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  • The Set-up Men: Race, Culture and Resistance in Black Baseball by Sarah L. Trembanis
  • Gregory H. Wolf
Trembanis, Sarah L. The Set-up Men: Race, Culture and Resistance in Black Baseball. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. Pp. xi + 225. Photographs. $35.00, pb.

When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and integrated major league baseball in 1947, it signaled the end of the Negro leagues. Ironically, this pivotal event for racial equality had unintended negative implications for African Americans. According to some scholarship, Negro League baseball was the biggest African American economic enterprise in the first half of the twentieth-century. In The Set-up Men: Race, Culture and Resistance in Black Baseball, Sarah L. Trembanis tells the story of what she calls the set-up men, black baseball players, owners, fans, and press who battled racism and resisted on and off the field to play, promote, and watch baseball, thus setting the stage for the likes of Robinson and Larry Doby to integrate the major leagues in 1947.

A revised dissertation, The Set-up Men examines how baseball “provided a forum for African Americans to negotiate the meaning of race under Jim Crow” (7). To explore the role baseball played in the lives of African Americans, Trembanis relies heavily on national and local black newspapers, including images and illustrations, as well as the oral histories and memoires of former black baseball players. Following a brief historical overview of Negro League baseball in the introduction, Chapter 1 focuses on how African Americans carved out public space for baseball as a pastime. When Rube Foster founded the National Negro League in 1920, his enterprise helped foster ever-expanding opportunities for African Americans to assert autonomy over their economic and social destiny. For example, Gus Greenlee, a numbers racketeer and owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, built the first black-owned baseball field in the United States in 1931 and, subsequently, installed lights. Trembanis discusses how Negro League teams negotiated space to play games, how spectators interacted with baseball as a leisure pursuit, and how ball players contended with travel and lodging restrictions in a segregated society.

When the African American boxer Jack Johnson defeated James J. Jeffries, a white former champion, in 1910, violent and deadly riots erupted all over the country. Not only was white physical and intellectual supremacy challenged but so too were the expectations of, and assumptions about, the black athlete. Like Johnson, Negro League ball players challenged stereotypes and were forced to negotiate race and gender within a rapidly changing social context. In Chapters 2 and 3, Trembanis explores how ballplayers were the public representatives of the African American community, which debated over their behavior and character. In an especially insightful and engaging analysis, Trembanis examines mass-media images of black baseball (1915–46) to determine how African American newspapers portrayed the sport, what the images suggest about societal and cultural ideas of African Americans, and how the images reflect expectations about race, gender, and class (86).

In Chapters 4 and 5, Trembanis analyzes how the use of language (both written and oral) about African American baseball challenged notions of white supremacy and Jim Crow laws, thereby implicitly criticizing major league baseball and its color line. There existed a rich and often overlooked folkloric tradition about the feats and experiences of players. [End Page 146] Described as “trickster” tales, Trembanis suggests that these primarily oral and constantly evolving narratives helped create heroes by often exaggerating an athlete’s superiority over his white counterpart. Nicknames also reflected black baseball’s collective interests, history, and desires. Teams using names such as “Giants” or “Cubans,” submits Trembanis, challenged racism, segregation, and discrimination by resisting racial classification (148). Many black ballplayers considered Cuba and Latin America, where they might have barnstormed or played winter ball, a utopia of sorts, free of the racial restrictions in the United States.

The volume concludes with a chapter on the entertaining clowning teams that simultaneously attracted and alienated fans. Almost exclusively owned by white businessmen, these clowning teams, argues Trembanis, “embodied the contradictions of Negro Leagues baseball and played to and with racial stereotypes” (157). Many black sportswriters considered these clowning teams detrimental and...


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