Diversity Essay: Why Black Baseball History Matters

Brian Carroll

I imagine that at one time or another all historians have conjured the historical moment we most ardently desire to have witnessed with our own eyes. I have directed in my mind’s own movie house re-enactments of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ home opener seventy-five years ago. Playing against the Boston Braves that day was a new first baseman, Jack Roosevelt Robinson. I always have a good seat, because only 25,623 turned out for the affair and, more importantly, because in my movie, I’m in the press box with Red Barber and Connie Desmond. Wearing a gabardine coat, necktie, and a bowler hat, I join the eager trolley car dodgers at the intersection of Bedford Avenue, Montgomery Street, and Sullivan Place to make my way into Ebbets Field. Blue skies and a gentle breeze make it a perfect afternoon for baseball.

What my sepia-toned movie-making conveniently omits, of course, is the segregation, discrimination, and racism that delayed Robinson’s arrival into (White) big league baseball, as well as the hate mail he and his wife, Rachel, would receive throughout that first campaign, and the fact that while Red, Connie, and I might be able to compare game notes due to our race, the leading writers of the Black press at that time were barred from the press box due to theirs. Even my imagination enjoys no small degree of White privilege.

I know I am preaching to the choir when I call for a fuller, more honest recovery of the past in a moment when, among other hostilities to history and the humanities, Critical Race Theory is being banned in Florida and Texas, the same states that without any moral whiplash also attempted to enact “free speech” laws to prevent social media platforms from unplugging the accounts of serial mis- and dis-informers. Like seemingly everything else in American life, recovering our history is being held hostage to identity politics. Nothing crystallizes these fault lines better to me than Nikole Hannah-Jones’s denial of tenure at my alma mater over her role in the New York Times’s “1619 Project,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism that examines the legacy of slavery in America.[i] For the namesake of UNC’s Hussman School of Media and Journalism, Walter Hussman, Jr., Jones’s and the Times’s journalism fails on the core journalistic value of objectivity.[ii] As any history of the Black press documents in one way or another, “objectivity” is a luxury afforded to those who already have power, authority, and influence. It is for this reason the Black press has been aptly called a “fighting press.”[iii]

This crusading press of the 1920s through 1950s campaigned for the integration of society, for equal access and opportunity, and for fuller participation in the democratic experiment, access that is now being curtailed by voter restriction legislation and aggressively partisan redistricting throughout America. The Black press also served as the Black community’s voice and, by its expression, as preservative of that community’s identity. These newspapers imbued Black Americans with a sense of purpose and destiny, functioning as an “instrument of social change, enterprise, artistic self-esteem, and racial solidarity,” as Henry Lewis Suggs put it.[iv] In fulfilling these roles and in furnishing their readers with a history that includes them and celebrates their agency in ways that the mainstream press never bothered to do, Black newspapers contributed to the development of nothing less than a national Black consciousness.

In mainstream newspaper coverage of Robinson’s first day as a Dodger, the future hall-of-famer is merely a footnote. Spilling more ink on the singer of that day’s national anthem than on big league baseball’s barrier breaker? Is this “objective” journalism? As Pat Washburn has pointed out, because white newspapers refused to cover Blacks except as “athletic stars, entertainers, or criminals,” Black Americans had only their own newspapers from which to learn about everyday life in their largely segregated communities.[v] In contrast to popular accounts, the Black press’s depictions are often those of a people making their own history in a “city within a city,” to borrow Horace Cayton’s and St. Clair Drake’s description, by building up businesses, founding civic and church organizations, and, specific to my own research interests, in establishing a brand of baseball in every way comparable to white baseball and in many ways superior.[vi]

The provocation of the “1619 Project” is the compelling argument that racism is baked into the hot apple American pie, that it is embedded, structural, and institutional, and that these structures and systems endure. Structural problems require structural solutions, so at least some grounding in the histories of, to name only a few, U.S. education systems, housing, job opportunities, healthcare, policing, and mass incarceration is essential. Why is it, for example, that there remain in contemporary professional baseball fewer opportunities for Blacks off the field than existed at any point on the Negro leagues’ topsy-turvy timeline if not because of the residues of racism and the thoroughly segregated state of baseball for so long?

In my town, Black baseball played a vital role in the area’s mill village life, as it did in a lot of places throughout the South. This connects my community to the broader national story of the Negro leagues and, more broadly, of Black endeavor. Culturally, the sport provided one of the more important summertime distractions for Black communities such as those where I live, in Rome, Ga., and in nearby Lindale, Cave Spring, and Calhoun. Games often were as much social events as athletic contests, particularly on Sundays, when churches would be sure to let out early so fans could get to the ballpark.

“Sunday games were a big deal,” said Arthur Finley, a bat boy for the perennial Black factory team powerhouse Lindale Dragons of the fifties and sixties. We spoke on the phone in May 2020, with both our cities in Covid lockdown and, therefore, each deprived of baseball of any kind.

“We’d usually play doubleheaders, and all the families would come out to see the games – aunts, uncles, cousins,” Finley said. “We had uniforms made by Jessie Ransom using material from Lindale Manufacturing, the big textile factory. We traveled in a school bus supplied by Bud Ransom – a nice yellow bus. Not many teams had a bus.”

Finley painted a picture of a shared community endeavor, one in which the team’s many successes were shared by those that team represented, because over and above providing a diversion, Black baseball became a rallying point for the communities that supported it. The game engendered pride and showcased Black achievement – no small thing in cities such as Rome, where race and socioeconomics are welded so tightly as to be indistinguishable, at least in terms of cause-and-effect.

Integration came with a very steep price tag, making loss an important aspect of this Black baseball history. It is the Black community that was asked to make cultural sacrifices at the “altar” of desegregation. This goal demanded a loss of control and, eventually, the dissolution of Black baseball as a whole. When organized as the Negro leagues, Black ball forged its own way and made its own rules. As members of an integrated baseball scene, Black ballplayers had to play by someone else’s rules and always in minority. This aspect of integrated baseball has changed very little: Big league baseball did not hire a Black field manager until 1975, when the Cleveland Indians tapped former playing great Frank Robinson. The Chicago Cubs did not hire their first Black manager until 1999 (Don Baylor). By contrast, the Negro National League of the twenties boasted seven Black owners, or exactly seven more than the number of Blacks who have been majority owners of Major League Baseball teams since that heyday, and six more than the number of Black majority owners across all of professional baseball.[vii]

To return the focus to local Black baseball history, consider this roster: local legend Butch Haynes, a long-time Dragon who, for at least several weeks in the late fifties, pitched for the Indianapolis Clowns, the team that produced Hank Aaron; heavy-hitting catcher Sherman Lewis; strong-armed right fielder Frank Roberts; pitchers W. S. Hudson, Humphrey Cole, C. J. Hight, and Romus Crew; shortstop and, later, Rome’s first Black city commissioner, Napoleon Fielder; and Nate McClinic, who played with future major leaguers Sam Jethroe and Sam Jones with the Cleveland Buckeyes. These names might not mean much to people outside of the Rome-Lindale-Silver Creek area, but they are very much a part of this area’s Black baseball history. For these local heroes and their families and descendants, this history will always matter, regardless of what can and cannot be taught in places where the dark clouds of censorship are gathering.   

About the Author: Brian Carroll, professor and chair of Communication at Berry College in Mount Berry, Ga., is the author of seven books, including When to Stop the Cheering? The Black Press, the Black Community and the Integration of Professional Baseball (Routledge, 2007) and A Devil’s Bargain: The Black Press and Black Baseball 1915-1955 (Routledge, 2014). His next book, Shakespeare’s Sceptered Isle: Finding English National Identity in the Plays, is due out from McFarland & Co. this summer.

Featured Image: From left, Nathaniel and Mike McClinic, standing, sons of Cleveland Buckeye and Lindale Dragon Nate McClinic, with Butch Haynes and Larry G. Morrow. Both McClinic and Haynes starred for the Lindale Dragons in the late fifties and early sixties. Morrow was a bat boy for Atlanta’s Robinson Dodgers in the late fifties. Photo by Olivia Morley, Rome News-Tribune, with permission. 


[i] Katie Robertson, “Hannah Nikole-Jones Denied Tenure at the University of North Carolina,” New York Times, 19 June 2021, available: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/19/business/media/nikole-hannah-jones-unc.html. The project can be accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/09/magazine/1619-project-us-history.html.

[ii] Rick Edmonds, “UNC donor says he has no regrets,” Poynter Institute, 6 July 2021, available: https://www.poynter.org/educators-students/2021/unc-donor-says-he-has-no-regrets-about-his-role-in-the-journalism-school-losing-nikole-hannah-jones/.

[iii] Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 908.

[iv] Henry Lewis Suggs, The Black Press in the Middle West, 1865-1985 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996), 1.

[v] Pat Washburn, The African American Newspaper Research Journal (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2008), 5.

[vi] Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1945), 379.

[vii] At the time of this writing, Brandon Bellamy, owner of the Atlantic League team in Gastonia, N.C., is the only Black owner across all of professional baseball and the first since Tom Lewis, owner of the South Atlantic League’s Savannah Cardinals in 1987.


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