It was a momentous undertaking, and it’s uncovered details and intricacies hitherto unknown, and it’s drawn the curtain back on some of systemic and individual racism — both overt and implied — that both hindered black baseballers and inspired them to great heights.
John Thorn supplied the foreward to Brunson’s book; here’s a link to Thorn’s Our Game official MLB blog featuring the text of that intro.
Here is a lightly edited, email-interview I recently conducted with James about his new work …
Ryan Whirty: This obviously was a massive undertaking. How long did it take you, and where do you even start with a project this big?
James Brunson: I am academically trained as an art historian and visual culture specialist who integrates high art and popular art into the history of 19th century black baseball.
My project began in 1985 or 1986, depending on how one views it. In 1985, I was researching subject matter for a series of paintings. Reading microfilm, I came across a story on Isaac Carter, a ballplayer for the St. Louis Black Stockings in 1883. Carter was shot and killed in 1884, by a man who claimed he was a burglar (the story is much more complicated). This story piqued my interest. I photocopied the page and filed it away.
In 1986, my family made its annual Memorial Day pilgrimage to St. Louis. Time was set aside to do research at the Olive Street downtown library. Eerily, the home connected to Carter’s death was on Olive Street. I photocopied everything I could about the St. Louis Black Stockings. Currently, I have two notebooks on them, at least three inches in thickness. I came across more St. Louis teams, and photocopied their stories.
I discovered that black clubs of Chicago and St. Louis had been rivals since the 1870s. I discovered that few baseball books detailed the history of the Black Stockings, let alone black baseball, to my satisfaction. Why? Such books posed more issues, which raised questions that I thought others — like me — wanted to know. With pluck and perseverance, I decided to research the entire history of 19th century black baseball. That was the beginning …
RW: What types of sources did you use? Were there any sources of information that proved especially challenging to locate, track down and use?
JB: When I began my project, neither Internet nor digital newspapers existed. I primarily used microfilm. My university [Northern Illinois] has a great microfilm library. St. Louis has a great microfilm library. The University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana has a great microfilm room, including many Missouri and Colorado newspapers, that historical communications corridor along the Missouri River. I expanded my search by going to libraries around the country (California, Nevada, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Ohio, Delaware, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania).
Whenever I had a university conference or family vacation, I carved out time in my schedule to visit microfilm rooms. Sometimes, I took weekends and traveled to libraries. To keep my new piece of information, despite the financial travel and hotel costs, was worth it (I am reminded of a Cincinnati trip where I only found the rosters of the 1869 Western Union B.B.C., and its precursor, the 1868 Creole B.B.C.).
The Pythian archives at Harrisburg, Pa.,’s library is a gem. Unknown teams and players (at least to me) are listed. Moreover, this archive helps to flesh out mysteries that I had. For example, the Ashmun Club of Lincoln University had organized around the time of the [Philadelphia] Pythians team. Cross-referencing the club in the school’s 19th century yearbooks, I discovered more biographical info on players and team rosters.
Nothing was especially challenging in locating or using microfilm. If I wanted a newspaper unavailable at my institution, I ordered it through interlibrary loan. Usually received the microfilm in a few days. My organizational approach included photocopying, and jotting down information on my many legal pads (gray, pink, white, yellow). I also used composition notebooks. They are filled from front to back. I used multi-colored ink pens to differentiate either dates that I collected information, or to define a specific team or state. I was obsessed!
My ambitious plan included collecting and archiving everything! No parts of the newspaper, black- or white-owned, are left untouched. I have found advertisements with names of teams and players, as an example, which initially astonished me. They were similar in format to business cards. My archive grew. The main challenge was making sense of it all. I began to identify themes. Hotel-waiters, tonsorial artists-barbers, team rosters, black umpires, men and women’s teams, military teams, minstrel-theatrical teams, families composed of ballplayers, individual biographies, and black aesthetic style were themes I explored in my first book, “Early Image of Black Baseball.”
RW: Perhaps the biggest finding discussed in this work is that African Americans were playing what today would be called baseball a lot earlier than previously thought. What were some of the first instances of “colored” or “Negro” baseball that you uncovered?
JB: Historians not primarily focused on 19th-century black baseball (there are some who are, as you know), sometimes find additional gems that solidify organized black baseball’s roots in the 1850s. The first black baseball towns I uncovered were St. Louis, Chicago, Rockford, Ill., and Springfield, Ill. I discovered that some teams traveled to other cities, states and countries in the 1870s, and I began searching newspapers in those countries, states and cities. I was blown away, as an example, when I discovered that Chicago’s Uniques, in 1871, traveled to Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York and Upper Canada. I came across more teams and new locales to search. The discovery of the St. Louis Browns, a club that claimed professional status in 1870, was a revelation. It also became clear, at least to me, that the Uniques had claimed professional status as well.
The digital age: In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, my ongoing research uncovered that black clubs had formed baseball circuits in the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s. I became particularly interested in finding players that moved from one team to another. Between the 1850s and 1870s, the following organized teams captured my attention: Flushing’s Hunter B.B.C.; Binghamton’s Parlor B.BC.; Brooklyn’s Van Delken/Weldenken B.B.C.; Chicago’s Twilight Blue Stocking B.B.C.; Rockford’s Blue Stocking B.B.C.; New Orleans Pickwick B.B.C.; New Orleans Union B.B.C.; New Orleans Excelsior B.B.C.; Cleveland’s Twilight B.B.C.; Cincinnati’s Vigilant BBC; Louisville’s Fair Play BBC; and Indianapolis’s Western Fairplay B.B.C. These nines immediately come to mind. Many others appear in the book.
RW: How early were white players, teams and executives already pushing back against the idea of integration in the sport? When did racism and segregation first start seeping into the history of our national pastime?
JB: Many books have been written on the subject, and I have little to say about it. What I will say is that black men played with white clubs in the 1860s, which I discuss in my book. White teams played black teams in the 19th century, also covered in the book. One target that I devote considerable attention to relates to the racist impact of blackface minstrelsy on black baseball. It was devastating! Its effects on black baseball have been little examined. My book examines what I call black aesthetic style — intentionally misrepresented in 19th-century newspaper accounts. Baseball narratives constructed by newspaper reporters (if carefully analyzed) and visual culture, support this thesis.
Representations minstrelizing black players trace back to the 1850s, the enslaved black body metaphorically transformed in a modern black Frankenstein. Just as Frankenstein’s body was constructed of mismatched pieces, so were literary and visual representations of the black ballplayer. The eyes, nose and mouth too big; the hands and feet too big; the body too fat, too gangly or too muscular; and shine bones, incompatible with hot grounders. In the book, I examine this racist ideology.
Some baseball literature remains mired in representations of black baseball or Negro Leagues as novelty, that is, “Negro Comedy,” a self-reflexive mode that serves little purpose in the 21st century. Unfortunately, such views are complicit in reifying the notion of black players engaging in baseball farce or baseball minstrelsy. Until now, no one has analyzed how this racist narrative gained traction and its misrepresentations incorporated into baseball literature. Initially, I found this all astonishing. Getting over my disgust, I began to critically examine how it happened. It’s not easy getting 19th-century black baseball right, because it’s easier to get it wrong.
Black aesthetic style in organized baseball easily traces back to 1870, and it had nothing to do with baseball farce. It was cultural, part of the lived experiences of black folk in organized baseball; in certain cases, traceable to black enslavement. Organized baseball, newspapers and visual culture intentionally portrayed black clubs/players as minstrel shows/minstrels, not only to limit their search for equality, but also to mock their athleticism and baseball skills as novelty.
Another strategy had to do with leisure class culture and class competition — to hire black players meant fewer jobs for white players; in the professional leagues, relatively well-paid jobs for doing what one loved, baseball, mattered. To disparage black players and push them to the margins was a massive effort that sadly goes back to the beginnings of organized baseball. Let’s remember, however, that Ulysses Franklin Grant and King Solomon White, both playing for white and black clubs, engaged in so-called “Negro antics.” Both players are in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Let’s not get it twisted.
RW: As someone who’s based in New Orleans and who’s focused a great deal on black baseball here, I’m curious to know how much your new work discusses early African-American baseball here in NOLA. How early did “colored” baseball spring up here in New Orleans, and how rich was the baseball tradition here in New Orleans in the 19th century?
JB: Louisiana in general, and New Orleans in particular, are covered extensively. I first discovered New Orleans while researching the St. Louis Black Stockings who traveled there in the 1880s. My research notebook of photocopies on black baseball in New Orleans is four inches thick. For detailed information, I recommend my book’s team and player biographies, and team rosters.
While New Orleans has a rich black baseball history, traceable to the 1860s, it takes firm ground with the organization of a baseball tournament in 1875. By 1876, the Pickwicks, composed of black servants for the Pickwick Club, was a very strong organization. The black Pickwicks named their club after their employers (a dangerous, white supremacist organization that funded Mardi Gras and engaged in racial violence against black people). The Pickwicks team was led by the Cohen brothers, Walter Louis, Edward and James; and Edward Williams and James Duncan Kennedy; all excellent ballplayers. Interestingly, William Albert “Al” Robinson, from Chicago, joined the team around 1879. He played in Louisiana off and on between 1879 and 1886.
RW: Summing up, what would you say is the overarching theme in this work, and what message would you hope readers get out of the books?
JB: Family, Teamwork, Love, Hope and Devotion – My deceased wife, Kathleen (whom I love and miss dearly), traveled with me. Three times we visited [Major League Baseball official historian] John Thorn at his home in the Catskills. John enjoyed talking with her as much as he did with me; probably more. She shared my enthusiasm to the end. In the middle of the night, it was not unusual for Kathleen to yell from upstairs for me to get off the computer and come to bed. While she didn’t live to see the book’s publication, I had — from the beginning — dedicated this book to her.
I also dedicated the book to my daughters, Takkara and Tamerit, and my mom, Lucille Brunson. A special token of gratitude was given to my lifelong friend, Willard Draper, who read my drafts and posed questions that I hadn’t considered. Sadly, “Draper” wouldn’t live to see the book’s publication either, his death coming this year (2019), almost one year after Kathleen’s (2018). My book’s completion embodies family, teamwork, love, hope and devotion.
I end with this quote from my book: “Researching this book has been a humbling experience. Documenting the lived experiences of men and women who played the game has evoked a range of emotions: shock, sadness, disgust, humor, and jubilation … They played in the heat, rain, mud, and cold. They elicited hecklers, peals of laughter, and enthusiastic rounds of applause. Many of them went on to have successful careers outside of the game. As young men and women, however, all they ever wanted to do was play baseball — if they could — alongside their white brethren. This book is for them.”
I especially thank my editor, Gary Mitchem, at McFarland Publishing, who, back in 2011, believed in this baseball project.