The Early Image of Black Baseball: Race and Representation in the Popular Press, 1871-1890

Article excerpt

James E. Brunson III. The Early Image of Black Baseball: Race and Representation in the Popular Press, 1871-1890. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. Paper, $39.95.

Although the majority of segregated black baseball was played before the advent of the Negro leagues in the 192os, little has been written about those nascent days--Sol White's History of Colored Base Ball (1907) and Michael Lomax's more contemporary Black Baseball Entrepreneurs (2003) being among the few exceptions. Informed discourse on baseball's long relationship with the visual arts has also been rare. James E. Brunson III admirably attempts to cover both subjects in his new book, The Early Image of Black Baseball.

Brunson, an art historian at Northern Illinois University and an accomplished painter in his own right, has sifted through nineteenth-century media accounts of games, teams, and players to determine how black baseball was represented in the popular culture of the day. Brunson explores mainstream depictions of African American athletes, as well as how the burgeoning black press portrayed the "colored sporting world."

By focusing on post-Civil War editorial cartoons in Harpers Illustrated Weekly, "true crime" pictorials in the National Police Gazette, and Thomas Worth's misguided Currier and Ives lithographs, Brunson shows how the popular media usually treated African Americans as either buffoons or as dangerous threats to society. He offers up not only trenchant analysis of how these often repugnant images were physically composed and constructed, but also explains the effect they had on their era.

Equally fascinating is Brunson's discussion of black artists Moses L. Tucker and Henry Jackson Lewis, both of whose work appeared in the pages of the Indianapolis Freeman. The two illustrators each grappled with the dilemma of satirizing African American behavior while avoiding coarse and offensive stereotypes--Tucker's broad caricatures of ballplayers and other sporting figures had a distinct humorous touch, but the joke was definitely at the white establishment's expense. Jackson's more subtle cartoons carried with them a subcontext of urban danger and sexual desire.

Close examination is also given to social figures like the "dude," the "sport," and the "mack," who, along with waiters, barbers, working girls, and madams, made up the black sporting fraternity of the nineteenth century. Brunson recounts how writer and dude James Smith surreptitiously chronicled the drinking, fighting, infidelity, and other illicit behaviors of his peers through a Cleveland Gazette column entitled "Our Man About Town. …