When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Dreams of a National Pastime

When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Dreams of a National Pastime

When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Dreams of a National Pastime

When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Dreams of a National Pastime

Excerpt

To say, as many historians have, that baseball’s racial segregation resulted from a “gentlemen’s agreement” is roughly the equivalent of asserting that the Civil War stemmed from a difference of opinion. There is truth in both statements, but not nearly enough nuance to satisfy even the most recreational of inquisitors. This study attempts to find a better, more precise answer to baseball’s segregation question. Baseball boomed in the United States in the 1860s and ’70s, becoming a “perfect mania” among the soldiers returning home from the Civil War. Black and white men flocked to urban ball fields. But even as Reconstruction legislators debated how to guide four million former slaves along the path to citizenship, segregation emerged quickly in baseball. White baseball leaders barred black baseball players from joining white leagues and clubs and from owning baseball property. Due to this discrimination, black men created separate baseball communities of their own. By the time the National League (NL) organized in 1876 (as Reconstruction ended), baseball had become an overwhelmingly segregated sport.

How did this happen? Neither historians nor the legion of journalists and baseball writers who have penned, quite literally, hundreds of thousands of pages about the game have fully addressed this question. Instead, the issue of baseball’s segregation has been mostly passed over. “Nothing is ever said or written about drawing the color line in the [National] League,” Sporting Life unapologetically observed in 1895. “It appears to be generally understood that none but whites shall make up the League teams, and so it goes.” This statement, while written more than a century ago, is surprisingly germane today. It neatly summarizes the historiography of baseball’s segregation. Whereas much has . . .

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