The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time.
Yesterday evening, I watched a documentary that explores desegregation in baseball in the years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. A Long Way From Home: The Untold Story of Baseball’s Desegregation takes a good look at the struggles faced by black and Latino ballplayers, which, as fans of baseball history know, continued in an intense vein for years and years following the 1947 season. A lot of times, our society has a tendency to stop with Jackie Robinson, and while Robinson’s role in the desegregation of baseball was undoubtedly important, we are doing a disservice to those who followed in his footsteps when we end the story there.
This documentary attempts to rectify this. It is full of interviews with players from those years discussing the treatment they received and the obstacles they faced, including being rejected service at restaurants, abuse from other players, teammates, and coaches, abuse from fans, and skewed reports in the newspapers. Many Latino players also faced a linguistic and cultural struggle on top of the racism. All these players knew that in order for them to make it in baseball, they had to play twice as well as their white counterparts.
The trailer for the documentary is posted below. You can access the full video here.
Bud Fowler was the earliest known African-American player in organized professional baseball, as well as the first to play on integrated teams. Born John W. Jackson on March 16, 1858, Fowler was the son of a fugitive slave-turned-barber. His father had escaped from slavery and migrated to New York, eventually settling in Cooperstown. The young John Jackson learned to play baseball during his youth in Cooperstown, but it remains unknown why he went on to adopt the name “Bud Fowler.”
Fowler learned to be a barber like his father, working in the profession to supplement his income while he played ball. He played amateur ball for a few years, and his first year of prominence in the game came in 1878 at the age of twenty. By this time John W. Jackson was calling himself “Bud Fowler,” and would be known by this moniker throughout his baseball career. On April 24, 1878, he pitched a game for the Chelsea Picked Nine, who defeated the Boston Red Caps, champions of the National League in 1877. He pitched some more for the Chelsea team, then played a few games with the Lynn Live Oaks, and finally finished that season with the Worcester club.
The Lynn Live Oaks were a member of the International Association (IA), considered by some historians to be the first minor league, as they operated in cooperation with the National League. Thus, with his stint with the Live Oaks in 1878, Fowler became the first African-American to integrate a team in minor league history, and thus the game’s first African-American professional ballplayer.
Continuing to support himself as a barber, Fowler went on to play for baseball teams in New England and Canada for the next four years. He then moved to the Midwest, playing for teams in Niles, Ohio and Stillwater, Minnesota with the Northwestern League.
Fowler initially signed with the Stillwater team as a catcher. However, after the club lost its first fifteen games, Fowler was put on the mound. On May 25, 1884, he led the team to its first victory, a 13-7 win over Fort Wayne. The team relied heavily on his right arm from that point on, and Fowler delivered, winning five of Stillwater’s first seven victories. All his time on the mound took its toll on his arm, however, and that season marked his transition from the battery to the infield.
Fowler signed with the Keokuk (Iowa) club in February 1885 where he quickly became the most popular player on the team as a second baseman. Fans and newspapers alike admired not only his abilities as a ballplayer, but also his intelligence and his “gentlemanly” conduct. Unfortunately, the Western League folded in mid-June due to financial reasons, leaving Fowler without a team.
After short stints in St. Joseph, Missouri and in Portland, Maine, Fowler signed with the Pueblo Pastimes of the Colorado League to finish out the year. The impression he left in Colorado became evident when the Rocky Mountain News commented, “A league of colored baseball players has been organized in the South. It is safe to say there will be few of them as good as Fowler.” The following season, in 1886, Fowler joined a team in Topeka, Kansas where he led the league in triples, helping Topeka to the pennant.
Fowler continued to journey from team to team, however, racial tensions were starting to become more and more pronounced. One Sporting Life article commented, “Joe Ardner, in one game he played, shows himself to be … far superior to the ‘coon’ Fowler on second base.” Around this time, some exclusively black baseball leagues were forming, though Fowler continued to play on integrated teams, in spite of the racism he faced. In 1887, however, nine of Fowler’s white teammates with the Binghamton team signed a petition demanding that Fowler and black teammate William Renfro be released or they would quit. Finally fed up with the struggle, Fowler requested and was granted his release from the Binghamton team in late June.
Shortly after Fowler’s release, the International League formally banned any additional signings of African-American players.
Fowler continued to play for various integrated teams in other leagues over the next several years. However, racism was becoming more and more of an issue. In the fall of 1894, conditions led him to organize the Page Fence Giants, an all-black team sponsored by the Page Woven Wire Fence Company of Adrian, Michigan. From 1894 to 1904, Fowler played and/or managed the Page Fence Giants, the Cuban Giants, the Smoky City Giants, the All-American Black Tourists, and the Kansas City Stars.
At the end of his career Bud Fowler insisted that he had played on teams based in twenty-two different states and in Canada. No doubt the journeyman characteristic of his long baseball career was due in large part to the racism factor.
Bud Fowler died on February 26, 1913 of pernicious anemia after an extended illness, just shy of his 55th birthday.
In baseball, democracy shines its clearest. The only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rule book. And color, merely something to distinguish one team’s uniform from another’s.
I don’t know how it is that I’d never heard of this movie before, but I stumbled upon it at the library last week, and I’m glad I did. Based on a true story, The Perfect Game is about a group of boys from Monterrey, Mexico who became the first non-U.S. team to win the Little League World Series in 1957.
The movie begins when César Faz moves to Monterrey, Mexico after being let go by the St. Louis Cardinals from his job as a clubhouse attendant. César seems content to drink the rest of his life away, but then he meets a boy named Ángel Macías, a wannabe pitcher who is crazy about baseball. Ángel convinces César to first play catch with him, then later convinces him to help recruit and coach Monterrey’s first-ever Little League team.
The Monterrey Industrials become an impressive team, and before long, they find themselves traveling to Texas to play on the competitive stage. Upon their arrival in the United States, they are met with racism, a language barrier, and visa troubles. Even though they are physically smaller than any of the American teams, the Industrials pull off a series of victories that endear them to the media and to fans. With some outside help and support from a sports reporter, a groundskeeper, friends and family back home, and some other unexpected sources, the team wins its way to the Little League World Series championship game.
I could go into more detail about the plot, but with this particular film, I feel more inclined to discuss what I like about it. Throughout the movie, the boys who make up the Monterrey Industrials are complete reverent about baseball. They consider it to be a gift from God himself, and when Ángel stumbles upon the first real baseball he’s ever held, he is convinced it was dropped from the sky by God. Ángel, who has a rough relationship with his father, is even willing to put up with his father’s shame in order to pursue his passion for the game.
In spite of how his career with the St. Louis Cardinals ended, César Faz also continues to show a love for the game. Twice he accidentally stands up a girl who has invited him for dinner. César is deeply interested in the girl, but he gets so caught up in coaching the team that he constantly loses track of time.
Beyond baseball, and sometimes even on the diamond, the movie tackles the issue of racism in the United States, against Hispanics and African-Americans both. It also highlights the kindness of people, even in the midst of a turbulent time. We see everyone from a diner waitress to the Secretary of State stepping in on this team’s behalf to help them on their journey through Little League baseball.
Overall, the movie has moments that are just so real. We see struggles with alcoholism, a strained father-son relationship, a death in a family, a clash of cultural differences, a love interest, harsh working conditions, and the juxtaposition of leading a practical life versus chasing one’s passions. I wouldn’t call The Perfect Game the best baseball movie I’ve seen (I hesitate to go that far with any movie, really), but it ranks pretty high on the list.
Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, Effa Louise Manley co-owned the Newark Eagles baseball franchise in the Negro leagues (alongside her husband, Abe Manley) from 1935 to 1946. After her husband’s death, she then became sole owner of the team through 1948. She was also a noted activist, active in the Civil Rights Movement and serving as treasurer of the Newark chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Effa Manley was born on March 27, 1897 in Philadelphia (some sources cite her birth year as 1900). Her actual racial background also remains a mystery — some speculate that she was of mixed race while others believe she was a white woman who could pass as black. Manley herself seemed to enjoy the confusion generated by her ethnic background. She graduated from Penn Central High School in 1916, completing vocational training in cooking, oral expression, and sewing. Following high school, she moved to New York City.
In New York, Manley could often be found at Yankee Stadium, taking in ballgames. “Babe Ruth made a baseball fan of me,” Manley reportedly said. “I used to go to Yankee Stadium just to see him come to bat.” At a World Series game in 1932, Manley met her future husband, Abe. The couple married in 1935, and he involved her in the operation of his own club, the Newark Eagles in New Jersey.
As co-owner of the Eagles, Manley didn’t fit into the traditional 1930s homemaker mold for women. She managed day-to-day business operations for the team, handled contracts and travel schedules, and she proved particularly talented at marketing. She developed a number of promotions that advanced the Civil Rights Movement as well as a variety of other causes and benefits. Under Manley’s leadership, the Eagles invited soldiers during World War II to Eagles games for free. They also hosted benefits for various causes, including the Harlem Fight for Freedom Committee and the Newark Community Hospital. Within the Negro Leagues, Manley worked to improve conditions for players in the entire league. She advocated for better scheduling, better pay, and better accommodations. Under Manley, the Newark Eagles traveled in an air-conditioned bus, a rare luxury in the Negro Leagues.
During Manley’s time with the team, the Eagles won the Negro League World Series in 1946. Among the Eagles players during Manley’s ownership were future MLB stars such as Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and Don Newcombe.
Following integration of Major League Baseball, attendance at Eagles games plummeted, from 120,000 in 1946 to 57,000 in 1948. Like many other Negro League teams, Newark found itself unable to continue generating profits. Even after selling the club to a group of investors in 1948, Manley continued to stay involved in baseball. She co-authored a book on black baseball with Leon Hardwick, and she donated a scrapbook of her years with Newark to the Baseball Hall of Fame. She also wrote letters lobbying for Negro leaguers to be admitted into Cooperstown.
Effa Manley died of a heart attack on April 16, 1981. She was buried in Culver City at the Holy Cross Cemetery. She was the first woman inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The Eighth Inning of Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us into the 1960s. In this decade of the American Pastime, we find that it is being recognized less and less as such. Football has risen to prominence, and a lot of folks come to argue that football, not baseball, has now become the true national game. Additionally, the sixties were quite a stormy and unstable period in American history, filled with race riots, activism, anti-war protests, hippies, and Woodstock.
The game of baseball also finds itself experiencing some changes. In 1961, Babe Ruth’s single season home run record is threatened, then broken, by a man who is far from being a fan favorite. Roger Maris is described as moody and sullen, avoids talking to the press, and starts losing his hair as a result of the pressure he is under as he inadvertently finds himself chasing Ruth’s record.
Pitching sees a rise in dominance as the decade progresses, thanks to commissioner Ford Frick’s commandment that the strike zone be expanded to counter the explosion of home runs. Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson are among those who rise to preeminence from their positions on the mound. As pitching becomes the ruling force in the game, there comes a decline in home runs being hit. This, in turn, contributes to the decline in fan interest in the game.
This time period also sees changes as far as the growth of the league. The success and profitability of the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the west brings the league to consider other ways in which to spread the game throughout the country. Four new teams were added to Major League Baseball. We see the birth of the California Angels, the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins, then a newer Senators team moved to Arlington and became the Texas Rangers. The New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s (later the Astros) also joined the National League. The Braves would move from Milwaukee to Atlanta and the Athletics moved to Oakland. After just one season, the Seattle Pilots left for Milwaukee and became the Brewers, and towards the end of the decade the Royals were established in Kansas City and the Expos in Montreal. (I’m sure I must be missing one or more others here, and for that, I apologize.)
At the beginning of the decade, Ebbets Field met its fate with a wrecking ball painted to resemble a baseball. Jackie Robinson, who had once played at Ebbets, now worked and fought for civil rights, and Branch Rickey, who was the force behind integration in Major League Baseball, passed away in 1965. The Polo Grounds became the home of the New York Metropolitans, led by the one and only Casey Stengel, now getting along in years. Suffices to say, the Mets weren’t very good in those early years. Eventually, Stengel would retire from baseball. After that, the same wrecking ball that took out Ebbets Field would also bring down the Polo Grounds. The Mets moved into Shea Stadium, and by the end of the decade transformed into the “Miracle Mets,” winning the 1969 World Series.
In this inning, we meet Pete Rose and see bits about Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Whitey Ford, Roberto Clemente, and many, many others. Sandy Koufax seemingly retires almost as quickly as he broke into the league and became the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. In Baltimore, Earl Weaver became manager of the Orioles. One of the greatest managers of all time, the Orioles became the dynasty of the decade under Weaver.
In this decade, we also meet Marvin Miller. Miller became the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966. The players loved having Miller speaking on their behalf, but baseball owners, unsurprisingly, hated having Miller around. He was a man who Red Barber would call “one of the two or three most important men in baseball history.”
By the end of the disc, we learn about Curt Flood’s battle against the reserve clause, which at this point is only just beginning. Flood learned that he was to be traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia, and in the face of the racism he knew he would face in Philadelphia, he decided to oppose the trade. This flew in the face of the entire history of baseball business.
I think my favorite feature of this disc comes in all the arguments defending baseball. In spite of George Carlin’s comedy routine that makes baseball seem like a slow, sissy sport, baseball continues to be referred to as America’s National Pastime for good reason. Sure, football is faster and perhaps more suitable to the 30-second attention span that now dominates our culture (though, more recently, football also seems to be declining in popularity). But baseball’s place in the American psyche runs deep, and in a lot of ways, it is the very nature of its leisurely pace that makes it so appealing.
Here’s a good, and important, infographic from the Huffington Post that takes a look at the racial makeup of Major League Baseball. Jackie Robinson may have broken the color barrier in 1947, but as the graphic points out, that didn’t change the economic barriers to playing baseball. And, let’s be honest, this is an expensive sport. On the other hand, Robinson’s debut into the majors did also open the doors for Latinos in the MLB, and given the talent it has introduced, this is definitely a great thing.
But when he (Willie Mays) was in California, whites refused to sell him a house in their community. They loved his talent, but they didn’t want him for a neighbor.
Hank Aaron’s autobiography, I Had A Hammer, was the final book of the Literature of Baseball course I sat in on this fall semester. I did not finish reading the book by the end of the semester, but I’ve made a point to get through it since then. I’m glad to have done so, because I had once started the book many years ago, but never finished it, and now I can say that I have.
Hank Aaron begins by recounting his childhood in Mobile, Alabama, growing up as a poor southern boy sneaking off to play baseball whenever time would allow him to do so. As a ballplayer, especially as a hitter, Aaron expresses an unwavering confidence in his abilities. He attributes his successes throughout his career to his ability to concentrate at the plate, no matter what else might be going on in his life. This allows him to stay consistent as a hitter and to collect hits and home runs even against the best pitchers in professional baseball. This confidence propels him from the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League to the South Atlantic League, then to the Milwaukee Braves. With the Braves, Aaron led the team to a World Series victory in 1957 and earned the Most Valuable Player award of the National League.
On April 8, 1974, Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record of 714. Through this book, the reader gets to glimpse the home run chase from Aaron’s perspective, which was not the same as the perspective of the general public during this period. In the autobiography are published a handful of the thousands of pieces of hate mail that Hank Aaron received as he pursued the Babe’s record, and many of them are heartbreaking. Much of the time, I try to keep my faith in humanity, in spite of the hatred and violence and destruction that seems to perpetually permeate our society. Sometimes, however, I have moments that makes me believe that such faith is useless and that we, as a race, will never change. Reading these pieces of hate mail sent to Aaron was one of those moments. I considered sharing one or two of them here, but they are all so repugnant that I honestly don’t have it in me to even retype them.
Aaron describes it best early in the book when he writes, “The Ruth chase should have been the greatest period of my life, and it was the worst. I couldn’t believe there was so much hatred in people. It’s something I’m still trying to get over, and maybe I never will.”
On the other hand, when word of all the hate mail reached the media, fans responded with letters of support.
I understand you get a lot of crank letters concerning breaking Ruth’s record. Enclosed is something [matches taped to the page] that will take care of those letters.
Letter like these, I think, are what keep me from giving up completely. I don’t want to speak for Hank Aaron, though I’d like to think that he feels the same way about them.
Aaron also set all-time records for total bases and RBIs. He ended his playing days by spending two seasons back in Milwaukee with the expansion team Brewers, then began a new career as an executive with the Atlanta Braves.
Off the field, as time went by, Hank Aaron spoke out more and more against the blatant bigotry that he observed taking place around him. For a long time, Aaron was the highest-ranking black in baseball. In this position, Aaron became an unofficial spokesman in racial matters as they pertain to the game.
What I love about this autobiography is that it is so much more than just a baseball book. Hank Aaron, along with Lonnie Wheeler, opens our eyes up to the world of bigotry and discrimination that some of us never experience in our day-to-day lives. And while baseball and the country has come a long way since Aaron’s first days in baseball, he points out that we still have a long way to go.