Playing Ball in a Black and White "Field of Dreams": Afro-Caribbean Ballplayers in the Negro Leagues, 1910-1950

Article excerpt

An established part of Americana, for many Americans, baseball evokes nostalgic remembrances of green pastoral spaces, individual triumph, and the "good ole days when we played just for the fun of it." As a trope within popular culture in the United States, baseball connotes a kinder, innocent past, where heroes could always redeem themselves and, by extension, the American Dream. Thus, the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919 struck many fans hard. The association of eight Chicago White Sox players with gamblers betting on the 1919 World Series resulted in allegations that these men, including the great "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, "threw" the Series in exchange for payment. The paine's pristine image required restoration. Baseball's Commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis restored the paine's sanctity by banning these men. Attempting to restore the stature of the banned eight, the revisionist film "Field of Dreams" revealed a more contemporary example of baseball as a trope. Alluding to American iconography - baseball diamond, midwestern cornfields, the small farmer straggling against the corporate absorption - the film's monochromatic imagery failed to portray "how the other side" played. Acknowledging the multicolored tones and multicultural world that has existed in the Americas throughout the twentieth century, the notable absence of nonwhite ballplayers beckoned attention.

Mirroring societal conditions and race relations in the United States heading into the twentieth century, members of various racial/ethnic communities created institutions to meet the needs of those excluded from the white mainstream. Starting in the late nineteenth century, the imposition of a color line by white professional ballplayers coalesced efforts by African-Americans to form their own professional leagues. Various "Negro Leagues" developed from this effort. In 1920, a former ballplayer turned entrepreneur, Andrew "Rube" Forster pooled financial resources from a conglomeration of black and white businessman to create the most successful and viable Negro League.(1) Forster's Negro League operated as the primary major league for black ballplayers until 1947. Its demise began with Major League Baseball, a (MLB) integration, which was indicated by the Brooklyn Dodgers' signing of the Kansas City Monarchs' Jackie Robinson. In the following decades, MLB's integrationist project disempowered the mark of race.(2)

Actually, since the Caribbean ballplayers participated on either side of the racial fault line, the "color line" and the notions of race had already been problematic tools of exclusion. The histories written on either baseball institution are, for the most part, presented in duotones (black and white), disregarding the gradations of color and cultures arising from the African Diaspora in the Atlantic World. This work interrogates this abstraction by focusing on those Caribbean ballplayers who played in the Negro Leagues, the world in which they lived, and their understanding of race. Complicating the historical representation of baseball during this era, this treatment engages important aspects of the player's social world: baseball's transmission into the Hispanic Caribbean, the images of North America that the game represented, and the game's adoption by working class people.

Playing on a New Field: "If you build it, they will come"

In the Puerto Rican village, rumor had it that Canelito, the old negrito down the road, used to be some big-time ballplayer back in the States. Few of Canelito's fellow villagers could fathom this by his current physique when they interacted - the years had worn his body, and well, there were just more important things to talk about. Every so often some of the village youngsters would humor their parents para darle respeto (give their respect) to one of the town's senior citizens. On these occasions, Canelito shared his stories about leaving the island as a youngster and his feats as a ballplayer, and he even provided a moral to his experience. …