Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Browns Refuse To Play

For the first time in the history of base-ball the color line has been drawn, the 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. There are times when even the well oiled machinery of so well disciplined a club does not work smoothly, and one of these times seems to have struck the St. Louis club. 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 evening, thinking over the misfortune that had befallen Capt. Comiskey, he was approached by "Tip" O'Neil, the heavy-slugging left fielder, who laid a letter on the table and then hastily slipped out of the room.

The letter read as follows:

Philadelphia, September 10, 1887.-Chris Von der Ahe, Esq.: Dear Sir-We, the undersigned members of the St. Louis Base-ball 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 present. Signed-W.A. Latham, John Boyle, J.E. O'Neil, R.L. Caruthers, W. Gleason, W.H. Robinson, Chas. King and Curt Welch.

President Von der Ahe did not wait to finish his meal. He left the table hastily and went down-stairs into the corridor, where he found the players talking in a group. The sudden appearance of their manager in their midst surprised the players, who 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, could not get out a world. 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 Globe-Democrat reporter to-night: "I am very sorry to have disappointed the people at West Farm 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 notified 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 did not know anything about the matter, and Knouff refused to sign the letter. They had 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 center fielder, played with the Toledo club when 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 murmer, 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 located at various places in close proximity to New York. They are good players, and the team has made money. They have played games with the Chicagos, Indianapolis, Detroits, Louisvilles, Athletics 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 the colored Second Baseman Grant, of the Buffalo club, and colored Pitcher Stovey, of the Newark club.

The injury sustained by Capt. Comiskey in yesterday's game with the Athletics is even more serious than at first supposed. He had his broken thumb reset to-day, and the surgeon said he would not be able to go on the ball-field for a month. Comiskey and Secretary George Munson left for St. Louis to-night. The captain of the champions said he expected to stay in St. Louis until the team started for California, though if possible he hoped to be able to take part in the series for the world's championship at the close of the present season. Von der Ahe said to-day he would rather have lost $1000 than had this misfortune occur.
-St. Louis Globe-Democrat, September 12, 1887

A few notes before I get to what's bothering me about this whole thing:

-There's nothing really new here. I've posted accounts of this incident from other sources and most of the information is similar. I think the only real difference is that the Globe has a statement from Von der Ahe.

-Based on the Globe's account of Comiskey's injury at the end of the article, I think that Comiskey was in Philadelphia when all of this went down. I had believed that Comiskey had already left for St. Louis when the club gave their letter to Von der Ahe and had argued that this wouldn't have happened if Comiskey was still with the team. I may be wrong about that.

-I really like Von der Ahe's response to the players, who didn't have the courage to explain themselves. It drips with disappointment and irony.

Now here's the thing that's really been bothering me about the Browns' refusal to play the Cuban Giants. I have, on more than one occasion, argued Comiskey's point that the players simply wanted, and needed, a day off. I've argued that this incident was less about the relationship between blacks and whites in 19th century America and more about a beaten-up, short-handed, over-worked baseball club that needed a day off. I've argued that the players, after the actions taken by the International League, seized on the racial issue as an excuse to not play the game. And I believe that that argument is still valid. But regardless of intent, this incident can not be dismissed for one simple reason: the baseball club involved.

The St. Louis Browns were the best team in baseball. They were probably the most famous team in the country. This was a club with some of the biggest stars in the game. Comiskey and Latham and Caruthers and Foutz and King and Welch and O'Neil. These are some of the biggest stars of 19th century baseball. This is the FOUR TIME CHAMPIONS, in all caps. They fought the Chicagos to a draw in the World Series in 1885 and beat them handily in 1886. They were getting ready to take on Detroit in the series in October. These weren't just some guys saying they wouldn't play a black club. This was the best, most famous baseball club in the United States saying they wouldn't play a black club and, regardless of intent, that was a statement that made news across the country. That was a statement that reverberated throughout the history of baseball and helped change the development of the game for the worse.

In my thinking, the significance of the event is a result of who made the statement, not that the statement was made or why the statement was made. If the Madisons of Edwardsville had refused to play a black club, nobody would have cared. But the fact that it was the Four Time Champions who did "not agree to play against negroes" and signed their names to a letter stating that makes this a significant milestone in the development of baseball's racial policy.

I've argued against this incident being significant for reasons I've already stated but I've changed my mind. Putting the event in the context of the Browns' history and understanding that this was the best and most famous club in the country refusing to play against a black club forced me to re-evaluate the incident and reach a different conclusion. It's a shameful incident in the history of St. Louis baseball and the history of the St. Louis Browns.


Richard Hershberger said...

The counter-argument to this incident's significance in baseball history is that it didn't stick.

There were two color lines. One was the question of mixed-race teams. The other was of white and colored teams competing against each other. The former was already well on its way to being decided by this time. The latter never became established practice. White and colored clubs continued to play each other. They even sometimes competed in the same league (the 1889 Middle States League being the notable example). So the Browns' refusal, while certainly a step in the wrong direction, ultimately didn't have much effect.

The idea that this was really an excuse is plausible. I have a small file of excuses relating to interracial play. An example is in 1885 when Westminster, Maryland had a very good semi-pro town club. After beating all comers, including the Baltimore Orioles, they went on a tour through central Pennsylvania. The trip was a disaster, losing seven out of ten games. The reason is not hard to see: it is one thing to play two or three games a week, usually at home. It is quite another to play every day for over a week, all on the road and with long train rides. But the stated reason in the paper was the umpire in Harrisburg was against them, and for the two games in Lochhaven they were forced to play against a colored player, and with a colored umpire (which I find considerably more surprising than the colored player). The umpire complaints are at least plausible in principle. It is not explained how a colored player put them at an unfair disadvantage: this is just assumed.

My favorite is the game in 1890 between the minor league Easton, Pennsylvania club and the Cuban Giants. It was claimed that the Eastons later realized that the Cuban Giants had batted out of turn, sending their best hitter to the plate repeatedly. This trick worked because, after all, they all look alike. The interesting thing is that the Eastons won the game, which makes me wonder if the claim might not be true.

So the idea of the Browns using race as an excuse fits in with the spirit of the age.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

The point that it didn't stick is a good one and one that I didn't really consider. I don't think it excuses the behavior but it certainly lessons the significance of the event.

What I was really thinking about was, after having looked at the coverage of the 85 and 86 series, putting this event in that context. I had never really thought of the Browns as the best and most famous club in the country and I think it's easy to make the argument that they were that. Then this incident flares up as the 87 series is coming together. As I said, it's more significant coming from them than it would have been coming from a different club. When you're looking at the Browns as a championship club and the press coverage that they received, the event really stands out. But as far as having a significant effect on keeping blacks from competing in the major leagues, you're correct when you say that it didn't have much effect.

Maybe in the end, the most significant part of the incident is how, in retrospect, it tarnishes the image of the club.

David Ball said...

The Browns were a well known and popular team, but I don't think they had a clear claim to being the best known in the country. The role of godfather of the color line has traditionally been assigned not to them but to Cap Anson, for Anson's objections to playing against Fleet Walker back around 1883, and later to Walker and the pitcher George Stovey in an exhibition at Newark; Anson also is reputed to have blocked the New York Giants' attempt to sign Stovey.

In 1883 Anson gave in and played the Toledo team with Walker in the latter club's lineup. At Newark, I believe just a couple of months before the Browns' Philadelphia incident, Anson succeeded in having Stovey and Walker benched. The game was played, but the incident received a lot of attention and black players were eased out of the International League pretty soon afterward. Until recently, I knew of no really contemporary evidence for the Giants' attempt to sign Stovey, but now I have seen a couple of newspaper items saying they were contemplating doing so; no indication why it didn't happen, though.

The problem with viewing Anson as the godfather of the color line is the one Richard poses for putting the Browns in that role, that is, that the line did not come down immediately. What's more, a lot of other people were working hard to draw it, the Browns players among them, and they can't all have been Anson's puppets. I believe the reason Anson has emerged as the designates scapegoat is that the early black player Sol White particularly focused on him in the history of black baseball White wrote about a century ago. I would guess White did this because Anson was involved in multiple incidents but also probably because of his particular prominence. White's foregrounding of Anson may be his own idea, but I wonder if it is perhaps a reflection of an otherwise lost oral tradition among black players of the history their profession and the peculiar roadblocks they faced.

I always say, though, that if you want to understand the history of race relations in baseball, you should simply look at the history of race relations in America at large, because the one closely shadows the other. In the late 1880's the country was heading into the darkest era for race relations in its history. The color line was going in place everywhere else; why not in baseball? Anson and the Browns were prominent figures whose success in short circuiting interracial play may have emboldened others a little bit, but at the time the banning of black players in the International League, where they had been relatively common, probably seemed more noteworthy at the time. If Anson and the Browns seems to have led the way, that was only because they were particularly prominent corks bobbing along on the tide of history.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

That's a very excellent point about putting the whole thing in the context of general American history. I don't think I really know enough about the subject to speak intellegently about it but now I want to look into it.

You bring up Anson and I think that he and the Browns are kind of in the same boat. Their actions are remembered because of who they were and the hundred of other actions that helped draw the color line are forgotten because they took place in Podunk, Iowa. Regardless of whether it's true or not, we can make the case that the Browns were the best and most famous team of the era and that Anson was the best player of his generation. And that, I think, is what makes their actions significant. If Joe Blow of the Podunk Base Ball Club refused to play with black players, it has an effect (especially if there's a large majority of people like him) but nobody cares or remembers. Anson and the Browns are remembered because they're important to the history of the game beyond that.

Look at from the other direction. What if Anson was supportive of black players in the major leagues? What if VdA signed Stovey and the Browns supported that? Wouldn't it have had a major positive effect if the top players and clubs in the majors supported and signed black players?