Academic journal article Base Ball

Henry Bridgewater's Black Stockings of St. Louis, 1881-1889

Academic journal article Base Ball

Henry Bridgewater's Black Stockings of St. Louis, 1881-1889

Article excerpt

Henry Bridgewater's Black Stockings team of St. Louis provides another foundational story in the history of colored baseball.1 The remarkable thing about this story is not so much its retrieval from baseball's past as its buried treasure, its titillating fragments and artifacts. It argues that something special occurred in the 1880s, something that needs to be unearthed and reexamined-if not examined for the first time. Henry Bridgewater's colored nine, the Black Stockings of St. Louis, provide a parallel vision of the larger forces of modernization reshaping American life, alternately resisting and adapting to these forces. Mass-circulation newspapers and sporting journals represent some of the novel constraints and opportunities with which this colored club had to contend. While the story of the Black Stockings may be tracked from start to finish in the print media, its meaning remains to be fully explored by historians. And as this essay makes clear, colored baseball teams rarely present a single story, or a single meaning.2

Scant attention has been devoted to the Black Stockings. While primary references to Bridgewater's club have been incorporated into baseball histories-most recently in works by Harold Seymour, Robert Peterson, Jerry Malloy, and Michael E. Lomax-no significant scholarship, to my knowledge, has been devoted to the subject.3 I present this work, then, as a bare-bones historical outline. Historians fascinated with the postbellum Gilded Age, the period of economic ascendancy in the United States following the Civil War, may give priority to other colored nines if the subject were to enter their accounts. For present purposes, I think it makes sense to concentrate on this buried treasure and leave other cultural artifacts of 19th-century colored baseball to be exhumed later.4

Pre-1883 sports columns tended to limit their coverage of the Black Stockings. Bridgewater changed all that. He fits among the most famous "unknown" baseball men of the period-unknown, that is, to modern investigators-a man whose presence, at the time, was immediately recognizable. Bridgewater was not only a baseball man; the black sporting community considered him an "expert billiardist" and a "principal exponent of the western sporting fraternity."5 Traveling throughout the United States and Upper Canada in 1883, Bridgewater's professional nine anticipated the Cuban Giants, both in national prestige and as a viable economic entity.

1882: "The Colored Lads Play Surprisingly Well"

Between 1881 and 1882, St. Louis newspapers offered sparse coverage of the city's colored clubs, but when they did, the Lindells, Aetnas, Waverlys, Hartfords, West Ends, Blue Stockings, Yellow Stockings, and Black Stockings figured prominently.6 The papers promoted weekend games and provided score results that appeared on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, or Mondays. On June 17, 1881, for example, The Evening Chronicle reported that the Black and Yellow Stockings would play at Red Stocking Park.7 Local papers failed, however, to carry the game's score.

Why the poor coverage? One answer was column space. Critics complained that editors gave baseball too much column space. And the press doted on the white professional club, the Brown Stockings, which it viewed as a lucrative, civic-minded enterprise. On the other hand, the Black Stockings colored nine hardly qualified as the city's iconic sports symbol. In the 1880s, professional baseball intensified its demands, weeding out those ill-suited by age, class, ethnicity, race, and gender.8 Labor historian Robert E. Burk explains, "[T]he established lines of ethnic and racial acceptance and prohibition changed little. The owners' recalcitrance illustrated the other half of the player value equation-the need for the player force to present an appealing visual product to a 'respectable' white spectatorship."9 For Burk, white ownership's preoccupation with controlling the ballplayer's image and enhancing the spectators' response to the product- namely a high-skill, labor-intensive entertainment industry-defined "the ethnocultural composition of the player force. …

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