where he was a fan of the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks. He would later play in the PCL as a member of the San Francisco Seals (left) before debuting with Boston in 1959. Fifteen years earlier, the Sox had given Jackie Robinson a tryout, but passed on the future Hall-of-Famer. Most believe Red Sox owner, millionaire sportsman Tom Yawkey (right), had no intention of desegregating the team, but had consented to the tryout only to quiet community leaders. When asked later if he had any animosity toward African-Americans, he replied no—he got along just fine with those he employed on his estate in South Carolina.
Black Bucs Brand
On September 1, 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh filled out the batting order for a game against the Montreal Expos like he did almost every day. No big deal. It wasn’t until the team took the field that starting pitcher Dock Ellis looked around and noticed that each position was occupied “by a brother.” This had never before happened in Major League Baseball. For a decade, the Pirates had been aggressive in the pursuit of black talent, not only African-Americans but Spanish-speaking players from Puerto Rico and Central America. The club’s forward thinking created a National League powerhouse, The Lumber Company, which vied for pennants in the NL East throughout the 1970s. The players in the lineup that day would later beat the favored Baltimore Orioles in the memorable 1971 World Series. The Pirates lineup: Rennie Stennet 2B, Gene Clines CF, Roberto Clemente RF, Willie Stargell LF, Manny Sanguillen C, Dave Cash 3B, Al Oliver 1B, Jackie Hernandez SS, Dock Ellis P. They whipped the Phillies in a slugfest, 10‒7. In a bit of baseball karma, the dreadful Phillies were the perfect victims—they were the last National League team to integrate. Improbably, the Phils’ first black player was named John Kennedy.