Sports and Politics: 1869 and 2019
“Keep politics out of sports!” “Just report what happens on the field!” These are common refrains nowadays, recently codified by ESPN. The sentiment is not new. It goes back at least to the 1860s. I have previously written about the time in 1867 when a black baseball club tried to join an otherwise white association of baseball clubs, and the hand-wringing that ensued. The wish was to keep politics out of baseball, by which was meant keep blacks apart from white baseball–that not being political at all!
I have been running a daily “150 years ago today in baseball” series on my feed over on Facebook. (If anyone is interested, my feed is public, and I accept friend requests that aren’t overtly spammy.) I wasn’t sure I would have material to do this every day, but this hasn’t been a problem. The initial impetus was this being the breakout year for the Cincinnati Red Stockings, but that year included some important events in baseball race relations. The discipline of a daily series helped me put together some events I had known about, but not quite connected. The concrete events are four games played in September and October of 1869, plus one game that was not.
The first of these games was played September 3 between the Pythian and the Olympic Clubs, both of Philadelphia. The Pythians were a well-established club of middle class blacks. The member most famous today was Octavius Catto, an educator and activist–think of a local version of Frederick Douglass. This was the club that had tried to join the state baseball association two years earlier. The Olympics were the third best baseball club in Philadelphia, and the most respectable, measured by the wealth and social standing of its members. The game was set up by Thomas Fitzgerald, the owner of the Philadelphia City Item newspaper and prominent in Philadelphia baseball. He was a “radical Republican,” which meant that he had been an abolitionist back in the day, and after the Civil War he took civil rights for blacks more seriously than was thought seemly by most, including the moderate wing of the Republican Party.
How much, if at all, would blacks be allowed to integrate into American society? This was the burning issue of the day: What jobs could blacks hold? Could they ride streetcars with whites? Could they play baseball with whites? These are all the same question. Fitzgerald arranging the game was an overtly political act. Here, he asserted, was a realm of American society where blacks and whites could interact on the same field.
The Olympics won pretty easily, 44-23 (a reasonable score in that era). This surprised no one. The Olympics were, after all, the third best club in Philadelphia. While that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it really isn’t. The Pythians were simply operating on a less competitive level. How much less? The second of our four games was played two weeks later, on the 16th, the Pythians this time playing the City Item Club. Recall that the City Item was Fitzgerald’s newspaper. The City Item players were his employees, three of them his sons. He could have had them play the Pythians at any time. He lobbied for the Olympic game because that carried gravitas that a game with the City Items never could. The Pythians won this time, 27-17.
Before moving onto the third game, let us look at the coverage of the first two. There existed at this time both a national and local sporting press. The Olympics were a prominent club, well known to that sporting press. When the Red Stockings came into town, a game with the Olympics was on the schedule as a matter of course, and the game received full coverage. The Olympics’ games with minor clubs also received notice. This could be spotty in the national press, but the local Philadelphia papers would include such games in their routine coverage. The Philadelphia Sunday Mercury in particular acted as the de facto paper of record for the Philadelphia baseball fraternity.
So what did the Sunday Mercury have to say about the Olympics’ game with the Pythians? Nothing. There was no mention. Neither was there in the New York Sunday Mercury (which was unconnected with the Philadelphia paper of the same name) or the New York Clipper, the two major national baseball papers. Dead silence.
Keep politics out of sports! Just report the game on the field! But what if the game on the field is itself political? The City Item reported it, of course. So did the Philadelphia Inquirer, also a Republican paper. Democratic papers ignored the game because they opposed its politics. Independent papers ignored the game because that way they could imagine they weren’t engaging in politics. Reporting the game on the field was itself political. No one imagined otherwise. But so, therefore, is not reporting it.
The third game was played just a few days later, on the 20th. This time it was between the white Olympics of Washington (who were unconnected to the Olympics of Philadelphia: duplicate club names were common) and the black Alert Club, also of Washington. The Pythian precedent was being copied. The Olympics were a professional club, though not of the top tier. The Alerts didn’t have a chance, losing 56-4, but that wasn’t really the point. The other major club in Washington was the Nationals. The Nationals were associated with the Democratic Party. Their heyday had been during the Andrew Johnson administration, when they had access to patronage positions in the Treasury Department for their players. September of 1869 was, however, the Grant administration. The Nationals were on the wane. The Olympics, their Republican counterparts, had access to that sweet, sweet patronage. They also were willing to make the political statement of playing a black club.
Here is the description of the two clubs, from the Washington National Republican of the following day:
The clubs to contend were the Olympics of this city–who within the past year have acquired quite a reputation as “ballists” of a high order of merit–and the Alerts–a club composed of colored men, who presented for their nine yesterday a body of stalwart players, who with one exception were evident Simon-pure Africans. They were uniformed neatly in blue shirts and caps, black cloth pants, with broad yellow leather belts. This club has been doing some good playing this season, and are the especial proteges of a number of our wealthiest colored citizens, who have materially aided their organization, and who had such a high opinion of their abilities as “ballists” as to cause them to propose a game with the club acknowledged to present the strongest nine of any in the city.
OK, what about it? Similar background bits were common in game accounts. The Alerts were not widely known, so there was interest in who they were. That’s not what stands out. Rather, it is the generally respectful tone. The paper was owned by William J. Murtaugh, a former abolitionist. Writing respectfully of a black club was a political act. By way of comparison, here is an excerpt from a report two years earlier, in the New York Dispatch of October 6, 1867, of a game between two black clubs, the Excelsiors of Philadelphia and the Uniques of Brooklyn:
The match between the Excelsiors, of Philadelphia, and the Uniques, of Brooklyn…proved to be about as interesting, amusing, and laughable, as anything we have seen this season. We have had the real thing now, and hereafter Tony Pastor and the minstrels will have to take a back seat, unless they were upon the grounds Thursday, and can improve on the display by the original article, which we very much doubt. … The colored belles of both Philadelphia and Brooklyn were out in force, and enthusiastically applauded the efforts of their favorites. The backers of the nines followed the example of their white brethren, and invested their money freely on the results. We heard on enthusiastic “gomman” crying out “Ise bet nineteen dollars, and Ise got jus’ one more dollar to bet on the ‘Celsior Club.” The Umpire, Mr. Patterson, of the Bachelor Club, of Albany, was subjected to a fearful amount of chin music, and finally had to call upon the police to protect him from the players. One pugilistic darkey in the crowd called out to him when he was about to give a decision: “Youm say dat man am out, and I jis knock youm damn head off.” Players running the bases, unable to hear the decisions of the Umpire, were informed by their captain that, “Judgement says dat am out,” or “Judgment says dat am foul.”
Blacks playing baseball: Comedy gold! Of course treating it as comedy is also political.
Next is the game that didn’t happen. Not everyone agreed that blacks should be allowed to play baseball with whites. Immediately after the Olympic-Alert game, the Maryland Club of Baltimore passed a resolution not to play a game with the Olympics. Their reason, as reported in the Daily National Intelligencer and Washington Express of September 22, was
Their action is based upon the fact of the latter club playing a match game with the Alert Base-ball Club (colored) of this city, which is not a convention club.
This is bullshit, in the Frankfurtian sense of the word. By “convention club” they meant a member of the National Association of Base Ball Players, the governing body for baseball from 1858 through 1870. The NABBP never, however, comprised all, or even most, baseball clubs, and there never was any prohibition on NABBP member clubs playing non-member clubs. Such games occurred routinely with no objections made. Indeed, this is literally the only instance I know of in this era of any hint otherwise. Not only was this bullshit, it was obviously so: a rule invented on the spot for an immediate purpose, and immediately forgotten once its purpose had been served.
What was this purpose? What was the point? There is no great mystery. We see the same thing all the time today. When a bigot finds himself in circumstances where open bigotry is not a winning argument, his fallback is to find some criterion that avoids openly stating the bigotry, but which achieves the same result. Done well, the bigot can present himself as no bigot at all, but a hard-headed realist. The only thing surprising about the Maryland Club’s resolution is why they felt the need to obfuscate. The answer is that this was 1869, not 1889. There was a short period immediately after the Civil War when a significant portion of the American white population took serious civil rights for blacks. It didn’t last long. Reconstruction ended in 1877, when there were no longer enough people who cared to matter. But in 1869 there were enough to cramp the style of the Maryland Club, forcing them to aim for politically correct language while seeking their safe space.
This was not a meaningless gesture. The Maryland Club was of the same class as the Olympics: a professional club, but not of the top tier. This made the two clubs natural rivals. They had split four games earlier in the season, setting up a potentially lucrative rubber game. We know they felt strongly about the matter if they were willing to sacrifice revenue for principle.
This brings us to the last of our four games. The Olympics responded to the Marylands’ resolution on October 12 when they played a game with another black club, the Mutuals of Washington. So much for the Marylands’ sensibilities.
These games set the baseline for the next eight decades. Black clubs and white clubs could compete against one another. There were variances from this baseline. There was a period in the 1880s of limited integration, with about a dozen blacks playing on white clubs, mostly on the minor league level. This was not an expression of racial unity. Baseball enjoyed rapid expansion in the 1880s, and competent players were in short supply. Sometimes managers were driven to desperate measures. As the player shortage eased up, blacks were eased out. In the other direction, teams occasionally rebelled against playing black clubs. But this was unusual. In the ordinary course of play, blacks and whites could play against one another–just not on the same team.
What does this have to do with today? Everything. It all still goes on today. It isn’t so crude as in the past, but the same stuff goes on in a more subtle form. Blacks on the field are not controversial, but how we talk about them is different from how we talk about whites, with coded language for black quarterbacks in the NFL. And sure, blacks on the field is not controversial. But how about gays? There are no openly gay players in the NFL. This doesn’t mean there are no gay players–just that they feel the need to stay in the closet. Who gets to play is still political. So is talking about it. Or not talking about it. Of course the same closeting doesn’t occur, or at least isn’t mandatory, in women’s sports. But women’s sports is totally political. Their mere existence in their modern form comes from Title IX, a political act. How much coverage does your local paper give women’s sports? Let’s ignore professional sports and just look at high school and rec leagues. Does the paper give equal coverage? Probably not. What gets covered and what doesn’t is political, just like in 1869
“Keep politics out of sports!” “Just report what happens on the field!” When I hear these words, I know I am listening to someone who at best doesn’t understand the issue.