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Exhibition Baseball Americana

Who’s Playing

Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) in Kansas City Monarchs uniform, Negro American League, 1945. Reproduction. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (113.00.00)

“They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays.” —Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox outfielder, regarding Mays’s 24 All-Star game appearances

After the Civil War, cannon blasts gave way to the crack of the bat as major leagues formed with teams stationed from Hartford to St. Louis. Pro players, immortalized on baseball cards, were among the first athletes enshrined in the temple of American sports celebrity. The biggest name belonged to Chicago White Stocking right fielder Michael “King” Kelly, who popularized both the practice of signing autographs and athletes developing acting careers.

In the 1880s, major league team owners agreed to an unwritten policy that they would sign only white men, thus creating baseball’s color line. Even so, all sorts of Americans played baseball, as schools, churches, factories, and businesses sponsored teams. Bloomer Girls and African American all-star teams barnstormed the country, racking up stellar records against local clubs that accepted their challenge; their successors would include the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and various Negro leagues.

Who's Playing in the Major Leagues
A Game Divided
Who's Also Playing

Who’s Playing in the Major Leagues

Lots of Americans played baseball, but not everyone had a league of their own or even one to share. About half a dozen African American men are known to have played briefly in the major leagues during the nineteenth century. But from 1887 through 1946, a firm “gentlemen’s agreement” among major league team owners held that no black players would be offered contracts. This arrangement was in keeping with the increasing number of Jim Crow laws and racially-based customs that prevailed during this period. The players that came to dominate the National League (1876), the American Association (1882), and the American League (1900) were largely of Irish, English, or German descent. Since salaries were seasonal, nearly all players had occupations outside the game, the most common being “saloonist” (bar employee), policeman, fireman, railroad worker, and farmer.

Trolley Dodging Dodgers

Brooklyn Baseball Club. Panoramic gelatin silver print, 1911. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (023.00.00)

A Game Divided

Although white major leaguers dominated the national headlines and baseball cards, local clubs ruled America’s ball fields—indoors and out. A group of Chicagoans came up with “indoor baseball” and produced a variant that thrives to this day as softball. Meanwhile, minor league baseball teams logged thousands of miles between hundreds of towns. Concurrently, African Americans formed their own teams, and one of the most notable—the Philadelphia Pythian Club, founded by scholar and shortstop Octavius Catto—played against white teams. Organized black baseball reached a significant milestone in 1920, when Rube Foster established the Negro National League. Enthusiastically covered in the black press, it received little attention from white sports fans. “Don’t feel sorry for us,” said Buck O’Neil, a former Negro League star and the first African American to coach in the major leagues. “I feel sorry for your fathers and your mothers, because they didn’t get to see us play.”

African American Baseball Team

Edward David Ritton, photographer. African American baseball team. Danbury, Connecticut, ca. 1880. William A. Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (026.00.00)

Who’s Also Playing

In mid-twentieth-century America, it was sometimes hard to tell whether baseball was throwing the country a few curveballs or if the country was stepping up to the plate and affecting baseball. Attention turned toward those who traditionally occupied the fringes of organized sport. Established during World War II, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943–1954) showcased the talent of women recruited from the nation’s myriad softball leagues and provided home front entertainment throughout the Midwest. After the war, the black press, civil rights organizations, and others who had spent decades calling for integrated major league baseball were rewarded with the sight of Jackie Robinson wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey even as he withstood hecklers and death threats. Today nearly 14 million Americans play baseball or softball, many on coed and diverse teams, and more women and girls than ever are competing in hardball.

They Might Be Giants

New York Female Giants. New York: Bain News Service, 1913. Reproduction. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (112.00.00)