Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Guardians Of Baseball High Culture

Between 1881 and 1882, St. Louis newspapers offered sparse coverage of the city's colored clubs...Why the poor coverage? One answer was column space.  Critics complained that editors gave baseball too much column space.  And the press doted on the white professional club, the Brown Stockings, which it viewed as a lucrative, civic-minded enterprise.  On the other hand, the Black Stockings colored nine hardly qualified as the city's iconic sports symbol...Throughout the 1870's, the white press' coverage of colored baseball declined.  In 1878, when the Globe-Democrat reported only games the sports editor "deemed sufficiently interesting," colored clubs became the first casualties.  In 1876, newspapers reported over thirty games; in 1877, only three contests appear in print, among them the Black Stockings vs. Our Boys (the "Blacks" won 6 to 4).  Colored clubs disappeared from the sports pages until 1881.  Of course, the Red Stockings, Brown Stockings, and Empires received coverage.  And sports editors devoted attention to white business and trade nines.  Coverage seems to have been based on their social and business relations with newspapers.  This exclusion represented only part of a strategic plan, that being the desire of the professional league to control labor, eliminate the numerous teams competing for attention (the Globe-Democrat identified over 200 nines in the city), and consolidate the market.

In the Mound City, guardians of baseball high culture-the Spink brothers, the McNeary brothers, Gus Solari, and Christopher Von der Ahe-wielded the civic clout and socioeconomic control to push an exclusionary agenda. 
-James Brunson, Henry Bridgewater's Black Stockings of St. Louis, 1881-1889

While Brunson goes on to place Bridgewater and the Black Stockings within the context of Reconstruction era St. Louis and the politics inherent to the era, I find his interpretation of the actions of the Spink brothers, McNeary, Solari, and Von der Ahe to be fascinating.  Throw in J.B.C. Lucas and some of the members of the Union Club and one can construct an argument that there was a cabal of men attempting to organize and control the St. Louis baseball market.  

However, the problem with the argument is that these men were actually in competition with each other.  While certainly the Spink brothers used their position as editors to promote and publicize the game, this was well within the tradition of "upbuilding" and a common practice of time.  But, in the late 1870's, when they were involved in the running of the Interregnum Brown Stockings, they were in direct competition with McNeary's Red Stockings.  McNeary originally was a part of the group that organized the NA Brown Stockings but, after the club decided to play its home games at the Grand Avenue Grounds, he placed the Red Stockings in the NA to directly compete against the Brown Stockings.  McNeary's Compton Avenue Grounds competed with Solari's Grand Avenue Grounds for clubs, games, and fans and the Reds were in competition against the Grand Avenue Club.  Von der Ahe had worked with Solari when they were both board members of the Grand Avenue Club and part of the Sportsman's Park and Club Association but essentially forced him out in the early 1880's.  

While these men worked together to promote baseball in St. Louis, they were just as often competitors.  There was no cabal.  There was no grand strategic plan.  The only exclusionary agenda was that of single-minded businessmen who were attempting to make money and establish the professional game in St. Louis.  They weren't out to destroy the black clubs or the mercantile clubs or the old amateur clubs but, rather, their goal was to establish something more.  These men were instrumental in transitioning St. Louis baseball from the amateur to the professional era and by simply looking at the history of the period-the starts and stops, the failures and successes-one can see that there was no over-arching grand vision being driven by a monopolistic establishment. 

As I said, I see some merit to the argument.  If one was looking at the situation from the view of someone like Bridgewater, who was not a member of the white St. Louis establishment, then you might see a monopolistic baseball establishment that marginalized Bridgewater's contribution.  But in the end, what I see is a group of businessmen fighting each other for control of the baseball market rather than working together to monopolize the market.           


james e. brunson said...

Mr. Kittell,

I appreciate the important work that you are doing and attempt to read it everyday. It is a valuable contribution and tool to the ongoing discussion, at least for me, of nineteenth century colored baseball.

My primary interest is visual and literary representation (as an art historian, I find it more interesting), but it is impossible not to engage in some critique of baseball's social history. So that you are aware, my research works more often than not, from the bottom up. Within this context, let me respond to one of your comments:

1) I have never stated that the money men of St. Louis were "out to destroy the black clubs" or that there was "a grand strategic plan." These phrases are too strong and rather disingenuous. If my essay suggested this view, it was not the intent. As part of baseball's master narrative, I am interested in integrating the complex socio-cultural history of colored ball into it.

The relationship of white businessmen, fans, and players to the colored sporting fraternity unveils an ambivalent black image of adoration and abomination. The Brown Stockings refused to play them; yet the professionals attended Black Stockings games to get "pointers." The top amateur clubs played them, but refused to play them in the tournament. Both businessmen and ballplayers called the shots on who played in the local Amateur Tournament of 1883. While the Black Stockings considered themselves professionals, Bridgewater nonetheless requested an opportunity for his club to participate. Were they denied admittance because they considered themselves professionals or because they represented a colored nine? My view is the latter. If tournament organizers refused to explain why they could not participate, I consider that conspiratorial; in fact, I would call them secret plotters or a "cabal."

2)There is no doubt that the owners of the enclosed baseball grounds viewed colored nines as a money-making venture; yet, one must also note that the Black Stockings threatened the St. Louis baseball landscape in multiple ways.

3)One theory that fascinates me has to do with the elite figure of the mulatto. While mulatto typically means someone with a black and a white parent, recent research complicates the term's usage. (Recent demands for the identification label "bi-racial" conjure the distinctive classificatory power assigned to the nineteenth century term.) Postbellum St. Louis baseball can't be seriously discussed without this topic; as baseball historian Michael Lomax makes clear.

Many members of the Black Stockings were so light-complexioned that they could have passed for white; including Bridgewater.(Bridgewater had a Scot-Irish uncle who served as police chief in the Third Ward. He made a lot of money in the mid-1870s when his 'white' connections led to big-time liquor distribution.)One sportswriter used a euphemism for whiteness, dubbing the Black Stockings "strawberry blonds."

How would "colored near-white" or "colored-white" ballplayers/teammates have set with "white" ballplayers/team owners? Not too well. These figures traversed the porous boundary between the tragic and the comedic. As baseball comedy, blackface minstrelsy offered the perfect foil. As baseball tragedy, sex working and other underworld sporting activities provided employment in the rough and tumble world of riverboat culture.

Simply saying segregation, exclusion or social alienation represent 'how it was back then', is an answer: but it's not a good answer. While there was no "grand strategic plan," there was "a stratgeic plan."

4)Postbellum racial formations and Jim Crow baseball: as your research has amply demonstrated, the possiblity of colored ballplayers being recruited for the white clubs of St. Louis in the 1870s and 1880s was slim, if at all. And of course, your current research doesn't mention any.

Wasn't racial segregation systemic and Jim Crow baseball intentional in St. Louis? If it was, which I believe, why wouldn't it be part of a strategic plan? Of course, segregation and exclusion found support in the dismantling of Reconstruction. While I won't go into detail, let me suggest that high-skilled colored ballplayers threatened the whole notion of racial formations and Jim Crow baseball in St. Louis; in short, who is and who is not white.

5) Finally, my interest is understanding how representation works. The Bridgewater piece permitted me to scratch the surface of a subject that I find fascinating, intriguing and hopefully, transformative to how we understand postbellum black ball.

My work rises from delight, not disappointment. It is not an attempt to mar the history of baseball in St. Louis. My love for St. Louis is like that for Chicago: I have relatives who have lived there for generations.

Again, your blog has demonstrated that this subject is far more complicated and requires ongoing analysis. I look forward to continued discussions. :)

James E. Brunson III

Jeffrey Kittel said...

Mr. Brunson-

I appreciate you taking the time to come by the website and add to the discussion. Your piece on Bridgewater and the Black Stockings was outstanding and I enjoyed reading it. I've been wanting to post something from it for some time now just to let everybody know that the article was out there and that there has been some research done in the area of 19th century St. Louis black baseball. Hopefully, over time, there will be more work done on the subject.

As I wrote in my post, I think that the argument that the Spink brothers, McNeary, et al were members of an establishment that were attempting to control the St. Louis baseball market is a fascinating idea and has a great deal of merit. It's certainly an idea that I never considered before reading your piece.

When I look at the evidence, what I tend to see is the chaos of a burgeoning business where men are groping for the proper model to create a sustainable, profitable enterprise out of what is essentially a fad. The evolution from antebellum social clubs to post-war professional clubs, the transition from the loose organization of the NABBP to the NA, the NL and other professional leagues, the various attempts to control labor-these things all happened in fits and starts. The same process can be seen in StL during the post-war era where you probably have some compensation for players in the late 1860's, to the establishment of outright professional clubs in 1874/1875, the collapse of the professional league experiment in 1877, the struggles to maintain professional clubs between 1878 and 1881, and finally the successful, longterm establishment of a professional league club in 1882. It's chaos and experimentation and competition and rivalry that led to the success of professional baseball in StL rather than an organized effort of a baseball establishment. These men and their efforts were at the mercy of evolutionary market forces rather than the master of them.

Now having said that, this really doesn't take into account the history of black clubs and players in StL during the era. You're absolutely correct in stating that we need to integrate that history into the overall story. That's one of my goals. To me the history of 19th century baseball in StL is incomplete without it. It's not the history of white baseball or black baseball but simply the history of baseball and as historians we should not be treating one segment of baseball history as something seperate or apart from the rest (even if that's the easiest way to deal with or organize the material). My goal is simply to chronicle the history of 19th century baseball in StL and I reached the conclusion a long time ago that it can't be done without including Black Stockings, the Blue Stockings, and the rest. I have a long way to go before I'm satisfied that I've acheived this goal but, as always, the research is ongoing.

You raise a lot of fascinating points in your comment that I don't feel even remotely qualified to address but that point a way towards an interpretation of the source material. Placing the black clubs and their relationship with the baseball establishment in StL within the context of the general relationship between blacks and whites in StL during the post-war era would, of course, be a good place for me to start.

The biggest problem is uncovering the relationship between the black clubs and the StL baseball establishment. Just uncovering the general facts of this history is a difficult task. The earliest source I have referencing black baseball is from 1867 and while the source is unclear, it's probable that he was writing about club baseball rather than a pick-up game. And there's no doubt that blacks were playing baseball in StL prior to this. So one major question is how far back does this history go? Does it begin in the immediate post-war era or does it go back farther? My best guess is that blacks were playing baseball in StL during the antebellum period but I have no evidence to support that.

But after the 1867 reference, I can't find anything until 1875/1876 when we have multiple clubs. The trail then goes cold again until the early 1880's when again we have references to multiple clubs. One interesting thing here is that these references track the general popularity of baseball in StL. It seems that when the game was popular, there was more coverage in the paper, and when there was more coverage in the paper, you would get reports of the black clubs. But in general, the source material is fragmentary until the 1880's and finding any references to the clubs or players during this era is exciting.

Again, let me say how much I enjoyed your piece on the Black Stockings. I also have your piece on the Gordon Club of Chicago that I haven't gotten a chance to read yet but now I'm going to have to dig it out and take a look at it. I really appreciate you stopping by and you're always welcome back any time. I'm looking forward to talking to you again in the future because I can always use the help, advice, criticism and guidance.


Jeffrey Kittel said...

A question popped into my head as soon as I posted my comment. Wouldn't the most pertinent and probbing question be why there are black clubs and white clubs to begin with? Wouldn't that take us right to the heart of the matter regarding the relationship between blacks and whites in post-war StL? If we ask why the clubs were segregated according to race then I think that leads us to a series of interesting questions.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

Again, as I keep thinking about this more things keep popping into my head. I may have to do another post on this subject once I get my thoughts organized but, in general, maybe what we see here is not necessarily a "baseball establishment" but rather members of the StL establishment who happen to be involved in baseball. The Spink brothers are prominent newspapermen. The McNeary's, Solari, and Von der Ahe are prominent businessmen. J.B.C. Lucas is the scion of one of the most prominent families in the city. The Union Club, members of whom were involved in the organization of the Brown Stockings in 1874/75, was also made up generally of members of prominent StL families.

If the trends in baseball towards the inforcement of a color barrier reflect general trends in society at large then the trends in StL baseball towards the segregation of clubs would also reflect trends in the city itself. If the establishment in StL felt the need to enforce segregation in the city then representatives of the establishment within the baseball fraternity would be susceptible to these same forces or trends.

james e. brunson said...

Mr. Kittell,

I am a student of this stuff like everyone else...

For me, Henry Bridgewater and the St. louis sporting fraternity offers an intriguing case study.

Four points:

1) Henry Bridgewater's parents came from Virgina (a state mentioned by you as contributing to St. Louis). His mother was a mulatta, and his father white. His father, it seems, at least prior to 1858, was also his master. Bridgewater was an adopted name; he attained the moniker when his mother married a mulatto barber named Elijah Bridgewater. Prior to them moving to Chicago, mother and son survived at a slave barracks in Missouri. I have the sneaking suspicion that both Bridgewater and his mother (Cecilia) could have passed for white.

2)The family moved around, living both in Missouri and Chicago. At 16years old, Bridgewater joined the Union army and he served as a surgeon's assistant in the Civil War. he returned to St. Louis and worked as a roustabnout, a "river man."

3) He claimed to have to have played "professional" baseball in St. Louis since 1871. As you may know, one St. Louis newspaper in the 1870s identified at least four types of organized baseball in the city. The top three levels paid players. This account dovetails neatly with Bridgewater's account of being a paid professional.

4) In 1882, Bridgewater and John "Bud" Fowler and a host of other colored sporting men throughout the country discussed the formation of a "colored league." And as previously mentioned in the essay, the "Boniface Bridgewater" had already embraced the unofficially sanctioned separate but equal doctrine confronting the black community. In 1886, The Sporting News credited Bridgewater with the original idea.

While we may approach a critical history of baseball in different disciplines, it is my hope that an interdisciplinary approach can enrich our understanding.

What you have explored is crucial as well. It is easy to talk about what the baseball men of St. Louis sought to accomplish; but they (not unlike Albert Goodwill Spalding)were caught in the double bind of the Gilded Age (ie. the ruthless competition of the baseball 'robber barons') the social challenges facing our great nation.


James E. Brunson

Jeffrey Kittel said...

Bridgewater's claim to have played professional baseball in StL in 1871 is rather significant and demands more attention. The general histories have always stated that baseball in StL prior to 1875 was a purely amateur affair and it wasn't until the advent of the Brown Stockings and Red Stockings NA clubs that players were compensated. We now know that to be not exactly factual and more an outgrowth of confusion regarding what constituted an amateur or professional baseball club during the era.

My research shows that it's likely that StL players were being compensated in some form since at least the late 1860's. There's enough evidence-money coming in from enclosed ballparks, player movement, players getting jobs with organizations affiliated with certain clubs, cryptic comments-that shows that this is possible. Bridgewater's claim (along with an article challenging the amateur status of one of the StL clubs) is really the only explicit evidence we have challenging the conventional wisdom that StL was a bastion of pure amateurism prior to 1875.

One interesting aspect of this is the question whether or not the black clubs were ahead of the white clubs of StL as far as the national trend of compensating players is concerned. If the black clubs were paying their players a contractual salary or organized as a co-operative venture in 1871 at a time when the white clubs were still moving towards that then it would certainly be an interesting development. It would be interesting if the black clubs had cast aside the stigma of professionalism prior to the white clubs and were more open or honest about the status of their clubs and players.

David Ball said...

Can I ask two questions...first, I would like a citation for the Bridgewater article, so I can read it for myself. And secondly,

Secondly, some crucial word seems to drop out of the passage below. What exactly is the double bind Spalding et al. were caught in?

"...they (not unlike Albert Goodwill Spalding)were caught in the double bind of the Gilded Age (ie. the ruthless competition of the baseball 'robber barons') the social challenges facing our great nation."

Jeffrey Kittel said...

Sorry, David-I was away from the computer all day and never got a chance to check the comments until late. I'll email you a copy of the Bridgewater article so you can take a look at it.

james e. brunson said...

Mr. Kittell,

Here is a response to David Ball's double bind question.

My interest is how representation and the visual / verbal language, at least in this instance, addresses the double bind.

Double bind, simply put, can be found within the triadic structure of representation: the creator of the image, the image itself, and the viewer of the image). Double bind frames the visual / verbal language of adoration and abomination (the Old Testament story of the Golden Calf is exemplary), images / objects that are revered / hated, loved / feared, or fetish / idol.

Let me offer an example:

The postbellum Gilded Age (1873 - 1893)can be defined as the period of North American economic ascendancy following the Civil War. According to Neil Harris's "The Gilded Age Reconsidered," modern capitalism gave birth to the numerous images of robber barons, wealth, bigness, corruption,modernity--conspicuous consumption and sumptuary display--labor wars, and ruthless competition. (Many observers, including myself, believe that we are now living in the neo-Gilded Age, which began in the mid-1990s.)

Postbellum baseball and baseball barons (Albert Goodwill Spalding, for instance)was not exempt from the cycles of boom and bust that punctuated the era.

Albert Goodwill Spalding was not only a baseball baron but a shrewd, if not ruthless businessman, who eventually came to dominate the sporting goods trade.

The Gild Age gave birth to the post-emancipation era as well. As early as 1870, the sporting press dubbed colored ballplayers creatures of legislative enacment; in short, "first amendment club slingers." The links between images of post-emancipation ballplayers and modern capitalism found expression in the St. Louis press.

When the the Sunsets and Blue Stockings crossed bats in 1876, the Daily Times wrote:

"The players involuntarily adopted Spalding's 'different color business' business, ranging in line from the rich coffee color to the undiluted ebony."

The pun relates Spalding's introduction of different colored uniforms for each position on the green diamond to the spectrum of skin color possessed by the colored ballplayers. This is the double bind.

Which image refers to adoration and which to abomination? Or, as Kermit the Frog once said, "It ain't easy being green."

Richard Hershberger said...

Jeff, could you email me a copy of the article as well?

As a general point, are we seeing anything unusual in St. Louis, or is it following national patterns? I don't claim special expertise in black baseball, but my impression from Philadelphia newspapers is that there was a broadly similar pattern. You can find coverage of colored clubs in the late 1860s, particularly in newspapers with Republican leanings. The level of coverage seems to taper off, particularly after the end of Reconstruction. But then again, coverage of baseball in general drops off in the late 1870s, due to the low state of baseball in Philadelphia. St. Louis had similar problems at the same time. I would want to establish that what went on in St. Louis was out of the ordinary before I started to look for a peculiarly local explanation.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

I understand the double bind you present in the quote about the Sunsets/Blue Stockings game (and Spaldings' uniform scheme was certainly abominable) and I can see one generally in the conflict between the political pretenses of a republic and the institutionalization of first slavery and then political inequality among races. However, I'm not sure if I see one inherent in the Gilded Age.

If one excepts the idea that capitalism produces inequalities then where is the contradiction in an age of unregulated capitalism that produced extremes in economic and social inequality? Isn't that more honest and logical than, for example, the outcome of the Progressive Era? Did people enjoy more freedom at the end of the Progressive Era? Where they less poor? Was their lot any better than during the Gilded Age? I would argue that it's the promises of Progressivism contrasted against the reality that they produce (or fail to influence) that creates a double bind.

Applying this to StL baseball during the era, where is the conflict or contradiction in people like the Spink brothers, who's goal was to get the Interregnum Brown Stockings accepted into the National League, using their position as the most influental sportswriters in the city to marginalize other clubs? Accepting that the system is going to produce inequalities, why wouldn't they use whatever they could to their advantage? They used their positions as sports editors to publicize baseball and this included, to a certain extent, black baseball. However, it was not in their interest, between 1878 and 1881 when they were involved with the Interregnum Browns, to publicize any club but their own.

These were the explicit rules of the game. There would be winners and there would be losers and the market would choose them. If you could influence the market in your favor, it would be to your advantage to do so (and that includes marginalizing entire classes and races of people). It was nasty and brutal and the effects on millions of people were cruel but their was no pretension towards anything more noble.

james e. brunson said...

Mr. Kittell,

Great points! They are exactly my point. If the Spinks brothers, McNeary brothers, the Lucas clan, Von Der Ahe, Bridgewater, Johnson, or anyone else for that matter, sought a competitive business edge, that embodies spirit of the Gilded Age ; or at least, how some scholars and students view it.

I'm not interested in making a moral judgement about business practices--who wins or loses--but how such practices impact how representation functions.

Here is my point:up to this point in time, the Gilded Age was the most represented period in U.S. history. The mass production of visual and literary forms permitted the circulation of images, especially baseball images, in ways that had been hitherto unfathomable.

I'm taking it one image (visual or verbal) at a time.

By the way, do you not view Isaac Broome's Base Ball Vase (1875-76), a postbellum Gilded Age object as a "noble" representation of the national pastime?

I enjoyed your comments and will certainly consider them in future critiques.


James E. Brunson III

David Ball said...

It's natural for me to agree with Jeff Kittel in many of his points in this dialogue, and to think that James Brunson, like many people who write about baseball in the 1870's and 1880's, has grossly exaggerated the degree of mastery and control attained by club and league officials. Jeff's resume of the history of professional baseball in St. Louis and Richard Hershberger's brief remark about parallel developments in Philadelphia could be repeated everywhere. The late 1870's, especially, were the grimmest period in the history of professional baseball; far from seeking new worlds to conquer, baseball men were just looking for a way to establish their infant industry as a reliably paying business.

Having now read the Black Stocking article, however, I can see that it approaches the baseball world from a very different angle than I do, and the different perspective probably justifies a different view of people like Scolari and McNeary. To me, they seem like modestly large fish in a pretty small pond, struggling against considerable odds to establish baseball as a going concern in very hard times. To black clubs and players, however, McNeary and Scolari were powerful men who held the keys to the best ball fields in town.

I don't know a great deal about postbellum racial relations, but I have a hunch that Richard Hershberger is right in thinking developments in St. Louis mirror larger trends throughout the country. However, he points out that in Philadelphia promotion of black baseball was tied to Republican politics, and I have seen some things that hint at a similar situation in Washington, D.C.; but I would guess that Republicanism, and especially Radical Republicanism was a lot weaker in St. Louis than in Philadelphia.