Early Twentieth Century Heroes: Coverage of Negro League Baseball in the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender

This article was written by Brian Carroll

This article was published in From Rube to Robinson: SABR’s Best Articles on Black Baseball

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Journalism History, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring 2006.


Had baseball card collecting been popular in the 1920s, fans of the nascent Negro leagues likely would have coveted the cards of Andrew “Rube” Foster, C.I. Taylor, Ed Bolden, and John Blount. Because these men were team owners and not players, the backs of the cards would have presented lists of businesses owned and positions held in the local Black church and in business and social federations like the Persian Temple of Mystic Shriners. There would have been no baseball cards of the players, who were considered mere employees. Players would not supplant owners as heroes to and role models for the Black community until the mid-1930s.

It should not surprise to find Black baseball’s owners rather than the athletes portrayed as champions in the weekly newspapers. During the first two decades of Negro League history, leading Black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, Kansas City Call, and Pittsburgh Courier considered themselves important partners with Black professional baseball in creating minority-owned, minority-run businesses. These owners were community leaders to be admired, with status in the community to which to aspire.1 Based on Black press coverage during the period, it is clear that newspaper writers believed their readers had a vested interest in the decisions and activities of these owners, a connection Barbara Molette has noted a community must perceive with those it has identified as its heroes.2

This paper explores the role of the Black press in creating and portraying role models to the largely urban Black community of the 1920s, 1930s, and the first half of the 1940s leading up to the selection of Jackie Robinson as the breaker of White major league baseball’s color barrier. The paper seeks a better understanding of the daily reality for this community by looking at Black press coverage of these exclusively male figures. By examining the values, goals, and actions held up by the Black press as those to model and mirror, it is perhaps possible to better understand what the Black community of the period sought in its hero figures and important people and, therefore, how its members saw themselves and who they hoped to become. Finally, this study assumes a scope and function of the hero in society as a phenomenon of mass media communication.3

One of the first scholars to comment on American notions of hero and hero-worship, Thomas Carlyle noted that “great men” were recurrent, prominent subjects of scholarship as “modelers, patterns . . . even creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain.”4 Still widely cited, Carlyle’s 1840 lecture suggests that a look at the world’s heroes is a look “into the very marrow of the world’s history,” justifying in some ways an historical approach to the study of any one community’s heroes.5

Molette argued that for a figure to become an important person in the Afrocentric framework, the person’s actions must transcend the needs and reality of the individual. The Black community’s members must see that hero as a “prototypical manifestation of their own hopes, aspirations, and values.”6 Though this examination is not definitive in analyzing the beliefs of Black newspaper readers in the quarter-century leading up to Jackie Robinson’s entry into previously segregated Major League Baseball, it does seek to reveal some of their shared beliefs and the context in which they were formed and held. The heroic portrayals can be seen as an effort to influence the process of projecting and, to a lesser extent, creating Afrocentric heroes for what was during the period studied an entirely segregated society.

It is also important to study African American notions of heroism and heroic figures because of the institutionalized racism that defined life in the 1920s and 1930s. This systemic discrimination created or at least contributed to an environment of oppression, pain, and hardship that would seem to add yet more luster to the Black community’s heroes since these figures had to demonstrate an uncommon strength merely to survive. Finding ways to endure, in fact, is one of the hallmarks of Afrocentric heroes throughout the last 300 years.7

The Black press is a useful record of the time period, at least when looking at the middle-class, mostly urban, mostly northern Black communities of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Since what constitutes heroism and who is recognized as a hero can be seen as functions of cultural values that are negotiated and, therefore, change over time, Black newspapers as a communication medium provide a convenient Petri dish, or preservation method for information and, equally important to this study, for how that information was prioritized and presented.8 As Frankie Hutton found, since its inception, the Black press has focused on “vindication, uplift, and acceptance of Blacks into mainstream America despite racism, violence, harsh personal problems, and discord,” portraying the Black community as a “resilient, idealistic, persecuted” group.9

The Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier are logical choices for the study. By 1920 the nation’s largest Black weekly, the Defender distributed more than two-thirds of its issues outside of Chicago, mainly by using Pullman porters. This increasingly national influence and awareness among Blacks would dramatically expand the impact of a crusading Black press. By 1925, the Defender had a circulation of 250,000, which set a new standard for Black newspapers. With a pass-around readership of between four and five people, the true number of readers perhaps numbered more than a million, explaining in part how the Defender could inspire and persuade so many Blacks to leave the South and flee northward as part of the Great Migration of 1915–1919.10

The Courier took its cues from the Defender in building a national circulation and distribution network. Founded in 1910, the Pittsburgh paper was by the late 1930s the most widely read Black newspaper and remained so through the 1950s. In 1947, for example, the paper represented a $2 million business with a circulation of about 330,000. In the 1930s the Courier operated twelve branches and published fourteen editions.11

Little research has been done on Black press coverage of and involvement in Negro League baseball. Even less has been published in journalism and mass communication scholarship. Because members of the Black press are prominent in the narrative of Negro League history, and since the mainstream press largely ignored Black baseball, Black newspapers provide an important primary source for scholarship on the Negro Leagues and professional baseball’s integration. Rarely, however, has the Black press itself been the subject of research in the context of its relationship with and intimate involvement in Black baseball.

Douglas Porpora noted that considerable scholarly attention has been paid to heroes as created and promoted by media, but virtually all of the research has examined mainstream society and, therefore, mainstream media.12 The Black press has not been examined as a projector or creator of hero figures, though consideration has been given to Booker T. Washington’s hero status.13 This is significant, for as Lance Strate has argued, the nature and function of a hero in any society is dependent upon the dominant medium.14 For African-Americans in the 1920s through 1940s, weekly newspapers such as the Defender and the Courier were among the principal communication media.

Janice Hume, who has done a series of studies on heroic women in mid-century mainstream media, found that mass media tell heroic stories to mass audiences and, therefore, become tools for defining American heroism.15 Susan J. Drucker and Robert S. Cathcart, who were among the first to consolidate scholarship on heroes portrayed by and in contemporary mass media, also determined that media attention is the agency that makes contemporary heroes and found that it also unmakes them. Media satisfy the public’s demand for supermen and every bit as relentlessly chronicle their human faults and failings.16

An important distinction must be made, however. As Drucker has argued, sports heroes are more about the illusion of heroism than the embodiment of truly heroic values. The ways that playing fields, photography, publicity, and media coverage construct myths of heroes and heroism point to a celebrification process that turns modern-day athletes into “pseudo-heroes.”17 In this study, when the newspapers’ heroes become the athletes on the field and are, therefore, no longer true community leaders, Drucker’s descriptions of celebrification and the fabrication of heroism become important.

Unlike football, boxing, or basketball, the game of baseball in the 1920s was covered by the Black press as a Black-owned, Black-run business offering job- and income-creation. The sport was not merely a source of diversion and entertainment. Baseball in the pages of the Black press, therefore, served as a point of pride for the Black community. Early in the decade, the Defender, for example, routinely boasted of its participation in the league, promising its readers a “correct version” of the comings and goings of the Negro National League, the first enduring Black league, and claiming itself to be “the newspaper which has done more for baseball and sports among our people than any three papers published.”18

This boosterism explains how the Defender could elect not to criticize the league or its owners even though they failed to solve or meaningfully address the league’s persistent problems. At least through the decade’s first half, the newspaper described what it called the owners’ “church-like harmony,” a description that could not qualify as objective reporting by any definition.19 Selective reporting was necessary. Communities need heroes; communities can, in fact, form around heroes.20 Black press historian Frankie Hutton found that Black newspaper editors since the beginnings of the Black press in America made themselves “overseers of uplift” and their papers mediators of style.21

An early researcher into how America creates its popular heroes, Orrin E. Klapp, observed that writers ascribe hero status to figures by honoring them, giving them special status, commemorating their accomplishments, and venerating them over time. This gradual, accretive process confers hero status on a figure “who evokes the appropriate attitudes and behavior” and who is seen as a personage of idealized virtues, admired and honored.22 He is set apart, in this context by newspaper writers, by “deference, precedence, decorations.”23 All three means are on display in the Defender’s sports pages of the 1920s.

Weekly newspapers had the power and reach, as Elizabeth Eisenstein observed, to “supplement tales of great men teaching by example.”24 Hero creation was a collective process, one that selected, honored, and cast individuals as symbols for the larger community. Explaining in large part why the Black press chose them, businessmen excelled in fields of endeavor that the community’s members admired, an excellence that Klapp argued a public’s heroes must demonstrate.25 Socially, culturally, and economically, baseball occupied pre-eminent status for the Black community of the 1920s and 1930s—a status difficult to comprehend in the context of the variegated sports and entertainment landscapes of contemporary American culture.

Baseball was pre-eminent in part because other sports did not have the commercial impact within the Black community that baseball provided. A page one editorial by Pittsburgh Courier publisher Robert Vann published in December 1923 described the sport as one of “America’s big business enterprises . . . both an economic and civic institution.” He contrasted baseball with football, which could “not assume the economic proportions known to baseball.”26 Most importantly, baseball represented a point of pride and an outlet for leisure for a segregated society striving to hold up its collective head. As social and cultural critic Amiri Baraka wrote, the Negro Leagues were:

Like a light somewhere. Back over your shoulder. As you go away. A warmth still, connected to laughter and self-love. The collective Black aura that can only be duplicated with Black conversation or music . . . these were professional ballplayers. Legitimate Black heroes. And we were intimate with them in a way and they were extensions of all of us, there, in a way that the Yankees and Dodgers and whatnot could never be! . . . It was like we all communicated with each other and possessed ourselves at a more human level than was usually possible out there in cold whitey land.27

Evidence of the extent of segregation is found in the complete absence in coverage during the 1920s of the major leagues. Absent, too, are the experiences and perspectives of individual players, a gap closed in the 1930s with the arrival of pitching great Satchel Paige, the popularity of boxing, an individual sport, and the success of Black athletes like Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. The priority during this early phase of the leagues’ existence was establishing baseball’s businesses on stable terms and, therefore, keeping control of the sport within the Black community.

The White major leagues were not discussed, and that sport’s color ban was not debated or protested.28 Even on the many occasions when Negro league teams and squads of major league players competed against each other, exclusively in exhibition games, the fact that Black players were prohibited from joining the big league circuit generated little discussion.29 These exhibition games for the Black press were instead reasons to celebrate. White big league players were portrayed as celebrities and attractions but, significantly, not as heroes as the term is defined and used in this paper. Babe Ruth and pitching great Dizzy Dean, for example, were portrayed in much the same way as the prime minister of France or emperor of Japan might have been—as important people to be revered, but individuals with little or no cultural relevance to a segregated community.

In October 1922, the Kansas City Monarchs beat the city’s professional White team, the Kansas City Blues of the American Association, and the Negro League team did so with some emphasis. The Monarchs won five out of six games. For the Defender, these victories were not an indictment of racism or even of segregation. Rather, they were cause for the Monarchs to get from White writers and White fans “what they deserved—much praise.”30

To challenge major league baseball, the Black press and Black businessmen partnered to build the Negro Leagues. The first lasting product of this partnership and the focus of coverage during the 1920s was the Negro National League founded in 1920. This pioneering league, which operated under the motto, “We are the ship; All else is the sea,” did not find success easy or lasting, despite almost uniform support from the larger Black newspapers. Through 1925, the league had the unwavering support of sportswriters, many of whom had official roles with the league. Newspaper coverage glossed over baseball’s problems, both in the box office and on the field. The writers encouraged and in some cases demanded support from “the Race,” for the good of the Race, because baseball was to be a showcase for the accomplishment of the race.31

The Negro National League’s president, Rube Foster, who also owned and managed the Chicago American Giants baseball team, took great pride in what he and his fellow Black team owners were able to accomplish given the scant resources they had to work with, particularly when compared to their counterparts in the White leagues. Where big league owners had “wealth counted in millions,” Foster and his fraternity had “only the faith in the weather man . . . We are willing and know what can be done but have nothing to do it with.”32

The partnership was on prominent display in the close-knit business fraternities in Black baseball’s cities, particularly in their many banquets and smokers. Coverage of these occasions provides examples of what Klapp described as deference, precedence, and decoration. At one such banquet in honor of Foster in early 1923, the guests gathering at Cleveland’s Coleman Restaurant included officials of the Cleveland Tate Stars baseball team; the editor of the Black newspaper, the Cleveland Whip; a director of the Empire Bank; a vice president of the Starlight Realty Co.; and other local businessmen.33 For Y.W.C.A. Day at Chicago’s Schorling Park that same year, the organizing committee united Robert S. Abbott, the Defender’s publisher; Jesse Binga, owner of Chicago’s pre-eminent Black-owned bank, the Binga State Bank; a real estate broker; the founder and president of the Liberty Life Insurance Co.; and Frank A. Young, the Defender’s sports editor.34

Foster, C.I. Taylor, owner of the Indianapolis ABCs, and Edward Bolden, owner of the Hilldales in Philadelphia, were businessmen and community leaders first and baseball men second. The “magnates,” as the Black press routinely referred to them, also were deeply involved in civic and community life. As employees of these entrepreneurs, both in season and out, the players were inferior to owners in social and economic status.35

The emphasis in coverage on baseball as a business overshadowed wins and losses and the season-long horse race. In a January 1922 column in the Defender, Dave Wyatt supported Foster’s desire to weed out the league’s lesser businessmen and to find “those who are fit,” a common theme in both the Defender and Courier.36 Wyatt’s zealousness in portraying Foster as the pre-eminent Black community hero of the time perhaps blinded the sports writer to his portrayals of the players. A former player himself, Wyatt repeated Foster’s own critiques when he described the athletes as greedy and self-serving.

Wyatt was not alone. When players groused over pay in 1923, the Defender called them “Monshine [sic] drinkers” slated to be either cut or traded.37 In a February 1922 article, Young refers to outfielder Clarence Smith as the “property of Detroit Stars.”38 Players existed in newspaper coverage largely as chits or game pieces and rarely as individuals with a vested interest in the fate of the leagues themselves. This treatment would continue into the mid-1930s. Evidence of the marginal status of players is found in coverage of the first Colored World Series played in 1924. The newspapers focused on gate receipts and the financial impact of the games, not on the performances on the field or the outcomes of the games. Detailed accounts of the series’ receipts and disbursements were published by the Defender and the Courier, which sided with the owners in a controversy over whether the series’ players could have made more money barnstorming.39

Even holding the series was hailed mainly for its potential fiscal impact in the Black community. The Courier’s Philadelphia-based correspondent, W. Rollo Wilson, wrote during the first Colored World Series that, “like the White man, the ‘brother’ is beginning to see the folly of falling out of things that concern his financial well-being.”40 Another Courier article, published on page one in September in anticipation of the series is remarkable in the detail it provides of the financial arrangements, including which parties were entitled to a share of the revenues, how expenses would be assigned, and even who should receive complimentary game tickets.41

Despite modest attendance figures and paltry payouts to the teams and players, for Foster the series proved a commercial success. He claimed a lion’s share of credit for making the event possible, and the Black newspapers supported this claim. Foster wrote in the papers that anyone could see the “mutual benefits to the whole Race that come from the able and courageous business ability of this baseball leader.” The series symbolized for Foster the “successful development” of Black baseball, a “gift” to the Race from Foster “the philanthropist.”42

The business-owner-as-hero model marks a sharp contrast to sports writing common in the mainstream or White press of the period. Writers such as Grantland Rice and Jimmy Cannon helped usher in the era of the “Big Event” and the “Famous Sports Hero,” an era that coincided with the celebration of Black baseball’s businessmen in the pages of the Black press.43 In the mainstream press, the athlete often provided the focus; Babe Ruth, boxer Jack Dempsey, and golfer Bobby Jones are prime examples. They were among mainstream society’s heroes, and their chroniclers have been called myth makers. For the big city dailies, these “heroes” made the 1920s a “Golden Age for sport.”44

The Black press model does, however, bear a striking and provocative resemblance to fifth century b.c. epinician poetry, particularly Pindar’s Olympian odes. Pindar and his contemporaries praised the owners of the chariots but never their drivers. Even the horses got more poetic attention than the “athletes” of the period. These poets, according to one classical poetry scholar, “read into the poetic record the great power and wealth of their patrons, but they seek to do so while implying that their patrons do not pursue the wealth for its own sake.” The criteria and context for heroic action were similar for the Black press in the first half of the 1920s, which portrayed the owners as patrons uninterested in their own gain but instead in the uplift of the entire Black community.45

The close press-baseball partnership began to fracture in late 1924 and 1925 as the league’s financial problems proved stubborn and as an internecine blame game forced owners and writers to pick sides. Dependence on a working-class clientele and the absence of stadium lights necessary for night games meant the economy of Black baseball depended on weekend day games. Without ballparks of their own, Negro league team owners also were at the mercy of major league team owners and, perhaps most mercilessly of all, the vagaries of weather.

By September 1926, even the Defender’s long-time sports editor Fay Young wrote that at last he was fed up with the Negro National League’s dissension. He lashed out, challenging owners to “lay their petty ambition and jealousy aside and get down to business.”46 This criticism marks a significant shift in coverage and a break from the boosterism that characterized most of the first seven seasons of Negro League play. Rather than give owners the benefit of the doubt, the assumption among Black press writers became instead that the primary motivation for any action by an owner was greed and self-protection. Criticism became more frequent and increasingly personal. It is as if the writers felt betrayed by the owners in the joint struggle for at least one integrated sporting field in America.

Never again would the Black team owners be able to use the Black newspapers as their own personal soapboxes from which to strike out at adversaries and rivals. Just as the metropolitan dailies had the “get tough” school of journalism to balance Grantland Rice and his fellow myth makers, the Black press, too, had a sober strain in its Negro League coverage. Young in Chicago and Wilson in Pittsburgh would from this point cheer far less and instead make demands that Black baseball do better at organizing and in consistently providing its fans with a good product on the field.

Race was increasingly an issue during the period, and society more rapidly segregated along racial lines. The practice for many major league teams of hiring Blacks as trainers and mascots, and only as trainers and mascots, is emblematic. It is possible these subservient roles fueled racial prejudice; it is certain they helped foster stereotypes that later players, including Jackie Robinson, would find difficult to challenge. In the 1920s and 1930s, major league trainers served only as equipment managers, with no medical, nutritional, dietary, or physical training responsibilities whatsoever.47 Yet, based on newspaper coverage of the time, these limited roles were important, even heroic. Bill Buckner, a long-time trainer for the Chicago White Sox, was portrayed as a celebrity in the pages of the Defender, which regularly reported on his travels with the White Sox. When he was reappointed trainer for the White Sox in February 1922, fans flooded the Defender with letters of congratulations.48

Blacks also joined major league teams in the role of mascot, a subservient role that often involved a comic entertainment element. Mascots served as good luck charms and resembled circus clowns in dress and appearance. The Courier’s Wendell Smith described the New York Giants’ mascot in 1939, Cecil Haley, as a thirteen-year-old “new luck piece” who was expected to “put his mystic powers to work by some supernatural method.”49 Nashville of the American Association employed a Black mascot nicknamed “Rubber,” and the Philadelphia Athletics had a Black bat boy and mascot nicknamed “Black Cat.”50

Like the trainers, mascots were celebrated in the Black press—an indication of how much the newspaper writers would have to change philosophically before any crusade for baseball’s integration could be embraced. The hiring of “Black Cat” was hyperbolically hailed in the New York Amsterdam News as “the most radical move any major leaguer has made in the annals of baseball.”51 That the trainers and mascots were gainfully employed by mainstream society was in no small measure a reason for their status.

The Depression of the late 1920s proved crippling for the Black community, which began feeling the downturn’s full effects in mid-decade. The Depression devastated a people already hard-pressed to lift themselves out of the pits of poverty, oppression, and under-development. A scarcity of jobs, scuttled savings accounts, and dwindling discretionary income ravaged Black baseball to make the sport vulnerable to and even dependent on what Donn Rogosin has termed “gangster capital.”52 Kingpins in gambling, including runners of the numbers games so popular in urban Black ghettoes in the 1930s and 1940s, became more prominent as power brokers in Negro League baseball during the 1930s. In owning a baseball team racketeers found respectability and a convenient way of laundering money.

The likes of Rube Foster and C.I. Taylor—Black church and civic leaders outspoken in their moralist proscriptions—had yielded to a decidedly less respectable, less heroic ilk in Gus Greenlee, Rufus “Sonnyman” Jackson, and Abe Manley, among others. “Big Red” Greenlee, who became chairman of a re-formed Negro National League in 1932, was a numbers king hard-wired into Pittsburgh’s political, social, and civic scenes.53 Because these new owners were needed if Black baseball was to resurrect itself, the Black newspapers got behind them, but not to the extent they did during the first Negro League push beginning in 1920.

Greenlee’s famous Crawford Grill, a three-story restaurant and cabaret, flourished as a social and entertainment hub on Wylie Avenue much as the Cotton Club brightened Harlem. Grill patrons included Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Louis Armstrong.54 Eager for a heroic figure like Foster, the Defender and Courier frequently mentioned Greenlee’s proprietorship of the Crawford Grill and his involvement in boxing promotions. Without exception writers avoided reference to his illicit numbers businesses. In the pages of the Black newspapers, it is as if they did not exist. A tribute in Courier columnist Rollo Wilson’s “Sports Shots” is typical. Praising Greenlee on the 1933 season, Wilson thanked the magnate for sacrificing time and money “all because he feels he is honor bound to keep faith even though his associates fall by the wayside.” Wilson made no mention of Greenlee’s main source of income.55

Similarly, references to Newark Eagles’ owner Abe Manley were universally positive and did not mention his gambling concerns. To the Courier he was “the man who has invested more in the game, as a sport and as an investment, than anyone,” a “quiet-spoken business man,” and a “lover of the game [with] unbounded faith in the future of the game.”56 What the newspapers omitted is as important as what they included and emphasized. In ignoring the new owners’ links to organized crime, the Black sportswriters were not unlike their counterparts in mainstream media, who routinely omitted from their reports the many indiscretions of White major league players such as Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb.

After a brief honeymoon for the new Negro National League started in 1932, a period of partnership much briefer than that enjoyed by the first Negro National in the early 1920s, Black newspapers distanced themselves somewhat from political and commercial power brokers. This philosophical change during the decade’s first half took the Defender and Courier away from unbridled boosterism and optimism toward a more neutral stance vis-à-vis Black baseball. Mainstream sports journalism was being transformed, as well, also becoming more objective, but the reasons were different. For mainstream papers, new competition from radio for game accounts put more emphasis on the athletes by relying more on pre- and post-game interviews.57 Black newspapers, however, remained the exclusive source for Negro League game reports.

At least to some degree the switch in the Black press was deliberate, not merely a reaction to the greed and malice among a fickle fraternity of Black businessmen and an awareness of the group’s financial difficulties. Signaling the switch, Dan Burley used his column in the Defender to promise readers “impartiality, unbiased opinion and clear-cut, straightforward presentation of the game,” a pledge of objectivity meant to replace “the partisan spirit that used to characterize all athletic comment by writers of our group.”58 Burley claimed the readers themselves demanded non-partisan coverage.

For the most part, Burley and Defender sports editor Al Monroe, who replaced Fay Young, adhered to the new philosophy, as did Chester Washington and W. Rollo Wilson at the Courier, at least in their papers’ regular baseball coverage. Always the province of opinion and proscription, columns varied, with some, like Wilson’s, remaining unapologetically partisan. Others, such as those of Burley, Monroe, and Washington, attempted to stay on the sidelines. Monroe would remain fairly neutral in all matters throughout the decade.59

This promise of more objective reporting coincided with the emergence of some of the biggest names in sporting’s history. The late 1930s introduced Black and White audiences to heavyweight fighter Joe Louis and the hero of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens.60 Add to this elite group Black baseball’s Satchel Paige, who, like Louis, had a personality to match his extraordinary athletic talent, and newspapers had impetus to begin showcasing athletes rather than owners or businessmen.

This passing of a hero’s baton, from businessman to athlete, can be seen in the illustrations Black newspapers ran with their columns and stories. In the early 1920s, studio portraits of baseball’s team owners routinely appeared in the sports pages. An image of the American Giants’ Rube Foster regally sitting on a throne-like chair, wearing a three-piece suit, bowler hat, and gold watch and chain, and holding the kind of cigar reserved for celebrating back-room business deals frequently ran in Black newspapers.61 In the 1930s, however, gone were the owners and in their place ran cartoon caricatures of the athletes striking heroic poses. Satchel Paige and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis were perhaps the most frequently drawn athletes. 62

There was no larger story in the 1930s than Louis, the prototypical Black hero whose personality and performances lifted the spirits and pride of Blacks throughout the country. Owens, too, proved a heroic figure in challenging and defeating the world’s best sprinters during Hitler’s Berlin Olympics, winning four gold medals in six days of competition.63 The Courier helped cast Owens as a hero; Courier publisher Robert Vann covered the games himself and contributed $500 to help pay for the Olympic team’s travel.64 Vann cabled stories to the Courier on Owens’ gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, the 400-meter relay, and the broad jump. Owens, too, sent cables to Courier readers through Vann for publication in the newspaper.65

Prior to the emergence as a mediated hero of pitching great Satchel Paige in 1936, newspaper coverage of games consisted of straightforward accounts of play, with little on individual players and only on the rarest of occasions a feature story on a player. Paige changed this. He was so clearly superior to Black and White opposition, and his personality commanded attention both on and off the field. In fact, a content analysis revealed that Paige received more coverage during the season than a majority of the teams.66 Paige became Exhibit A in the case that Negro League talent belonged in the White big leagues.

Of undetermined age, Paige rarely lost to White major league all-star teams, and he often dominated them. His appearance in a February 1936 tune-up against White major league all-stars attracted a sellout in Oakland and equaled “one of the greatest exhibitions of pitching witnessed by the writer in nearly a score of years,” White sportswriter Eddie Murphy wrote.67 Paige struck out a dozen and allowed but three hits, one of them to New York Yankee great Joe DiMaggio, who later described Paige as the greatest pitcher he had ever faced.68 This was significant; one of White baseball’s biggest stars and best hitters had hailed Black baseball’s premier pitcher.

Paige continued to be the biggest baseball story in the early 1940s, as well. A superstar by any definition, who without exception drew the season’s largest crowds, Paige was promoted heavily in the Black newspapers whenever he came to town. He single-handedly raised the profile of Black baseball during a career that spanned five decades.69 He remains the Negro Leagues’ most recognizable veteran and in 1971 he became the first Negro Leaguer to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Mainstream society took note. Paige was the subject of a lengthy feature article in a 1940 Saturday Evening Post, the first instance of Negro League coverage in a leading magazine.70 A year later, Life magazine featured the pitcher.71 WGN Radio hosted Paige on a December show in 1941, the year Paige began being episodically covered by several White dailies.72

The cumulative effect of Paige coverage on his sport was not unlike that of Michael Jordan on professional basketball in the 1990s, which signals the celebrification process Drucker described. The 1943 season, for example, featured “Satchell [sic] Paige Day” at Wrigley Field.73 His divorce that same season made the Defender’s front page, and when he returned to Chicago in December 1943 to judge a big band contest, the Defender championed his celebrity and called Black baseball’s highest-paid player “the greatest single drawing card in baseball today.”74

Paige served also as precursor to the penultimate Black baseball hero, Jackie Robinson, who was recommended to Branch Rickey by Courier sports editor Wendell Smith as the man to bring down baseball’s color barrier. Smith lobbied Rickey on behalf of Robinson and scouted the player for Rickey, not because Robinson was the best Negro League player. He clearly was not, and he had only played one season in the Negro Leagues. Rather, Smith liked Robinson’s profile as a model citizen in the Black community.75 The Kansas City Monarch shortstop was an army officer, a college man (though he did not graduate), a four-sport letterman at UCLA, and, most importantly, a name the American public already recognized. He fit the hero mold Smith and Smith’s fellow Black press sportswriters felt the task required.76 Also important to Smith, Robinson had already played on integrated teams and against major leaguers on the West Coast.77

When Robinson broke into the major leagues in 1947, the Black press immediately shifted resources to coverage of Robinson and the Dodger organization and away from the Negro Leagues.78 The Black press realized what the White mainstream dailies did not, that the signing of Robinson cleaved baseball history into periods of “before” and “after” just as Brown v. Board of Education in May 1954 marked eras in the nation’s schools. The Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender, and Washington Afro-American, among other Black papers, reported with emotion and as participants in the Robinson drama, framing the event as part of the narrative of segregation in professional baseball that began with Moses Fleetwood Walker’s exclusion from the American Association in 1889.79

Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey were to some extent cast by the Black press as heroes in the bitter battle for equal access and equal participation.80 Robinson’s status was memorialized in 1982 when he became the first baseball player of any race to appear on an American postage stamp.81 In 1997 major league baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s number 42 for all teams, and in 2004 the date Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947—April 15—became Jackie Robinson Day.82 These commemorations are reminders of how in integrating baseball and forcing the game to adapt to him and to a style of play common in the Negro Leagues, Robinson was for Blacks, in Molette’s words, the “prototypical manifestation of their own hopes, aspirations and values.”83

Twentieth-century scholars write about heroes as embodiments of popular virtues. The characteristics of heroes portrayed in the Black press evolved as the cultural values of the community those newspapers served also changed. In the early part of the century, the values had to everything to do with self-help and, in the tradition of Booker T. Washington, with collaboration in the Black community lifting itself out of poverty.84 For the Black press, the Negro Leagues provided an important test case in entrepreneurism and self-help, which was a major reason the newspapers co-founded the leagues with leading Black businessmen.

Demands for societal change, for equality, or for an end to racial discrimination were not made by Black baseball during this period. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, as the Black community’s goals shifted more toward challenging and competing against mainstream society, these demands began to be made. This community’s heroes naturally became those who could compete with the best that mainstream society could offer. DiMaggio struck out trying to hit Paige and then called him the best he had ever faced. Robinson extended into October the seasons of the previously all-White, April-to-September Brooklyn Dodgers, a team nicknamed “Dem Bums” for their habitual ineptitude.85

This study is limited. By relying on the major Black newspapers of the period, the study focuses on a mostly middle-class Black readership concentrated in America’s northern cities, though the national weeklies examined were circulated throughout the country. It is important to note that the Black middle class did not fit mainstream socio-economic definitions of the term, but rather it represented a significantly lower earning power and status, particularly in such a comprehensively segregated age.86

Because of the social strictures of the period, gender is almost completely ignored. The heroes studied, therefore, are exclusively male. As a heroine both to Black baseball and to the Black community, Effa Manley is a subject ripe for future research. With her husband, Abe Manley, she owned the Newark Eagles, from which Larry Doby emerged to integrate the American League in 1947. The Manleys, however, were also members of the Black baseball world. Future research could and perhaps should examine the realms of boxing and Olympic sports, arenas where Black athletes asserted themselves as individuals in the 1930s.

Finally, it is acknowledged that sports heroes are more about the illusion of heroism than its reality. The appearance of heroism in professional sports, including Negro League baseball, is connected to performance and play and not to truly heroic acts. To the extent that sports heroes are in fact celebrities and not real or true heroes, this study is limited in the connections it can make between the Black community and its role models, particularly after the shift away from business leaders to baseball players is complete.

BRIAN CARROLL is an assistant professor of journalism in the department of communication at Berry College. His first book, When to Stop the Cheering? The Black Press, the Black Community and the Integration of Professional Baseball, was named a finalist for SABR’s Seymour Medal. It was also named Book of the Year by the organization’s Negro Leagues Committee. Carroll’s second title is Writing for Digital Media, a book revised and expanded into Writing & Editing for Digital Media in 2014. In 2015, The Black Press and Black Baseball: A Devil’s Bargain was published and won the 2016 Robert Peterson Recognition Award for the best book. The author is grateful to Misty Watson and Lindsay Beute for their research assistance, and the late Margaret A. Blanchard for guidance on an earlier version of the article included here.



1 Lance Strate, “Heroes, Fame and the Media,” Mass Media (Spring 1985), 47.

2 Barbara Molette, “Black Heroes and Afrocentric Values in Theater,” Journal of Black Studies 15, no. 4 (June 1985), 447.

3 Susan J. Drucker and Robert S. Cathcart, eds., American Heroes in a Media Age (Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 1994), vii.

4 Thomas Carlyle, Heroes, Hero Worship and The Heroic in History (New York City: A.L. Burt Company, no date), 1.

5 Ibid., 2.

6 Molette, 449.

7 Ibid., 457. Andrew Kaye also notes that for Blacks the triumphs and trials of their heroes “carried extra significance, in that these challenges often took place under the same Jim Crow conditions with which they grappled on a daily basis” (Andrew Kaye, “The Canonisation of ‘Tiger’ Flowers: A Black Hero for the 1920s,” Borderlines: Studies in American Culture 5 [1998], 156).

8 Drucker and Cathcart, “The Hero as a Communication Phenomenon,” American Heroes in a Media Age, ed. Drucker and Cathcart (Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 1994), 2.

9 Frankie Hutton, The Early Black Press in America, 1827-1860 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993), 27.

10 Armistead S. Pride and Clint C. Wilson, A History of the Black Press (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997), 137.

11 Ibid., 139, 155.

12 Douglas V. Porpora, “Personal Heroes, Religion, and Transcendental Metanarratives,” Sociological Forum 11, 2 (June 1996): 210.

13 See, for example, Louis Harlan’s Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901–1915 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

14 Lance Strate, “Heroes: A Communication Perspective,” in American Heroes in a Media Age, 15.

15 Janice Hume, “Changing Characteristics of Heroic Women in Midcentury Mainstream Media,” Journal of Popular Culture 34, 1 (Summer 2000): 9-29.

16 Drucker and Cathcart, “The Hero as a Communication Phenomenon,” 12.

17 Drucker, “The Mediated Sports Hero,” in American Heroes in a Media Age, 82.

18 “Magnates To Meet Here Last of January,” Chicago Defender, January 7, 1922. Present at the meeting were Ira F. Lewis of the Courier, Elwood Knox of the Freeman, and several Defender writers.

19 “Baseball Men and Scribes Gather For League Meetings,” Chicago Defender, January 28, 1922.

20 Drucker, “The Mediated Sports Hero,” 84.

21 Hutton, The Early Black Press in America, 1827-1860, 87.

22 Orrin E. Klapp, “The Creation of Popular Heroes,” The American Journal of Sociology 54, 2 (September 1948): 135. The other three ways of conferral are by spontaneous popular recognition and homage; by formal selection, as in canonization and military decoration; and by the gradual growth of popular legends.

23 Klapp, “Hero Worship in America,” American Sociological Review 14, 1 (February 1949): 61. Other than for the sake of simplicity, the exclusivity of males as heroes in the Black press during the period studied is the sole reason for use of the male pronoun and why, therefore, there are no female pronouns.

24 Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 229.

25 Klapp, “Hero Worship in America,” 62.

26 Robert L. Vann, “Football As A Vehicle,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 1, 1923, 1.

27 Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of Leroi Jones (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1997), 46.

28 One of the only references to the exclusion of Blacks from “organized baseball” was made by the Courier’s Ira F. Lewis in Robert Vann’s short-lived monthly The Competitor magazine. Lewis observed that major league baseball seemed to approve of Cubans, “provided they do not come too Black,” Chinese, Indians, “and everyone else under the sun . . . except the Black man.” He mused that, “Perhaps, someday, a Regular American baseball man will establish a precedent—maybe” (Ira Lewis, “Who’ll Be The Next,” Competitor, October/November 1920, 221).

29 Frank A. Young, “The American Giants-Detroit Tigers Games,” Chicago Defender, October 27, 1923.

30 “National League To Meet In Chicago,” Chicago Defender, October 28, 1922.

31 One owner, C.I. Taylor of the Indianapolis ABCs, wrote for the need for baseball as the race’s showcase and that “the sooner we as a race recognize this fact, the quicker we will be acknowledged by other people; and the greater will be our strides in the game of life” (“The Future of Colored Baseball,” The Competitor, February 1920, 76). The Competitor was published by the Pittsburgh Courier.

32 Andrew “Rube” Foster, “Rube Foster Has A Word To Say To The Baseball Fans,” Chicago Defender, January 5, 1924.

33 “Rube Foster Banqueted by Cleveland Business Men,” Chicago Defender, February 17, 1923.

34 “Y.W.C.A. Day Sunday, June 24,” Chicago Defender, June 16, 1923.

35 See “C.I. Taylor And His A.B.C. Base Ball Club,” Indianapolis Freeman, December 23, 1916. ABC players worked for Taylor during the offseason in his billiards parlor. Ed Bolden, owner of the Hilldales in Philadelphia, also hired his players in winter, “Hilldale Successful in Seeing Improved Trolley Service,” Philadelphia Tribune, June 29, 1918.

36 David Wyatt, “Players Developed, Need Trained Officials Now,” Chicago Defender, January 7, 1922.

37 “Foster’s Ire Aroused Over Ball Player’s Charges,” Chicago Defender, November 24, 1923.

38 Frank A. Young, “Lloyd Goes to Connors,” Chicago Defender, February 4, 1922.

39 “World Series Report,” Chicago Defender, November 1, 1924. Barnstorming refers to the custom of many ballplayers to join traveling teams in the off-season, teams that would tour a region and play local clubs of varying sophistication for a share of the gate.

40 Rollo Wilson, “The Sportive Realm,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 6, 1924.

41 “Arrangements Complete For Big Series,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 6, 1924.

42 Andrew “Rube” Foster, “Rube Foster Reviews The World Series And Tells A Little Baseball History,” Chicago Defender, November 15, 1924. Foster’s praise of himself is incredible by any standard. The article’s opening sentence: “It is impossible to enjoy a work of art without being mindful of the artist whose skill brought the treasure into existence.” In fact, the tone and language of the article suggests that Foster intended the article to run without his byline, as if the Defender were praising him for the world series.

43 William Harper, How You Played the Game, The Life of Grantland Rice (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 18.

44 Charles Fountain, Sportswriter: The Life and Times of Grantland Rice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 343.

45 Quote from Joseph Farrell, “Classical Genre in Theory and Practice,” New Literary History 34, 3 (Fall 2003): 399. Pindar’s Olympian Odes were composed in honor of victories “won” by rulers and chariot owners such as Hieron and Theron (quote from Charles Paul Segal, “God and Man in Pindar’s First and Third Olympian Odes,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 68 [1964]: 211). Segal puts the competitions in the year 476. A sample from Pindar’s “Olympian 1” ode, written to honor Hieron of Syracuse for a single-horse race in 476 B.C.: “The rich and blessed hearth of Hieron, who wields the scepter of law in Sicily of many flocks, reaping every excellence at its peak, and is glorified by the choicest music, which we men often play around his hospitable table . . . the king of Syracuse who delights in horses. His glory shines in the settlement of fine men” (Pindar, Olympian Odes, Olympian 1).

46 Fay Young, “Directors of National League Hold Future of Our Baseball in Their Hands,” Chicago Defender, September 11, 1926. Young wrote under the bylines Frank A. Young, Frank Young, and Fay Young.

47 See “Bill Buckner in Texas,” Chicago Defender, March 4, 1922. Buckner, Black trainer for the Chicago White Sox, was a barber during the off-season, owner of Chicago’s Colonial Barbershop.

48 “Fans Glad To See Buckner Back As White Sox Trainer,” Chicago Defender, February 11, 1922.

49 Wendell Smith, “Smitty’s Sports Spurts,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 5, 1939.

50 Neil Lanctot, Fair Dealing and Clean Playing: The Hilldale Club and the Development of Black Professional Baseball, 1910–1932 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1994), 185.

51 Ibid.

52 Donn Rogosin, “Black Baseball: The Life in the Negro Leagues” (Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1981), 8.

53 Rob Ruck, Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 135, 151.

54 Jim Bankes, The Pittsburgh Crawfords (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Press, 2001), 17, 70. When Satchel Paige married Janet Howard, a waitress at the Grille, in 1934, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson served as best man and provided tap dancing for entertainment. Lena Horne, among others, began her career at the Crawford, where she first sang “Stormy Weather,” her signature song.

55 Rollo Wilson, “Sports Shots,” Pittsburgh Courier, October 7, 1933.

56 “Future Of Baseball Is Bright, Says Man Who Invested Most,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 6, 1936.

57 Fountain, Sportswriter: The Life and Times of Grantland Rice , 256.

58 Dan Burley, “Just A Word,” Chicago Defender, May 3, 1930.

59 For a comprehensive comparison and analysis of the shifts in coverage by these writers, see Brian Carroll, “When to Stop the Cheering? The Black Press, the Black Community, and the Integration of Professional Baseball,” Ph.D. diss. (University of North Carolina, 2003).

60 One reason Louis enjoyed hero status within and beyond the Black community was the contrast he marked with previous Black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, who was described as Louis’ “distasteful predecessor” (Kaye, “The Canonization of ‘Tiger’ Flowers, 148). Tiger Flowers, a Black middleweight champion from Georgia, also was revered in part because he was not Jack Johnson, which “alone commend[ed] him to decent Americans” (from the Pittsburgh Courier, March 6, 1926).

61 Foster’s portrait frequently appeared in the Defender. See, for example, Rube Foster, “Pitfalls of Baseball,” Chicago Defender, January 3, 1920; “Kansas City Selected for Meeting of Baseball Magnates,” Chicago Defender, February 7, 1920; Ira F. Lewis, “Baseball Men Hold Successful Meeting,” Competitor, January/February 1921, 51.

62 No empirical study of the drawings and caricatures was conducted. A reading of the Defender and Courier for the period under study, however, strongly suggests that renderings of Paige and Lewis were more common than those for any other athlete or sporting figure.

63 “Olympic Stars Get Welcome of City; 121 From the American Team, Headed by Owens, Parade Through Cheering Crowds” New York Times, September 4, 1936.

64 Robert L. Vann, “Courier Sends $500 To Aid American Athletes Go To Berlin Olympics,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 18, 1936.

65 See Robert L. Vann, “‘Proud I’m An American,’ Owens Says; Sends Message ‘Back Home,’” Pittsburgh Courier, August 8, 1936. In the brief article, Vann writes of Owens’ message “sent to Americans through the Pittsburgh Courier Monday afternoon directly after he had won America’s second championship in the 100-meter dash.”

66 Brian Carroll, “When to Stop the Cheering: A Content Analysis of Changes in Black Press Coverage of the Negro Leagues,” in The 14th Annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, William Simons (ed.) (Jefferson City, N.C.: McFarland Press, 2001).

67 Eddie Murphy, “Daily Scribe Tells Majors Of Value Of Satchel Paige,” Chicago

Defender, February 8, 1936. Murphy’s newspaper was not identified.

68 Lester Rodney, “DiMaggio Calls Negro Greatest Pitcher,” Daily Worker, 13 September 1937.

69 See Buck O’Neil, I Was Right On Time (Fireside: New York City, 1996), 107-108. O’Neil, discussing a 1941 Saturday Evening Post article about Paige, wrote that it was “the first time a magazine like the Post had ever written about Black baseball.” Negro leaguers were not resentful of the publicity Paige routinely got, O’Neil wrote, because “it meant that we were getting publicity, too.” See also William G. Nunn, “Satchell [sic] Paige Is Magnet at E-W Game,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 29, 1936.

70 Ted Shane, “Chocolate Rube Waddell,” Saturday Evening Post, July 27, 1940.

71 “Satchelfoots,” Life, June 3, 1940, 44.

72 See Chicago Defender, November 28, 1942; Fay Young, “Through The Years,” Chicago Defender, July 24, 1943. According to Young, Paige was “the greatest single drawing card in baseball” and its highest paid player, Black or White. See also “Satchel Paige Day at Wrigley Field,” Chicago Defender, July 3, 1943.

73 “Satchel Paige Day At Wrigley Field July 18,” Chicago Defender, July 3, 1943.

74 “Satchel Paige Here Dec. 8 With Three Dance Bands,” Chicago Defender, November 28, 1943.

75 Brian Carroll, “When to Stop the Cheering? The Black Press, The Black Community and The Integration of Professional Baseball” (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2003), 193-248.

76 While more accomplished than Robinson, Paige was not seriously considered, primarily because of his age. Though no one knew for sure his age, Paige was believed to have been 42 when he did make it to the major leagues in 1947, with Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians (Negro League Players Association biography, accessible at http://www.nlbpa.com/paige__satchel.html). It was also Paige’s disadvantage to have been a starting pitcher and, therefore, someone who would play only every fifth day or so.

77 See Herman Hill, “Robinson Sparkling On Coast,” Pittsburgh Courier, October 13, 1945. As Robinson scholar Arnold Rampersad pointed out, Robinson played also on the racially integrated Pasadena Sox, an all-star team sponsored by the Chicago White Sox, in 1939, leading that team to the California State Amateur Baseball championship (64). Robinson previously played on the baseball team of Pasadena Junior College, which was racially mixed, and he played for a dreadful but interracial UCLA baseball team in 1940, becoming that year the first UCLA student to letter in four sports (74) (Jackie Robinson: A Biography, Alfred A. Knopf: New York City, 1997).

78 See Brian Carroll, “When to Stop the Cheering: A Content Analysis of Changes in Black Press Coverage of the Negro Leagues,” 228-9.

79 Baseball historians are trying to determine whether William Edward White, a Brown University student who played in the late nineteenth century, was the first Black baseball player in the major leagues. White is thought to have played one game for the Providence Greys of the National League on 21 June 1879 (for more on White, who was from Milner, Georgia, see The Macon Telegraph,

February 8, 2004, available: www.macon.com/mld/macon/7902848.htm; accessed May 5, 2004). It has been generally accepted that Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first, playing for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884. Walker was the last Black player in the major leagues until Jackie Robinson, cut from the Blue Stockings in 1889.

80 One example is a column in which Wendell Smith places Robinson in the context of baseball’s history by tracing that history back to Walker, who, like Robinson, was also “well educated and a gentleman of the highest quality” (“The Sports Beat,” Pittsburgh Courier, November 3, 1945). This description conveniently omits Walker’s legendary drinking problems and his jailing on charges of murder.

81 “A Stamp of Recognition,” New York Times, June 16, 1982.

82 Dick Heller, “Why Not Hail the Grays?,” Washington Times, July 30, 2004.

83 Molette, 449.

84 See Kevin K. Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill, N.C.: UNC Press, 1996). African American cultural elites during the violent racism at the turn of the twentieth century articulated a positive Black identity and a middle-class ideology of racial uplift, according to Gaines. These Black elites espoused an ethos of self-help and service to the Black masses, hence the phrase “uplifting the race.” Gaines draws on the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Hubert H. Harrison, and others.

85 For more on the history of the nickname, see Peter Golenbock’s Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers (New York: McGraw Hill, 2000).

86 See St. Clair Drake and Horace R Clayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1970).