1903 – Bob on race in 1880s baseball

There is likely a doctoral thesis in the subject of racial exclusion and the 19th century, as it ties into baseball. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if there is one out there somewhere. It’s a huge topic, and I’m not sure I can give it its due properly in a few paragraphs, but I’ll give it a shot. I may get a few details wrong, and if they are material errors, please let me know.

Even liberals in the 19th century were not necessarily inclusivists. Lincoln is on record as saying it would be impossible for America to absorb blacks, and on a few occasions advocated sending them back to Africa. The Supreme Court in Plessy vs Ferguson voted 7 to 1 in favor of a “separate but equal” doctrine, including the liberal justices. It really is hard to defend these principles in 2012, but it was the prevailing attitude at that time.

As to baseball in the 1880s, very few blacks were employed by Organized Baseball. And even those that were, were on the “fringe” teams. The Walker brothers did play with Toledo in the AA in 1884. But in a very real sense Toledo was NOT a major league team in reality. That franchise was only in the AA that one year. They were a minor league team that was induced to join the AA in response to the UA threat. They were a minor league team in 1883 and were so again in 1885. I could be wrong, and if I am, somebody please correct me, as I am not an expert on black ballists of the 19th century, but I think that there were only 4 blacks who played on Organized Baseball teams, Fleet and Welday Walker, George Stovey and Frank Grant. It wasn’t wide-spread. One also has to remember that minor league headquarters were not as strong as the NL. So many of the minor league teams got much if not most of their income from barnstorming. If the Eastern League (which became the International League in 1887) had truly banned blacks, those couple of teams that had the Walkers et al might/would have just left the league.

Finally, I think we all under-estimate the influence the Irish had on exclusion. Without being too reckless with my opinion, the Irish were very anti-black. The Irish were often called “white n*****s” and in the late 19th century were competing directly with blacks for the factory/menial jobs. It was in their best interests, politically, economically and socially, to cast blacks in the worst possible light. And by the mid-1880s, the Irish were starting to dominate baseball teams, understanding that I may be being a bit broad in labeling all Irish as exclusivists, In many ways it was in baseball’s best interest (from a narrow perspective) to exclude blacks.

As far as “banned” goes, the National Amateur Association, in 1867 or 1868 (I forget which year), did not specifically ban black teams or teams that had black players. They just weren’t admitted. Po-tay-to, po-ta-to. So the Amateur Era’s (1857-1870) best teams didn’t have blacks nor did they play teams with blacks; the National Association (1871-1875) teams didn’t have blacks nor did they play teams with blacks; the National League (1876-1946) didn’t employ blacks, tho there was some barnstorming between MLB and Negro League players.

Anson was vocal and adamant about his racism. Unfortunately, his at-the-time opinion was the predominant one. I’m hoping that those Owners’ Meeting journals that just became available to researchers are going to shed some light on this topic. I’ll keep you all posted if I hear anything worth passing along.


This second essay was in response to a poster who struggled mightily with the concept of revisionist history:

I feel like I’m being forced into an Anson Apologist camp, which is making me exceedingly uncomfortable. But…

Anson was a reflection of his time. More vocal, perhaps, but he was hardly part of the lunatic fringe. His opinions were shared by the vast majority. Possibly even the super-majority.

I wish now that I had been more attentive or had taken notes, but it was an example of preaching to the choir, things I had heard before and agreed with. One of the presentations given at the 19th Century SABR Committee event last week was about racism in baseball. Anson was barely a footnote in the program. Nig Clarke and Nig Cuppy did not get their nicknames from Anson. Mike Griffin did not name his dog N****R on Anson’s insistence. Lots of teams besides Anson’s had blacks as their mascot, and did truly despicable things to them. One team on a road trip abandoned their mascot at the train station hundreds of miles from home with no money to get back. Some mascots rode the trains in cages. Many were leashed and paraded around the ballpark. Baseball was segregated before Anson and was still segregated when Anson was still called Ad. The NL was white-only from 1876 until 1947. Anson’s team wasn’t the only one which refused to play against Stovey and Walker. Racism was wide spread in baseball.

And it wasn’t just baseball. Slave-owning Thomas Jefferson gave us that line about all men being created equal. If you read newspapers of the last half of the 19th century, 21st century readers cringe constantly at what they read. Most large cities had multiple newspapers, Fort Wayne included. Fort Wayne had two, one liberal, one conservative. Even the liberal paper would have references to “nappy-headed darkies”, “smokies”, “Sambos”, and the occasional N-word. The conservative paper is had to read without blinking and saying “OMG”. My favorite is the black child who drowned in one of the canals in Indy. “It [not “he” or “she”] did not know how to swim”. Discounting blacks was standard-operating-procedure throughout the last third of the 19th century.

And don’t forget the everyday life of Americans. The quest for Woman’s Suffrage began in the 1840s and it took over 80 years for women to get the vote. Dog- and cockfighting were featured prominently on the sports pages. One has to wonder how many wives were beaten by their husbands back then. Child labor was in full swing. There was a movement in the 1870s and 1880s that would have required newly arriving penniless Irish immigrants to serve a number of years (7, 10 and 15 were usually the proposed number of years) as indentured servants. There were just so many things that we now find horrible, criminal even, were more or less accepted practices back then.

That Anson was vocal and on the wrong side of history is insensitive and perhaps unforgivable to many today. Abortion will not be an issue 200 years from now. It will have been figured out one way or the other by then. I wonder if the most vocal advocates of which ever sides “loses” won’t be remembered then much as Anson is remembered today.

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