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 only in passing. This omission is perhaps even more troubling than the fact that the book contradicts itself, first assessing Greenlee and the fellow policy and numbers operators as underworld figures, later as champions of the race.
A considerable portion of The Set-Up Men is devoted to the discussion of the trickster tradition in African American culture and its expression in black baseball. The author successfully locates Buck O'Neil's old chestnut about Cool Papa Bell outrunning the light switch within this tradition, specifically relating it to boasting as an informal form of black resistance. Moreover, the book also looks at different versions of the same tale from a variety of sources, both mainstream and African American, to relate the tale to the folk tradition. Far less successful, however, is a section on naming as relates to the trickster tradition. Once again, the narrative falls prey to inaccuracy and self-contradiction. Writing about the choice of unnamed "owners" of the Ethiopian Clowns to adopt that particular moniker for the team, the author notes, "The name also reflected the growing dissatisfaction among African Americans with colonialism and an increasing interest in pan-African causes" (148). She goes on to claim:
For African Americans struggling under Jim Crow and aghast at American miscarriages of justice in the Scottsboro Boys case, it was easy to find common cause with another group of African-descended people who found their freedom attacked by a [End Page 199] more powerful white nation. The 'Ethiopian' name thus signified a renewed political consciousness and a political protest against racist policies at home and abroad. Beneath the clowning antic of the Ethiopian clowns was the claiming of a transnational identity, one of oppressed people desperate to gain liberty for themselves and their families.(149)
Nothing could be further than the truth. In fact, as opposed to being lauded, the Ethiopian Clowns, with their white-face war paint and faux-African names like Impo and Nyassas, under the ownership and management of white vaudeville promoter, Syd Pollock, were regularly criticized by the black press. The team was, in fact, prevented from entering organized black baseball by owners who were deeply offended by the team's name and clowning. More importantly, both the press and the NAL's owners interpreted the team's name as an affront to the people of occupied Ethiopia, not as a positive expression of pan-African identity or a political protest against the Scottsboro Boys' case. Certainly, the team had a significant following among African-American fans, who went to see the Clowns in large numbers, enjoying both their humor and their excellent brand of baseball. Their support of the Clowns, however, may hardly be interpreted as an act of resistance or a critique of colonialism.
Later in The Set-Up Men, an entire chapter is devoted to the Clowns as tricksters. As is the case repeatedly in this text, the author contradicts her earlier argument, in this case, paying brief attention to the conflict between Pollock and the other owners, leading to the ultimate decision to substitute Indianapolis for Ethiopian for the team's name prior to its entry into the NAL. It is in this chapter that the Clowns' face paint and nicknames are discussed. But in this instance, not only does the narrative contradict its earlier argument, but it places the team's grass skirts, face paint, and faux-African names in the wrong decade, following the desegregation of the Major Leagues rather than prior to the teams' entry into organized black baseball in the early 1940s. And once again, the author's stated source, in this case Alan Pollock's memoir Barnstorming to Heaven (2006), discusses this move at great length.
If these were the book's only instances of shoddy research and self-contradiction, The Set-Up Men would still be laudable for its exploration of the culture of resistance in black baseball. There is, after all, much that is both valid, interesting, and important in Trembanis's argument. Unfortunately, the argument is not supported by accurate and consistent historical evidence. As such, The Set-Up Men fails to contribute significantly to the literature contextualizing black baseball, which is unfortunate given the potential of its subject matter and the strength of its theoretical framework. [End Page 200]