Academic journal article Nine

Barnstorming, Baseball, and Bluegrass Music

Academic journal article Nine

Barnstorming, Baseball, and Bluegrass Music

Article excerpt

I'd have liked to be a baseball player. I love baseball. But you have to have good eyes to play baseball and my eyes never was good. I could hit good and could've been a good player.

Bill Monroe

In 1963, sportswriter Furman Bisher recalled that "There was a time in this country when every village and crossroad had a baseball team. Some were 'town' teams. Some were 'pickup.'" (1) Despite official opposition, barnstorming among major league ballplayers reached its apex during the first half of the twentieth century. (2) Robert Cole and Thomas Barthel have each documented the mixed character of baseball barnstorming and shown that often those ballplayers engaged local amateur and semiprofessional teams. (3) Musicians and other entertainers also barnstormed during those years, and one group of country musicians in the 1940s and early 1950s featured a baseball team who played local competition.

Bisher reminisced of the rural south, but baseball was popular throughout the country, and local teams were everywhere: many were sandlot groups, some were associated with businesses and industries, and others were composed of accomplished semiprofessionals. The small town of Rosine, Kentucky--where Bill Monroe (1911-96), destined to become known as the "Father of Bluegrass Music," grew up--was no exception. Its team, the Red Legs, survived from the early 1900s until the late 1940s. (4) Although poor eyesight precluded his playing the game as a youth, from the mid-1940s into the early 1950s, Monroe used baseball as a promotional device for his developing musical career.


Although political candidates are sometimes said to barnstorm, the term usually suggests traveling entertainment troupes. Many associate barnstorming with baseball, but different entertainers delivered their wares to the public this way, and they had done so from at least the early 1800s. Barthel's assertion that "Barnstorming is a phenomenon peculiar to baseball and to American sports," is overly restrictive, and the criteria he uses for his Major League Baseball-centric definition of the practice are shaped to support the data he presents. (5) This suspect framework does not diminish the value of those data or his core contention that baseball barnstorming was pursued principally for economic reasons and secondarily for enjoyment, but barnstorming was never the sole province of major leaguers, and the same motives applied to other touring entertainers. (6)

Musician Bill Monroe barnstormed to deliver his music to the public, and for several years, he complemented shows with baseball games. His teams played local competition wherever they toured. He was a barnstormer musically, and he was a baseball barnstormer. His experiment was singular in that it occurred, evidently without precedent, in the field of county music.

But it was not without precedent in the music industry. Many Big Band leaders of the late 1930s and early 1940s, including Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, and Harry James, employed ballplayers to supplement their tours. They played against local teams and against each other in what became known as "The Big Band League." But these groups served more as diversions than as a commercial strategy. (7) Aside from the musical genre and the explicit financial motive, what set Monroe's union of baseball and music apart from the Big Bands was having his musicians play ball. (8) In later years, this changed, as he hired men strictly to play baseball.

Barnstorming was a generalized method of disseminating entertainment. Baseball barnstorming--except in the Negro Leagues, where the practice was virtually an institution--typically occurred only when a team's regular season was completed. But players and teams not associated with organized baseball--for example, the House of David teams--often traveled throughout the year. …

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