Early Twentieth-Century Heroes: Coverage of Negro League Baseball in the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender

Article excerpt

This article explores the role of the black press in creating and portraying role models to the largely urban black community of the 1920s, 1930s, and the first half of the 1940s, leading up to Jackie Robinson being chosen to break major league baseball's color barrier in 1947. It seeks a better understanding of daily reality for this community by looking at black press sports coverage of these exclusively male figures. By examining the values, goals, and actions held up by the black press as those to model and mirror, it is perhaps possible to better understand what the black community of the period sought in its hero figures and important people and, therefore, how its members saw themselves and who they hoped to become. This study assumes a scope and function of the hero in society as a phenomenon of mass media communication.

Had baseball card collecting been popular in the 1920s, fans of the nascent Negro leagues likely would have coveted the cards of Andrew "Rube" Foster, C.I. Taylor, Ed Bolden, and John Blount. Because these men were team owners and not players, the backs of the cards would have presented lists of businesses owned and positions held in the local black church and in business and social federations such as the Persian Temple of Mystic Shriners. There would have been no baseball cards of the players, who were considered mere employees. Players would not supplant owners as heroes and role models for the black community until the mid-1930s.

It should not be surprising to find black baseball's owners rather than the athletes portrayed as champions in the weekly newspapers. During the first two decades of Negro league history, leading black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, Kansas City Call, and Pittsburgh Courier considered themselves important partners with black professional baseball in creating minority-owned, minorityrun businesses. These owners were community leaders to be admired, with status in the community to which to aspire.1 Based on black press coverage during the period, it is clear that newspaper writers believed their readers had a vested interest in the decisions and activities of these owners, a connection that black studies scholar Barbara Molette noted a community must perceive in those it has identified as its heroes.2

This article explores the role of the black press in creating and portraying role models to the largely urban black community of the 1920s, 1930s, and the first half of the 1940s leading up to Jackie Robinson being chosen to break major league baseball's color barrier in 1947. The study seeks a better understanding of the daily reality for this community by looking at black press coverage of these exclusively male figures. By examining the values, goals, and actions held up by the black press as those to model and mirror, it is perhaps possible to better understand what the black community of the period sought in its hero figures and important people and, therefore, how its members saw themselves and who they hoped to become. Finally, this study assumes a scope and function of the hero in society as a phenomenon of mass media communication.3

Thomas Carlyle, one of the first scholars to comment on American notions of heroes and hero-worship, noted that "great men" were recurrent, prominent subjects of scholarship as "modelers, patterns ... even creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain."4 Still widely cited, his 1840 lecture suggested that a look at the world's heroes was a look "into the very marrow of the world's history," justifying in some ways an historical approach to the study of any single community's heroes.5

Molette argued that for a figure to become an important person in the Afrocentric framework, the person's actions must transcend the needs and reality of the individual. The black community's members must see that hero as a "prototypical manifestation of their own hopes, aspirations, and values. …

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