For the 71st episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke to Brian Campbell about the experiences of African American athletes who played baseball and achieved social status in Latin America and the Caribbean from the 1930s to 1950s. He also discusses how journalists used their stories of racial equality abroad to critique the color line in the United States.
Brian E. Campbell is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of “African American Sports Journalists and Athletes as Foreign Correspondents for the Black Press, 1930-1950” in the December 2020 issue of Journalism History.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Brian Campbell (00:02):
Journalists and athletes are collaborators together. You know, I refer to, you know, the athletes being these conduits through which news and information travels.
Nick Hirshon (00:17):
Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman (00:24):
I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon (00:30):
And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward (00:34):
And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Nick Hirshon (00:39):
And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
Before the integration of Major League Baseball, hundreds of African American athletes sought to escape Jim Crow – and eke out a living – by playing in Latin America and the Caribbean. African American journalists exchanged letters and telegrams with ballplayers, and some even traveled themselves to witness the transnational competition.
These sportswriters brought back more than just game stories and box scores. They saw how Black baseball players achieved status and fame abroad that was not available to them in the United States, and their articles critiqued the color line and professional sports. These athletes and journalists helped expand the freedom dreams of African Americans in the decades leading up to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball in 1947 and before the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.
On this episode of the Journalism History podcast, we examine their advocacy efforts with Brian Campbell, a Ph.D. graduate from the history program at the University of Illinois. Brian, welcome to the Journalism History podcast.
Thanks for having me, Nick. I really appreciate it.
We’re happy to have you here. We’re going to be talking about your article in the latest issue of Journalism History, entitled “African American Sports Journalists and Athletes as Foreign Correspondents for the Black Press: 1930 to 1950.”
Nick Hirshon (02:17):
And you describe how hundreds of African American baseball players left the United States to participate in Latin American leagues during this period, and sports writers from Black newspapers followed them and documented the ballplayers’ international experiences for audiences back home. Some athletes themselves even wrote featured stories for news publications, but your article begins more than one hundred years earlier with the African American foreign correspondence from the early 19th century. So, can you start out, Brian, by telling us who were these early Black correspondents and what were they writing about?
Brian Campbell (03:01):
So the early Black correspondents in the 19th century are focused more on abolition. They’re focused on what is happening to Black Americans during Reconstruction, right? And so what I’m doing in the beginning of the article is to really describe how early on, right, the Black press, I think, is really looking internationally for inspiration for domestic politics back home, right? So we know that Ida B. Wells, for instance, travels in the late 19th century to England to, you know, lecture, but also write about her experiences. You know, other, even before that, abolitionist activists, right, are sort of looking abroad in framing their news stories and articles about ideas about freedom from an international perspective. So, in the beginning of my article, I really want to sort of lay that groundwork to show that, you know, the Black press, well, back into the 19th century and especially around the turn of the century, I think, is really beginning to look abroad for inspiration in domestic politics. And also to find examples of, you know, what sometimes they call real or true democracy, social democracy in other parts of the world.
Nick Hirshon (04:26):
Sure. You had mentioned Ida B. Wells extending her activism going to Europe, lecturing in England and Scotland. Another name that our listeners might be familiar with, Marcus Garvey’s Negro World and the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, covering wars, imperialism, accomplishments of African-descended people. And then moving a little bit along in history, you described how during World War I Black journalists connected the experiences of soldiers in Europe to struggles for citizenship rights at home. And after the war, the number of correspondents increased as Black-owned newspapers experienced spikes in readership and revenue. And now we get into the period that is really at the crux of your research here, the 1930s and 1950s. Black newspapers at the time had an activist style, you write, with social commentary that advocated on behalf of African Americans, and they look to Latin America to find examples of progress in race relations. So, what did they find and bring back to their audiences in the United States?
Brian Campbell (05:21):
So, it really, I think, beginning in the 1910s, maybe even before that, you know, Black journalists and editors like Robert Abbott of the Chicago Defender are really looking for examples, I think, again, of what true social democracy could look like in the United States. So they’re traveling more, they’re writing about these places, and, you know, I think what they’re doing in part is framing places like Cuba, for instance, as these racial democracies – places where Black men, in particular, but Black women as well, have access to certain social statuses and occupations and accommodations that really don’t exist for Black Americans, for the most part in, in the United States. So they’re pointing out, they’re traveling and commenting and pointing out these examples to build up, I think, this idea or this imagined sort of idea of what Latin American nations as racial democracies. So, you know, in part, my work of covering athletes I think is, is, you know, part of this broader movement, this bigger movement by journalists and editors to see Latin America as this very progressive place, these nations in Latin America as these very progressive places that could be used for inspiration, both real and imagined, back home.
Nick Hirshon (07:10):
And you had mentioned Robert Abbott of the Chicago Defender. Your article describes how he called Brazil “the land of opportunity for Black entrepreneurs.” African American athletes also began to garner attention, not only from the Black press in this period, but from white newspapers as well, and across the globe, not just in the United States. You described a few athletes in particular: Jack Johnson, the heavyweight boxing champion who traveled to Europe, Australia, Cuba, Mexico in the early 20th century, and Jesse Owens, the track and field star who claimed four gold medals for the United States at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. So how did reporters from the Black press and the mainstream press cover Johnson and Owens?
Brian Campbell (07:51):
Yes. So, you know, in the case of Johnson, Johnson is a very complicated figure in the sense that the white mainstream press going back to his, you know, his first fights in the early 20th century really wrote about Johnson in a way that demonized him, that racialized him, and propped up white boxers, especially in matches against, against competitors like Jim Jefferies where, you know, journalists saw, white journalists saw this as sort of a way for, you know, for white boxers to assert their masculinity, but also a particular white masculinity, right? In comparison to fighters like Johnson. So, the way the white press covered Johnson was often in a way that was very negative, right? Whereas the Black press really wrote it, saw, you know, Johnson’s fights against white competition and, and celebrated his victories over white competitors.
Brian Campbell (09:07):
And these were not just symbolic, right? But you know, they had a very real effect on how Black Americans felt at the time. That Johnson’s victories over white competitors were these, you know, very, very important real victories over white supremacy, or to white supremacy. And so the Black press is covering Johnson and really making him into a race hero while the white press is very much, like, demonizing him. When it comes to Owens, it’s very different, right? Because of the context, I think, of the, the 1930s and the rise of Nazism. And, you know, I think the white press is now covering Owens in a more positive light, but still, right? Obviously the Black press is propping up Owens and seeing Owens in a very similar way that they did Johnson as this race hero.
Nick Hirshon (10:10):
Sure. And you have, again, some very compelling excerpts from these articles that you’ve researched. A Baltimore Afro-American sports article noted that Owens’s win over the German competitors would quote “bring universal reverberations throughout the world.” And I guess it did, because even today, we’re still talking about it. Another article here from Afro-American saying it would “blast away racial prejudices dominating many units of the American sports fields.” It’s — we’re still working on some of those racial prejudices, of course, in athletics and in many other areas of society, but a big impact that Owens had. And then you go into, while Jack Johnson and Jesse Owens traveled abroad for some prominent competitions here and there, African American ballplayers made those international trips much more frequently than a boxer or a track and field star might. Hundreds of these ballplayers supplemented their salaries in the Negro Leagues in the United States by playing in the numerous Latin American leagues. So where were some of these ballplayers playing and how did journalists use them to create a narrative about racial equality in Latin America and the Caribbean?
Brian Campbell (11:18):
Yeah, great. Yeah, great question. So beginning in, you know, around like 1910 or so, again, Cuba being this this sort of primary destination for Black Americans at the time, Cuba, the Cuban winter league, the Cuban winter league baseball league, you begin to see a handful of baseball players, like Rube Foster from Chicago, who was both a player, a promoter, owner of the Chicago American Giants, taking his team to Cuba to play in exhibitions. And soon after that, Cuban winter league teams are recruiting ballplayers like John Henry Lloyd to come play for their teams. And this begins what Adrian Burgos refers to as a transnational baseball circuit that linked places like Havana to New York and Chicago, where you start seeing the movement of both Latino and African American ballplayers between nations, right?
Brian Campbell (12:23):
So it’s in that context over the 1920s and 1930s that these journalists are writing. And in the 1920s and 1930s, more leagues open up, especially in Puerto Rico and in Mexico, and you have more ballplayers going to those places, those countries, as well as Cuba, really, in the 1930s. So, when I say there are hundreds of ballplayers traveling during this period, you know, it’s really into the late ‘20s, the ‘30s, and the ‘40s, where that really, we really start to see that. And then, these journalists then, you know, begin to become aware of these, these journeys that the ballplayers are taking, because if you’re, if you’re a journalist in New York, like Dan Burley, who I talk about in my article, you’re already covering some of these ballplayers who play for their respective Negro League teams in the summer months. And then will travel during the winter to supplement their incomes in, let’s say, Mexico. So when those ballplayers come back, they’re, you know, stopping by the sports desks, right? And they’re describing their experiences to these sports writers who then are able to, to narrate and talk about these experiences.
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Nick Hirshon (14:25):
Today we’re thinking about athletes in the Major Leagues making millions and millions of dollars each, you know, the top stars making $10, $20 million potentially a year. But at this time, you’re describing how these players in the Negro Leagues might be earning $200 to $300 a month. And they could make more for a shorter time in one of these Latin American leagues. And as you’re closely analyzing these Black sports pages and finding how baseball players communicated their lived experiences to journalists through letters and telegrams. I thought this was interesting, and I wonder if you can give us a little bit more context there. One of the first Black ballplayers to travel to Latin America, who you mentioned before, was John ‘Pop’ Henry Lloyd. And he wrote to a reporter in 1927 about how Black baseball players had performed admirably in the Cuban winter league. Another player wrote to a journalist now twenty years later, 1945, that it was a quote unquote “darn shame” that the Major Leagues continued to shut their doors to African American athletes. And it’s one thing for these reporters to interview players before or after a game. I think we’re used to that. As someone who researches sports myself, of course, I’m familiar with that, but I was surprised to read that these players were actually taking time to write detailed letters to journalists. And I know it’s a different age when letter writing was much more common, but that’s still a pretty big investment of time. And what do you make of that, Brian? It seems like these players were playing a pretty active role in helping these journalists highlight how differently they were being treated abroad.
Brian Campbell (15:54):
Yeah, this is a really, really good question. And it’s one that I’ve, you know, dwelled on more, I think, even since writing this article, and it becomes a really big part of my dissertation. It’s actually, I think, at the crux of my main argument of my dissertation that, you know, that I’m working on, and that is that journalists and athletes are collaborators together. I think I talk about in this journal article I, you know, I refer to the athletes being these conduits through which news and information travels. And I’ve dwelled on that a lot more, thought about that. And I think you’re absolutely right. Like through these letters and these telegrams, that reveals to us that there are these really like intimate and close relationships that Black journalists are building with ballplayers that help sort of facilitate this exchange of information.
Brian Campbell (16:53):
So, you know, there are numerous articles where journalists say, “just received a letter recently from someone like John Henry Lloyd and he tells me how the Black ballplayers are performing in Cuba.” And he’ll, you know, and the ballplayers will provide statistics, you know, almost like box scores, right? They might include news clippings or something that they could send along as well. And we also, you know, we see this later on in the 1940s with Jackie Robinson and Wendell Smith. Wendell Smith from the Pittsburgh Courier, who had a very close relationship. Wendell Smith was a part of the campaign really to de-segregate baseball, working, working closely with the Dodgers and with Jackie Robinson. And if you go to the Baseball Hall of Fame and look at Wendell Smith’s papers, you see these telegrams and these handwritten letters – right? – between Robinson and Smith, where Robinson is describing his experiences during spring training in Cuba, 1947. And so it, it does show us that, you know, it’s interesting the way you framed it, right? It’s not, it’s not as if journalists are going and just interviewing a player after the game. They’re really forming these relationships – right? – that I think helped in this, you know, in this transference of information and of knowledge between nations.
Nick Hirshon (18:29):
It’s almost like an alliance in a way that we don’t quite see that play out today. I know a few sports reporters who are friends of mine and describe the lack of access that they get to the athletes. And certainly, this idea that you would just be opening up your mailbox and having letters coming in, of course, it’s a day and age before emails and text messages and all the other modern forms of communication that now reporters and athletes share. But I think it’s still something that kind of stood out to me and shows just how involved these athletes were. And then the reporters are using these stories from the letters and telegrams to actually go ahead and criticize Major League Baseball. You write how during the 1939 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Cincinnati Reds, one sportswriter chided Major League owners for not allowing African Americans to compete and suggested that when the Black ballplayer returned from the winter leagues, he should quote, “take his bat and glove and head for various Major League spring training camps and demand immediate inclusion.” So they were pretty bold here, Brian. Does that surprise you about, we’re talking, obviously we’re going to get into Jackie Robinson, but this is almost a decade before Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and these reporters are maybe shedding some of their objectivity and demanding that Major League Baseball include African American players.
Brian Campbell (19:51):
Yeah. I mean, you know, it was surprising for me to see that in the 1930s, because I, you know, it makes sense in the 1940s, especially during the World War when the Pittsburgh Courier’s double V campaign really takes off and, you know, you start, I think, you really start seeing more, more of a push among not only journalists, but other activists at the time. Paul Robeson and, you know, many other, many other folks out, sort of outside of even the sports realm that are making desegregation of Major League Baseball a civil rights issue. But, you know, as my research shows, like even back into the 1930s – right? – these journalists are again building these relationships with ballplayers and they’re learning, right, about the potential for desegregation by looking outward, right?
Brian Campbell (20:59):
And, and understanding that Black and white players are competing in games together in interracial leagues in other parts of the world, very close to the United States in the case of the Latin American leagues. And so, you know, I think coming across quotes like that, I think that one’s from F.M. Davis, coming across quotes like that, you know, is, it was a little shocking to me, right? And how they sort of, the way they framed it to say, like, “These ballplayers are proving themselves in Latin American leagues. They know they’re good enough. You know, these Latin American leagues are really showing them how good they could be if they only had the chance to compete in the Major Leagues.” And, and to be that, then, as you said, that bold, right? To say that based on those experiences that the ballplayers should demand immediate action, right? They should go and just, you know, really just sort of forcefully try to desegregate the game. Yeah, I think that in 1939, that that was a bit surprising for me to see.
Nick Hirshon (22:13):
And we know today there’s a debate in Major League Baseball, maybe not even a strong debate anymore, that folks like Josh Gibson, who didn’t have a chance to play in the prime of his career in the Major Leagues, could have been maybe one of the greatest Major League stars of all time, if he had been allowed. And so that is an argument that lots of people make. So they were ahead of their time, certainly in calling it out. And then as we begin to wrap up here, listeners of this podcast may remember an episode that we released last August with Ray McCaffrey, a historian at the University of Arkansas. And if our listeners want to go back in our archives on the Podcasts app, that’s “Episode 58: Jackie Robinson After Baseball.” And I had interviewed Ray. He had written an article for Journalism History about Robinson’s activism after he retired from the game that he integrated. Robinson wrote columns in support of Muhammad Ali’s right to refuse military service and a boycott of the 1968 Summer Olympics.
Nick Hirshon (23:08):
And Brian, you described a reporter traveling to Cuba, this is obviously before Robinson breaks into the Major Leagues, to follow Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers in the spring of 1947, right when he’s preparing to break the color barrier. And then you note how Robinson wrote an op-ed about racial inequality years later for the Chicago Defender in 1963 after his career had concluded. So in my interview with Ray, we focused mostly on what those columns said about Robinson himself. You know, maybe there’s a stereotype, there’s this image that we get of Robinson as kind of genteel and accepting, he’d turn the other cheek on the field. And then we read those columns and we see, well, no, he actually was an activist, certainly after his career. But in that episode that I did with Ray, we really didn’t discuss how Robinson was following in the footsteps of many of these Black ballplayers before him, the ones that you’ve studied in this article. So why do you think it’s important for our listeners to put those pieces together, to know the stories of these athletes, not just Robinson, probably the most famous of all of the Black ballplayers of this era, or maybe any era, but why is it important for them to know the stories of those who came before him and have in a sense been lost to history?
Brian Campbell (24:20):
Yeah, no, this is, this is such a really good question. And I think that, you know, it’s in part, it’s to really hammer home and understand that desegregation was a very, very, very long process that, you know, obviously did not, you know, it wasn’t just Robinson’s moment – right? – in 1947. And desegregate, you know, issues didn’t just end – right? – in 1947. And so like to, you know, for me to study the history of Black baseball and communication sort of considers that really long process. And to understand that Robinson was really built upon years of efforts to desegregate and years of ballplayers not making the, you know, the amount of money that their Major League counterparts made. And, and I always say this, that like desegregation is also really, really, you know, the big thing about desegregation is, it’s really tied to labor, right?
Brian Campbell (25:41):
And so these ballplayers, in part, their motivation for traveling abroad, traveling to the Latin American leagues, was to earn extra income. Was to supplement, as we were talking about salaries, to supplement that income. And so they really, you know, they had to do that. And so in thinking about Robinson’s moment, I do think it’s incredibly important to think about all of those ballplayers that came before him, but also the journalists that were involved. That, you know, sort of foregrounding that relationship between journalists and athlete and why that was important to help build Robinson’s moment in 1947.
Nick Hirshon (26:21):
Well, congratulations on this terrific research, again, diving into the archives and all of these newspapers that often don’t get a lot of scholarly attention, from the Black press, and showing us the relationship between the ballplayers and the journalists. And as we wrap up today’s episode, I’d like to pose a question to you that we ask all of our guests to finish the podcast. Why do you think journalism history matters?
Brian Campbell (26:44):
Yeah, that is such a great question. You know, for me, I didn’t initially start studying the history of journalism. My initial project when I started working on my dissertation focused more on the lived experiences of the ballplayers in Latin America. But then I, you know, I realized there was something particular about, again, that relationship between journalists and athlete, that I want to look at much more. And that really led me to studying the history of the Black press and, you know, taking a whole summer, the summer of, I think, 2017, 2018, just to really, really immerse myself in the historiography of the Black press. And the one thing that I’ve discovered is that it being a sort of activist press, right? It, it taking on – not being, not afraid to take on the major issues affecting Black Americans of the day, really resonates, I think, in our contemporary moment, right?
Brian Campbell (27:57):
And I always, you know, studying the history of sports in the Black press, I make these connections, or I try to make these connections, today to new forms of media, like The Players’ Tribune and the, you know, The Undefeated, and these sports blogs and media sites that are really emphasizing the role of sports and its connections to politics. And this is, you know, this is something there’s a long history of, obviously right, going into the early 20th century. So I think to understand that the sort of new media right now, you know, we really want to sort of dive in and, and understand sort of the history of the Black press as a sort of activist press, right? Well into, or back to the early 20th century.
Nick Hirshon (28:55):
It certainly speaks to the power of the press. And I think for someone like myself who was supposedly classically trained as a journalist, you know, went to journalism school three times and was a reporter, I think we tend to think that anything that is not objective journalism, if that truly exists, is bad. And then yet we see what these journalists were able to accomplish and highlight and make society changes that are obviously good. So I’m glad that you were able to bring that to us and add to our knowledge. Thank you so much, Brian, for coming on the podcast.
Brian Campbell (29:31):
Yeah. Thank you, Nick. I really enjoyed it.
Nick Hirshon (29:34):
Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor and Francis. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at @JHistoryJournal. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night, and good luck.”