- When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Dreams of a National Pastime by Ryan A. Swanson
The story of segregation in baseball generally runs from Moses Fleetwood Walker to Cap Anson to Kenesaw Landis to Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. Ryan Swanson, in his excellent When Baseball Went White, upends this narrative. Swanson, without demeaning Robinson et al., argues that we have focused on baseball’s integration without understanding how it became segregated in the first place. His study of post–Civil War baseball in Philadelphia, Richmond, and Washington, D.C., unearths the unconscious attitudes and conscious decisions that shaped the game’s racial boundaries. By interpreting the National Pastime within the broader context of Reconstruction, he has deepened our understanding of both sport and society.
Baseball pioneers such as Henry Chadwick believed their sport could help bind the nation’s wounds following the Civil War. Promoting the game as a tool for sectional reconciliation often meant accommodating southern racial perspectives. In 1866, for example, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) elected southern sympathizer Arthur Gorman as its president. Gorman’s elevation signaled organized baseball’s apathy toward postwar racial codes. The South, rather than accept this peace offering, transformed baseball into a vehicle for sectional pride. Southern crowds booed northern teams. Southern teams often refused contests against their northern counterparts. Richmond teams with names such as the Robert E. Lees, Stonewall Jacksons, and Seceshes, and baseball-oriented fundraisers for Confederate monuments, connected the supposedly national sport with Lost Cause ideology.
Segregation was the rule for both northern and southern baseball. Black teams existed everywhere, but few African Americans expressed interest in joining an all-white club. For them, “equality” meant fair access to playing fields and the opportunity to play the best white teams. Over time, however, cities made it harder for black teams to play on public lands, and wealthy white teams tightened leasing of their own, fenced-in grounds. In 1867, the Pennsylvania Association of Base Ball Players tabled a membership application from the Philadelphia Pythians, a talented black team. The NABBP, citing its desire to avoid [End Page 456] controversy and promote sectional harmony, drew a solid color line that same year. As in the novels of Thomas Dixon, “sectional harmony” really meant “marginalizing blacks.” “Avoiding controversy” meant ignoring complex racial questions. Except for a few racial progressives, baseball accepted the sharpening color line with barely a squeak. Sectional reconciliation demanded accommodation. Segregation was entrenched by 1876, when the National League formed.
Swanson did not attempt a comprehensive history of baseball in the 1860s and 1870s. When Baseball Went White is really about a political game, not an athletic one. Baseball serves as a means for exploring the mechanics of segregation and for establishing broader cultural attitudes toward race, integration, and the use of public space. By Reconstruction’s end, both America and organized baseball had created a fictional sense of equality that masked their commitment to separation.
Swanson does an admirable job with the available documents. Contemporary newspapers provided scarce coverage of baseball, except for the New York Clipper and a few other sporting-oriented sheets. Swanson nevertheless mines them for a wealth of information. He has also consulted City Council records, personal papers, and the Baseball Hall of Fame’s voluminous files. Evidentiary holes sometimes force him to speculate about motives and causal relationships, but he does so openly and transparently.
When Baseball Went White is an intriguing, insightful, and provocative book that opens exciting possibilities for future researchers. Because early baseball was so decentralized, additional local studies could nuance his portrait of how communities formally and informally segregated the game. Swanson makes tentative connections between racial segregation and postwar conceptions of white manhood. Recent Civil War historians have done tremendous work in the field of masculinity. Perhaps baseball offers a means for fusing these eras; Reconstruction-era players surely carried wartime notions of manhood onto the diamond. Finally, Swanson’s study illuminates the need for additional work...