The American Game: Baseball and Ethnicity

By Lawrence Baldassaro; Richard A. Johnson | Go to book overview
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Ever since athletes of German and Irish descent entered the major leagues in large numbers more than a century ago, the ethnic background of baseball players has fascinated fans and the media. Even before the turn of the century, major league teams were courting ethnic fans. In St. Louis, ads were placed in German-language newspapers. In the Polo Grounds, the section of the bleachers where Irish fans gathered was known as Burkeville, and in other parks, Irish fans sat in “Kerry Patches.”

Beginning in the 1880s, ethnic tensions heightened as successive waves of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe moved into big-city neighborhoods previously settled by earlier generations of newcomers. Cultures inevitably clashed; the “old” immigrants resented the new arrivals, not only for encroaching on their territory but for threatening to take away their jobs. Boxing promoters openly exploited these tensions by setting up bouts in which Irish, Italian, and Jewish fighters were pitted against each other.

For professional baseball, the new immigrants meant potential new customers. One way to tap into this market was to put “ethnic” heroes on the field. In the 1920s, commentators noted the influx of players of Italian and Slavic origins and wondered why there weren't more Jewish players in the big leagues. However, it wasn't until the mid-thirties that representatives of the new European immigrants—primarily Italians and


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