Monday, July 7, 2008

The Color Line Has Been Drawn



Philadelphia, Sept. 11.-The Philadelphia Times will say to-morrow that for the first time in the history of baseball the color line has been drawn, and that the "world's champions," the St. Louis Browns, are the men who have established the precedent that white players must not play with colored men. There have been little dissensions before, but only about a player here and there. The Browns were in open revolt last night. Some time ago President Von Der Ahe arranged for his club to play an exhibition game at West Farms, near New York, with the Cuban Giants, the noted colored club. He was promised a big guarantee, and it was expected that fully 15,000 persons would be present. The game was to have been played to-day, and President Von Der Ahe yesterday purchased railroad tickets for all his players and made all the arrangements for the trip. While he was at supper at the Continental Hotel last night thinking over the misfortune that had befallen Capt. Comiskey, he was approached by "Tip" O'Neill, the heavy slugging left fielder, who laid out a letter on the table and then hastily slipped out of the room. The letter read as follows:

Philadelphia, Penn., Sept. 10.
To Chris Von Der Ahe, Esq.:
Dear Sir: We, the undersigned members of the St. Louis Baseball Club, do not agree to play against negroes to-morrow. We will cheerfully play against white people at any time, and think, by refusing to play, we are only doing what is right, taking everything into consideration and the shape the team is in at the present.

W.A. Latham, John Boyle, J.E. O'Neill, R.L. Caruthers, W.E. Gleason, W.H. Robinson, Charles King, Curt Welch.

President Von Der Ahe did not wait to finish his meal. He left the table hastily and went downstairs into the corridor, where he found the players talking in a group. The sudden appearance of their manager among them surprised the players and they acted like a ship's crew about to mutiny. When Von Der Ahe asked the meaning of the letter he had just received, nobody answered him. "Yank" Robinson hung his head and sneaked to the rear of the crowd. "Silver" King opened his mouth, but his tongue refused to move, and even Arlie Latham, whose jaws are always going, couldn't get out a word. Receiving no reply, President Von Der Ahe said quietly: "As it seems to be a matter of principle with you, you need not play to-morrow."

President Von Der Ahe said to a Times reporter to-night: "I am sorry to have disappointed the people of West Farms to-day, as I always fulfill my engagements. I was surprised at the action of my men, especially as they knew a week ago that the game was arranged, and yet they waited until the very last minute before they informed me of their opposition."

The St. Louis players were not disposed to talk of their action. Latham, Boyle, and O'Neill were the leaders, it is said, and they had considerable trouble in securing the signatures of some of the men. Capt. Comiskey didn't know anything about the matter, and Knouff refused to sign the letter. They ad played with the Cuban Giants once before last season, and they seemed to enjoy it better than a contest with white players. Curtis Welch, the centre fielder, played with the Toledo Club when The Walker, the colored player, was a member of the team. "I think some of the boys wanted a day to themselves," said Capt. Comiskey. "They have played against colored clubs before without a murmur and I think they are sorry for their hasty action already."

The Cuban Giants were originally organized at Trenton about two years ago as an independent club. This season they have been in various places in close proximity to New York City. They are good players and the team has made money. They have played games with the Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, Louisville, Athletic, and other prominent clubs, and this is the first time that any club has refused to play with them on account of their color. The International League recently adopted a resolution prohibiting the employment of colored players by its clubs. This was caused by opposition from the players, who objected to playing with Second Baseman Grant, of the Buffalo Club, and colored Pitcher Stovey, of the Newark Club.
-The New York Times, September 12, 1887

I think that the significance of the Browns' refusal to play the Cuban Giants in 1887 has been overstated and, while it does not reflect well on the club, the reasons for it are more complex than is usually stated.

Comiskey, who due to injury was not with the team at the time, said that the reason for the Browns' refusal to play the Cuban Giants was that the players did not want to give up their day off just to play an exhibition game. The Browns were in Philadelphia at the time, playing the Athletics. They had a game on September 9th and 10th, a day off, a game on the 12th, had to travel to Baltimore , and then play three games against the Orioles on the 14th and 15th. According to the Globe-Democrat, several of the players had tickets to a Philadelphia theatre on the 11th. The desire for a night on the town, coupled with the team's schedule, and the injuries that the team was suffering led to the refusal to play the exhibition game.

Under this interpretation, the reasons stated in the letter to Von der Ahe for the refusal to play the exhibition game was merely a pretext. The fact that the desire not to play baseball with African-Americans would be a socially acceptable pretext says more about that day and age than it does about baseball in general or the Browns specifically.

The conventional interpretation of this event has the Browns in "revolt" or "on strike" because of the racism that was systemic in baseball. The incident is then used to support a specific narrative about the creation and sustainment of the color barrier. However, there is a very real possibility that the conventional interpretation is wrong. It's possible that all that was going on was that a physically beat up team in the middle of grinding road trip who had already clinched a pennant and were looking at a postseason series in a few weeks just wanted to enjoy their day off.

Comiskey, Dave Foutz, and Doc Bushong were all in St. Louis getting treatment for injuries and the Browns were down to nine players. Curt Welch, Bob Caruthers, and Yank Robinson were banged up but had to play because the team had no other option. The Browns couldn't put nine healthy players on the field but Von der Ahe wanted them to play an exhibition game on a scheduled day off.

Von der Ahe stated that "(if) it was a question of principle with any of my players, I would not say a word, but it is not." Comiskey reminded that Globe that the Browns had played the Cuban Giants, as well as other African-American teams, in the past with no problems and said that "I think some of the boys wanted a day to themselves." So at the time all of this went down neither Von der Ahe nor Comiskey believed that the players were refusing to play the Cuban Giants because of the color of their skin.

Von der Ahe obviously lost money because of the cancellation of the game but he also had to reach a financial settlement with Giant's owner John Bright. Supposedly, there was some kind of contractual arrangement with regards to the game and tickets had already been sold. Bright demanded financial compensation for his losses and Von der Ahe was forced to pony up. He told the Globe that "(the) refusal of my men to play the Cuban Giants cost me at least $1000..."

The idea that this event created the color line in baseball is simply not accurate. While I'm not an expert on the color line or black baseball, the above Times article states that the International League had already passed laws "prohibiting the employment of colored players" and as early as 1867 the National Association moved to exclude African-Americans from their league. These events are certainly more significant than the Browns' actions in 1887. While the Browns refusal to play the Cuban Giants can be seen as a milestone on the road to the establishment of the color line, if looked at in context the idea that the Browns "established the precedent that white players must not play with colored men" is ridiculous.

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