Baseball and race in Baltimore
Photo by Evan Krape April 04, 2022
Negro Leagues helped pave the way for integration, UD researcher finds
At the start of the 20th century, Baltimore was a rapidly growing and racially segregated city, where a series of new local laws barring Black families from moving into white neighborhoods became a model for similar kinds of legislation across the nation.
With the support of elected officials, businesses and the mainstream press, segregation and hostility to African Americans was rampant. But there was a notable exception, a place where racially integrated crowds gathered peacefully — at baseball parks.
“Sports historians tell us that boxing and baseball paved the way for integration in society,” said Bernard McKenna, associate professor of English at the University of Delaware and author of the new book The Baltimore Black Sox: A Negro Leagues History, 1913-1936. “In Baltimore, there are so many stories. The games were played before an integrated crowd, in major venues, and although there were rivalries, there’s no record of any racial violence [as segregationists often predicted] at these games.”
McKenna, a Baltimore native whose usual scholarly specialty is British and Irish literature, relied heavily for his research on local, regional and, sometimes, national newspaper reports of games and the movements of players and owners. He discovered that the Black Sox didn’t suddenly come together as a team but rather grew out of the Weldons, a team founded by Wallace Smith.
Smith was born an enslaved man and went on to establish a hotel and a variety of other thriving businesses with his brother, Thomas, in addition to supporting civil rights in Baltimore. Thomas Smith’s political efforts, McKenna said, succeeded in turning the city from a Republican to a Democratic stronghold, while he and his brother continued operating businesses in a hostile racial climate.
“One of the things that students sometimes find surprising is that there were people fighting for civil rights before Martin Luther King,” McKenna said. “And in these early years, they were doing it while fighting historical headwinds.”
The Weldons, renamed the Giants, became a prominent team, but they also became what McKenna calls “pawns in a racial battle for control of semi-pro baseball in the city.” When white owners took over the team in 1912, the players left. They re-formed as the Black Sox in 1913, under a new African American owner, Howard Young, a pharmacist and civil rights organizer.
Segregationists targeted games played between Black and white teams, but they were unable to overcome the city’s love of good baseball, McKenna writes:
“Black and white ballplayers continued to play on the same field at the same time. The crowds continued to be interracial. … In Baltimore, baseball obsessed as it was, those games and the manner in which they were reported [in the press] served as powerful civil rights tools. Baseball fields functioned as one of the few places where Blacks and whites had the opportunity to congregate together.”
In many ways, he said, the key was the quality of play. African American athletes and their teams were clearly skilled and talented, and white players and fans recognized that fact.
“Anybody who had eyes could see that the African American teams were the best,” McKenna said. “If you were a white player and wanted to claim to be the best, you had to play against African American teams. You couldn’t get away from it.”
Long before Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues, he said, white players knew that their African American counterparts belonged on the field with them.
McKenna relied on digitized newspaper accounts for his research. As a literary scholar by training, he said he had to teach himself a new genre of historical research while also learning the subject matter. But detailing the struggles of the Black Sox managers and players, as well as the historical context of their time, was similar to what he teaches writing students to look for — “the stories of a community, the stories that people don’t normally tell.”
About Bernard McKenna
Bernard McKenna is an associate professor in the Department of English whose scholarly specialty is modern British and Irish literature and who has teaching interests in fantasy fiction, anime and Irish studies.
He sits on the editorial board of The Journal of Modern Literature and has refereed articles for that journal and for Modernism/modernity, The Philological Quarterly and other scholarly publications.
He has received UD’s Excellence in Teaching Award and the Exemplary Use of Technology in Teaching Award.
A native of Baltimore and a lifelong baseball fan, McKenna unearthed photographic evidence in 2014 pinpointing for the first time the location of Maryland Baseball Park, one of the city’s first Negro Leagues ballparks and the home field of the Black Sox from 1921-32. That same year, he discovered a photo of Satchel Paige in a Black Sox uniform. The photo, which may be the only image of the legendary Negro Leagues pitcher wearing a Baltimore uniform, appeared in a 1930 edition of the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper.
McKenna founded the Baltimore chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and served as its first chair. His great-great uncle, John Andrew Jackson McKenna, was a Baltimore city councilman and author of the “McKenna Ordinance,” which legalized Sunday baseball in the city.
Related research by UD experts
Many researchers affiliated with UD have also studied various aspects of Negro Leagues history. They include:
Sarah L. Trembanis, professor of history and faculty coordinator for UD’s Associate in Arts program in Dover, is the author of the 2014 book, The Set-Up Men: Race, Culture and Resistance in Black Baseball, which tells the story of the players, owners and fans who battled racism on and off the field and explores the role baseball played in African American lives. She has discussed her work with audiences on podcasts and in other media outlets.
Neil Lanctot, a 2002 doctoral alumnus and a longtime instructor in history at UD, is the author of the 2004 book Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution, which reconstructs the institutional history of Black professional baseball, and a 2011 biography of Roy Campanella.
David W. Smith, retired professor of biological sciences, is the founder of Retrosheet, a nonprofit, online repository of play-by-play records from major league games, a comprehensive undertaking that has earned him numerous accolades from organizations and the media. Earlier this year, Retrosheet began posting data from Negro League games, an effort that Smith said was led by Retrosheet treasurer Tom Thress and that no one else has done.
Ron Whittington, a 1971 alumnus and former UD administrator who was formerly executive assistant to the president among other key positions at the University, has taught an Honors colloquium on “The Impact of Sports on Race and Culture” and frequently gives presentations, sometimes dressed as Jackie Robinson, on the Negro Leagues and the integration of baseball. He has spoken at the National Baseball Museum in Cooperstown, New York; the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri; and UD’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
Other scholars have written about topics involving baseball, race and sports, including:
Earl Smith teaches classes at UD in sociology, African and Africana studies and women and gender studies. His research includes a focus on the sociology of sport, and he is the author of Race, Sport and the American Dream, the only book on the market that examines structural racism in the sports world.
Kevin Kerrane is a retired professor of English whose scholarship and teaching focused on film and drama, especially Irish drama. He is the author of Dollar Sign on the Muscle: The World of Baseball Scouting, cited by Sports Illustrated as one of the “100 Best Sports Books of All Time.”