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  • Legitimate Black HeroesThe Negro Leagues, Jackie Robinson, and the National Pastime in African American Literature
  • Robert C. Nowatzki (bio)

In September 1891, a seventy-three-year-old Frederick Douglass watched his son Charles play in a baseball game in Washington, DC between the Mutuals (a local black team) and the all-black Cuban Giants.1 The fact that the most renowned African American crusader for social justice during the nineteenth century enjoyed watching baseball, and that his son played for the all-black teams the Mutuals and the Alert, provides an opportunity to explore what baseball meant to people who were excluded from a sport that in many ways symbolized a nation that claimed to promote freedom, equality, and opportunity but systematically refused to recognize the humanity of African Americans. Although organized baseball in the United States unofficially barred African Americans for sixty years,2 much has been written in recent decades about African Americans in baseball—their exclusion from organized baseball, their participation in all-black teams and leagues, and their presence in the major leagues beginning in 1947. Despite all of this scholarship, however, little has been written about how African American authors wrote about baseball in their works. Such an examination is worthwhile, however, because of baseball's longstanding cultural status as the "national pastime" and the struggles of African Americans to participate fully in American democracy and culture through baseball.

The connections between baseball and black Americans are more complex than they may initially seem, because African American baseball players responded to the segregation of organized baseball by playing on all-black teams and creating their own style of play that appealed to many African Americans. When major league teams began signing black players during the 1940s and 1950s, many African Americans rejoiced because they saw this trend as a sign that racial separation and inequality could be stopped, not only in baseball, but in other areas of American society as well. On the other hand, [End Page 103] as a result of the integration of major league baseball, the Negro Leagues suffered from a loss of talent, which led to a lack of interest among their fans and ultimately the financial failure of the Negro League teams. It makes sense, then, that baseball in general (and Jackie Robinson in particular) occupies an ambiguous ideological space in African American literature. In some works, the segregation of organized baseball represents the injustice of American society, while in other works, the Negro Leagues and their fans symbolize the vitality of African American culture despite the fact that these leagues came into existence as a result of racial discrimination in organized baseball. This essay examines four texts by African Americans that respond differently to the segregation and desegregation of baseball. The publication dates of these works—ranging from 1971 to 1992—coincide with the period of major league baseball history in which African American players were more numerous before or since.3 Despite the success of major-league black players during this period, not all of the authors whose works are analyzed here saw the inclusion of African Americans into the major leagues or Robinson's success as occasions for celebration, and the quarter century separating Robinson's debut with the Dodgers and the earliest of these texts provided a critical distance for each author to assess what was gained by the integration of the major leagues and what was lost by the extinction of the Negro Leagues. Ernest Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman shows how Robinson's breaking of the color line leads the narrator to become interested in baseball and inspires her in her struggle against racial segregation in Jim Crow Louisiana. In contrast, Amiri Baraka's Autobiography of Leroi Jones and the opening chapter of Gloria Naylor's Bailey's Café celebrate the Negro Leagues rather than Robinson's inclusion in the major leagues, and both texts lament the demise of the Negro Leagues following the desegregation of major-league baseball. August Wilson's play Fences offers a third perspective on the Negro Leagues, major-league baseball's color line, and Jackie Robinson.4 Wilson examines these issues not from the viewpoint...


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pp. 103-115
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