Sunday will be the 65th Anniversary that Jackie Robinson broke the so called “Colored Line.” But black baseball has long gone away like the blues.
The writer and essayist Gerald Early during Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary “Baseball” said that “when they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.”
A year earlier, the sportswriter Ralph Wiley in the essay “Why Black People Don’t Often Go to Baseball Games” in his book “What Black People Should Do Now: Dispatches from Near the Vanguard,” wrote that the American game of baseball is one of the best games ever dreamed up.
He continued, “In fact, some White men are loathe to admit that there are any other games worth playing at all (outside of golf, which was among other things, the official sport of the Nazi Party).”
Early and Wiley were born nine days apart in April of 1952. Early born and raised in Philadelphia, Pa. has credited the writings of Amiri Baraka as heavily influencing him. Wiley who died in 2004 was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee and given his southern roots and love of the blues he might exchange blues for jazz as America’s legacy.
My mission is to discuss how blues and jazz may explain the relationship of black people and baseball or more simply explain black baseball.
Five years before Early and Wiley were born Jackie Robinson in April of 1947 began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Over the next thirty years, the percentage of African-Americans playing in the big leagues rose from one soul to its peak of about 30%.
However, by 1993 when Wiley wrote that essay there were alarms ringing that the game’s popularity was dwindling among African-Americans as the percentage of players dropped about half to 16%. Now, almost twenty years after that essay, the figure has been halved again to about 8.5%.
Wiley confessed his love of baseball and admired the grace and beauty of black ballplayers but as he also wrote that he was not preoccupied with their participation. He mentioned that he was concerned more about the lack of jobs and libraries as he believed that the game like breathing would take care of itself, more or less.
We know that African-Americans make up about 75% of the NBA and 65% of the NFL. But the leading reasons usually studied to explain the declining participation in MLB are usually either sociological such as the lack of fathers to pass the game down or economic such as the cost to play the game or simply just too slow.
Those ideas have merit but perhaps there are deeper root explanations. Perhaps, it’s like the blues.
Early’s exemplar, Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, in “Blues People; The Negro Experience in White America and The Music That Developed From It” (1963), examined the development of the blues to trace the transition of the Negro in America and by extension what it reveals about the country.
The blues is an original American musical form that was birthed by former black slaves. But it is a bit more complex than that.
The blues musical precursor was the low pitched African (specifically West African) vocalizations, rhythms and styles (such as call and response). Those elements formed the farming work songs in Africa that were adapted in America for work chants, shouts, and hollers to ease the burden of bondage.
But the context from which blues emerged was also the result of cultural clash of African and European worldviews. The African supernatural worldview was that mankind had an ever present relationship with God(s). Colonial America, however, a commercial enterprise, was a byproduct of post Renaissance Europe worldview that separated the sacred from the secular and ultimately was about mankind’s happiness and pursuits.*
This Western construct also viewed others who didn’t see the world their way as inferior. So inferior that the slave masters initially didn’t consider slaves “worthy” of being converting to Christianity.
However, slaves after being rebuffed adapted the faith probably for several reasons. Although the slave master eventually realized that converting would pacify rebellion in many ways conversion was initiated by the slaves as it was the sole form of social release. Also, as mentioned, religion was so essential to the African’s worldview that adopting a captors’ “stronger gods” was the experience in Africa.
Baraka concludes that the profound anxiety regarding the reasons for his status and for the white man’s domination may have been reconciled by adapting Christianity. This conversion led to the Africanizing of the Christian hymns and spirituals that would later help form the musical basis of the blues.
But it was after emancipation that blues blossomed. For former slaves, the idea of returning to Africa after over 200 years of being in America was likely seen as possible as migrating to the Mars. Thus, the best thing to do was to become American.
After slavery, blacks were free to explore other secular sentiments and the new songs began to explore concepts of redefining one’s relationship to his surroundings much like his post Renaissance white counterpart. The form was developed by black men migrant workers seeking a livelihood roaming the south. Yet, blues underwent an even more dramatic development as the post-Reconstruction era, Jim Crow and the Black Codes beginning in the late 1870s separated blacks from white influence.
Blues expanded in a black vacuum. The blues man was a soloist who crafted the form with his own personal style. This would be primitive blues whose secretive nature was its beauty as that allowed the uninhibited black attitude or stance to produce a powerful expression of humanity. However, as part of blacks Americanization, blues would eventually influence and take on other American influences.
The peak of blues as a mainstream musical form was called the classic blues era in the 1920s and 1930s after the first phase of the Great Migration where Southern blacks moved north. In the North and Midwest, blues began being recorded and extended its mass appeal. Woman performers also leaped to the forefront as the blues was no longer as with its origins relegated to men wandering around the country side looking for work.
But blues’ was confronted with the New Negro Movement that grew out of the Harlem Renaissance and other middle class values that trumpeted black humanity and demand for equality. This shift dismissed blues as lower class. Although “progress” was made it was critiqued as mimicking the white mainstream and deserting the rich black cultural heritage. Thus, by the 1940s, the “gritty” often called “gutbucket” blues gave way to swing jazz a blues based form that was diluted enough for even whites let alone middle class blacks to appreciate.**
Mirroring blues, baseball for blacks developed separate from white influence due to the same political and social changes in America starting in the late 1870s through the early decades of the 20th century. A few blacks during this period played with white professional teams but soon enough blacks began to develop their own teams and leagues. The same period of the 1920s and 1930s while blues was expanding its footprint in America several Negro Leagues were formed including most prominently the Negro National League. These leagues although not as romantic as have mythologized were perhaps the first black national operated businesses.
Black baseball preceded and perhaps precipitated the desegregation of the United States military (1948) and public education (1954). But black baseball, like blues, although it allowed blacks to access the American mainstream it too would suffer under attack of cultural environmental change.
When Jackie Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger, the Negro Leagues aggressive, seemingly out of control running style, in comparison to the Major Leagues, was only seen when Robinson would occasionally juke around on the base paths or make a mad dash stealing home. Also, Hank Aaron’s cross-handed batting technique was “fixed” only upon arrival to the major leagues.
Through the years black baseball grew in popularity as it seemed a means to the mainstream major leagues while paradoxically at the same time it was dying as the style of play was being devalued. One example is how the stolen base in major league baseball is almost as obsolete as the three yards and a cloud of dust model in the NFL.
But perhaps more importantly what was being devalued was the black attitude or approach to the game. Where has the improvisational allure of the Willie Mays basket catch or base running of Rickey Henderson gone? As is the case often with things that reach its peak the downfall is already underway. Black baseball reached its peak of popularity with participation in MLB in the late 1970s. That run lasted 30 years but the change was already afoot a decade or so earlier.
You see, playing the blues, jazz or rapping is not a rebellious act of black people. It is within the context of white America but it’s squarely within the tradition of making sense of this culture that historically devalues its existence.
The most transformative moment for re-contextualizing this dilemma for black music may have been the 1940s black jazz musicians. This was years after Zora Neale Hurston, the famed writer and lone voice among the Harlem Renaissance crowd that tried to remind blacks of its rich heritage. But these jazz bluesmen who witnessed black music degenerate into soulless imitation by black and white artists alike and drift toward a composer medium rather than a musician where individuality and improvisational mattered. They returned it back to its roots with bebop. This music much like blues was not for dancing but for thinking.
It’s easy to see that in America being black has it liabilities but artists like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk began to grasp that their root blackness was not only not a liability but a strength. And it was the culture that is lacking that will not appreciate these roots.
However, many of these great bluesman jazz artists tended to opt out and shunned the larger culture. Their stereotypical image as heroin abusers was not an accident as the drugs were a part of their removal. Not until soul music exemplified by James Brown’s “Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud” worked its way into the mainstream in the 1960s did this become a cultural shift for black people.
Baseball mined the Negro Leagues (besides players it also began to play under lights five years after the Negro Leagues) but never adopted the stance or attitude of the players. In fact, the pathos and joy of the player and fan were expected to be forsaken for “dignity” for the purpose of not disturbing white folk. The decision was made to sacrifice the national business interests of the black community for cultural assimilation.
However, the cultural environment had changed by the time blacks began to play professional basketball and football in larger numbers. The NFL and NBA were around during the 1940s and 50s when MLB was swelling with black players but they were not as longstanding or desirable economically or culturally.
The American Football Leagues (AFL) and American Basketball Association (ABA) in the 1960s was a time and a place that was aligned with the cultural shift. Unlike the staid NFL, the AFL used more black players and at all positions such as “thinking” positions of middle linebacker and even quarterback. And the ABA success was entirely based on the free flowing style that blacks brought to the game.
In essence, the AFL and ABA were akin to the Negro Leagues. Yet the difference is that the Negro Leagues were used to acquire players and eventually folded whereas the AFL and ABA merged with the mainstream NFL and NBA. In doing so, the mainstream league inherited the black aesthetic those other leagues cultivated. If the color line had been broken in 1967, black people en masse might know a player like Matt Kemp one of the best players in the game other than for dating singer Rhianna.***
Early, a few years ago and long pass his interview in the “Baseball” documentary, concluded that there is not a problem with the amount of blacks playing in MLB as the percentage actually reflects the population of blacks. Black people still do play baseball and maybe it’s not the game that is too slow – it’s just that America has sped up.
* Thus, the tendency for whites to view blacks as fearful and childish and blacks tendency to view whites as dismissive and foolish.
** Blues returned to its autonomous origins and a subculture as well later forming the basis of rock & roll, rhythm and blues, soul and rap. However, each form has confronted dilution and tension to remain authentic just like jazz.
*** In comparison, Latino and Asian players and fan base place place more value on the economic gains and considerably less value in connecting MLB with culture as professional leagues still remain in their native countries.