Baseball Cards and Race Relations

By Fitts, Robert K. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Fall 1994 | Go to article overview
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Baseball Cards and Race Relations

Fitts, Robert K., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


On May 30 and 31, 1992, in Secaucus, New Jersey, the Negro League Baseball Players Association held their first Memorabilia and Card Show. For this weekend, 34 former Negro League players signed autographs and talked with thousands of black and white fans. On Saturday, these men, ignored by most Americans during their careers, filled the spacious hotel to capacity. Many fans waited to enter the building. For the following week, these former players were honored at professional ballgames and with media interviews throughout the Northeastern United States.

It is only recently that white baseball fans are appreciating the accomplishments of hundreds of these African American players. In the past few years, articles, books, movies, replica baseball uniforms and retrospective baseball card sets began to portray the Negro Leagues. The late-Kansas City Monarchs' first baseman, George Giles, stated in February, 1991: "I'm eighty-one years old, and more good things have happened to us in the last six months than what happened in my whole lifetime. I'm just glad I lived to see things start to change" (Negro League...).

As Giles alludes to, the Negro Leagues were not always this popular. In fact, most baseball histories written before the 1970s rarely mentioned the Negro Leagues, and when they did, the black leagues usually were treated as only a footnote. Why were the Negro Leagues written out of baseball history, and how was this version of the past perpetuated? An examination of baseball cards from the 1950s will help answer this question

Baseball Cards as Material Culture

Sociologists and anthropologists stress that sports are a form of ritual and as such are ideal for examining a society's underlying beliefs and world view (Harris and Park, Novak, Sojka). Although sports rarely mirror a society's nonnative beliefs, they teach social values and maintain and reinforce existing social relations (Harris and Park 14). Similarly, many scholars agree that a society's objects can reflect its basic beliefs and world view (Glassie, Deetz, Prown). Furthermore, material culture not only reflects a society's beliefs, but also transmits symbolic messages that are an active agent in social Interaction (Wobst, Hodder, Shanks and Tilley; Beaudry et al., Little). The relationship between a society's objects and culture is, therefore, recursive. Objects reflect a society's beliefs, and manipulation of these same objects to communicate symbolic messages can bring about cultural change (Shackel and Little). As the material culture of sports, examining baseball cards can illuminate American social behavior.

To date only a handful of social scientists have examined baseball cards. For example, Paul Mullins examines baseball cards as a commodity and explores the relationships between cards, the game of baseball, capitalism, and consumer behavior. In another work, economists Clark Nardinelli and Curtis Simon examine the correlation between baseball players' race and the price of their cards. They conclude that racism affects the value of baseball cards, as non-white players are valued less than white players of equal ability. Since baseball cards are considered children's toys, they are only now receiving scholarly attention. In the future, because of their importance in American popular culture, baseball cards will become a common source of data.

The Baseball Card

In the late-19th century, as a gimmick to increase sales, tobacco companies began inserting cardboard pictures with their products (Fig. 1). (Fig. 1 omitted) Tobacco during this period was marked toward males (Cook), so the first inserts were photographs of young women. Although originally popular, some thought these images scandalous, and pictures of baseball players replaced them in 1886 (Slocum). Tobacco inserts were popular until World War I, but thereafter candy companies produced the majority of baseball cards. These cards depicted Major and Minor League players, but never Negro League players.

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