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The Business Side of Black Baseball

Black Baseball Entrepreneurs 1902-1931: The Negro National and Eastern Colored Leagues. By Michael E. Lomax. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014.

 

black-baseballThose researching African American baseball recognize University of Iowa sports history professor Michael Lomax as a go-to source. His latest project, Black Baseball Entrepreneurs, 1902-1931 is part two of his ongoing project to look at the movers, shakers, and bankrollers of black professional baseball, and it’s the companion piece to Black Baseball Entrepreneurs, 1860-1901: By Any Means Necessary (2003). As the time sequencing suggests, Lomax’s first volume looked at the very foundations of black ball, and the second from maturation to, what he argues, was the apex of the Negro Leagues. The last point is slightly controversial, as he locates the highwater mark fifteen years before the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, which paved the way for the re-integration of major league baseball. Robinson’s success, of course, opened the door for other talented “Negro” players—a designation that also included dark-hued Latinos—and ultimately spelled doom for then Negro Leagues. (The second Negro National League folded in 1948, and the Negro American League after the 1962 season.)

 

Lomax calls the period from 1902 to 1931 “an era of triumph and disillusionment…” and he interprets the collapse of the Eastern Colored League (1928) and the first Negro National League (1931) as a symbolic “dream deferred in the overall African American pursuit for freedom and self-determination.” (xi) Few would dispute that such was the condition of African Americans in 1931, though some might argue that he is freighting baseball with more significance than is warranted. Lomax disagrees. For him, baseball teams were a source of black pride and symbolized the triumph of black commercial leisure, whereas sponsorship and ownership of teams were important experiments in black capitalism the likes of which black intellectuals advocated. For still others, ownership was an attempt “to work within the parameters of a biracial structure.” (xi) Black baseball’s ‘golden age’ is, thus, a matter or perspective. If one means the quality of players, then the 1930s through World War II is the elusive golden age. From the standpoint of business, though, Lomax makes a great case for the years between 1920 and 1931. It saw the rise of flamboyant owners such as Sol White, C.W. Strothers, Frank Leland, and Nat Strong, rising attendance, the first Negro World Series, and the on-field performance of legendary players such as Rube Foster, Oscar Charleston, John Henry Lloyd, and Cool Papa Bell. Lomax gives us far more than a business history; we are also treated to voluminous detail about personalities, important games, road stories, and social contexts that connect America’s pastime to what Gunnar Myrdal later called the American dilemma: racism.

 

Lomax avoids interpreting that dilemma in stark black and white terms. Since only a few Negro Leagues teams owned their own playing fields, black entrepreneurs sought biracial cooperation with major league owners, park supervisors, and white-controlled city associations. In like fashion, the “league” part of Negro Leagues was often problematic–most of the teams barnstormed to make ends meet financially, including securing exhibition matches against white teams. One of the more surprising revelations is that Chicago White Stockings (later the Cubs) star Cap Anson–generally regarded as a virulent racist–had few qualms against having his semi-pro team, Anson’s Colts, compete against black teams. Lomax also notes the importance of the Negro Leagues in paving the way for Latin players; both the Cuban Stars (East) and Cuban Stars (West) competed in the Negro Leagues.

 

These are numerous tidbits one can mine from Lomax and, for most readers, mining is the best way to approach the book. Specialists will revel in every detail but unlike Robert Peterson’s classic Only the Ball Was White (1992), Lomax’s book is more a chronicle than narrative history. Lomax is a meticulous researcher who shares each fact he unearths. His is a comprehensive volume (425 pages plus notes), but this means that the narrative often strains under the weight of detail. At times, so too does analysis. In a potentially illuminating chapter titled “Striving for Professionalism,” Lomax details the structural articulation of black pro leagues, but dodges an enduring question of how “professional” the teams really were. Baseball scholars agree that top players were the equals of white major leaguers; they are deeply divided over whether most pre-1930 teams were analogous. They also divide over how “organized” black baseball was until after the collapse of the ECL and the first NNL. One suspects Lomax will address some of these issues in volume three.

 

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst


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