- The Set-Up Men: Race, Culture and Resistance in Black Baseball by Sarah L. Trembanis
As its title suggests, The Set-Up Men: Race, Culture and Resistance in Black Baseball examines the African American game prior to desegregation as a vehicle for cultural resistance. In it, author Sarah L. Trebanis, Associate Professor of History at Immaculata University, examines baseball's literal and figurative contested territories, dealing with tensions between notions of black masculinity and respectability in the African American game, visual representations of race, the role of naming, and the African American trickster tradition, as well as the realities of segregation. Slim and well-written, The Set-Up Men considers many of the Negro Leagues' oft told tales as well as many of its tropes as indicative of the ways in which black baseball defied the hegemony of mainstream baseball's segregated power structure and mainstream culture, in general.
Given its focus on race and resistance, The Set-Up Men differs from many earlier Negro League histories, joining a growing literature that seeks to situate black baseball within the cultural context of race relations in the first half of the twentieth century, moving beyond the diamond into the wider community. For example, it effectively addresses the Harlem Renaissance and the construction of the concept of the "New Negro" in terms of notions of African-American masculinity. To do so, The Set-Up Men makes use of the landmark issue of the periodical Survey Graphic of March, 1925, entitled Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro, paying particular attention to James Weldon Johnson's reading of the iconic New York neighborhood and its formation as a result of the Great Migration. The book also makes use of some interesting material from Half-Century, a magazine aimed at the growing black bourgeoisie. Indeed, The Set-Up Men is strongest when interrogating the world outside the game.
In its discussion of black baseball and the entrepreneurs, journalists, and others that made the Negro League enterprise tick, however, The Set-Up Men tends toward superficiality, inaccuracy, and self-contradiction, which is surprising given the book's strong framework. For example, early in the first chapter, the author asserts that during the Depression, "'black underworld figures' (i.e. numbers runners)" gained traction in the segregated game (11). Certainly, a significant number of black baseball enterprises were bankrolled at least in part the numbers and policy rackets in the 1930s. But the participation of illegal lottery operators dates to well before the Depression years, as Neil Lanctot, Trembanis's stated source for this statement, duly notes and discusses extensively in Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution [End Page 198] (2008). Moreover, policy bankers like Gus Greenlee, who is in this section misidentified as a "numbers runner" (a courier who worked for the bankers), were hardly gangsters or underworld figures in the conventional sense, but were often seen both by their neighbors and the black press as "race men" and pillars of their communities.
Contradicting this initial assessment, the author later pays some attention to the role of numbers and policy kings as local entrepreneurs who made positive contributions to the areas in which they operated, often stepping in where mainstream financial institutions would not. Using Greenlee and his eponymous ballpark as an example, she seems to rescue the Pittsburgh entrepreneur from the earlier designation as a gangster, identifying him as a race hero whose venue held important implications for African American fans. Trembanis writes, "Greenlee field was a symbol of black self-sufficiency and successful enterprise. The large amount of money Greenlee invested in the field also contradicted stereotypes of the time … Greenlee's financial wherewithal was even more impressive within the context of the Depression" (44). Entirely missing from this discussion is mention of Greenlee's partner, Latrobe brewery owner, Joe Tito, who made considerable contributions to the construction of the venue and who was behind the decision to hire white concessionaires, contributing to Greenlee Field's ultimate financial failure, which is mentioned...