Pitching Behind the Color Line: Baseball, Advertising, and Race

This article was written by Roberta J. Newman

This article was published in the 2007 Baseball Research Journal


Individually and collectively, baseball and advertising may be said to hold a mirror up to America. The image in the glass, however, is not always pretty. For the first century of its history, with very few early exceptions, “American” as defined by Organized Baseball, did not extend to those of African descent. As has been well documented, the emergence of black baseball as a response to the professional game’s color line certainly serves as a reflection of racial attitudes in America from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. But what of advertising? Does baseball-related advertising during this period say something larger about perceptions of race in America? One approach to answering this complicated question, really a set of questions, is to look at the print media, where there is no dearth of advertising related to black baseball and, therefore, necessarily related to racial perceptions, be they direct or inferred.

Well before the Great Migration of the early 20th century served as a catalyst for the formation of significant African American communities in Northern cities, giving rise to a lively black press, ads for games played by “colored” teams appeared in the mainstream dailies. Contests featuring the Cuban Giants, for example, were advertised in the New York Times as early as 1886. In plain, straight-forward language, one such ad reads, “BASEBALL. POLO GROUNDS TO-DAY. Colored Championship match. CUBAN GIANTS VS. GORHAMS, Game 4 P.M. Admission, 25 cents.”1

According to Sol White, black baseball’s first historian and its first hagiographer, “the ‘Cuban Giants’ were heralded everywhere as marvels of the baseball world. They were not looked upon by the public as freaks, but they were classed as men of talent.”2

White’s statement is belied, however subtly, by this ad’s placement in the newspaper. Appearing in small type at the bottom of a column of advertising under the heading “Amusements,” it is the sole baseball announcement among ads for “Imre Kiralfy’s latest, greatest, and supreme triumph, NERO; OR THE FALL OF ROME,” complete with 2,000 performers and a Terpsichorean corps of 1,000 on the very largest stage of all time, and “Pain’s ‘1666’ GREAT FIRE OF LONDON,” reenacted at Manhattan Beach on Coney Island. An ad in the same column for “THE BIGGEST SHOW ON EARTH! America’s Most Mighty Exhibition. BUFFALO BILL’S WILD WEST,” is even more telling.3 Capitalizing on the popular taste for reenactments evident here, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show featured an Indian attack on the Deadwood Stage and a tableau vivant of Custer’s Last Stand, among other wonders.4

The “Colored Championship” match between the Cuban Giants and the Gorhams, taken in the context of its companions in the Amusements column, most particularly the Wild West show, may be seen in quite a different light. Just as Cody’s spectacular offered New Yorkers a glimpse into the exotic world of cowboys and indians, essentially creating the popular American notion of the West, the Cuban Giants’ appearance at the Polo Grounds presented spectators with the exotic spectacle of ballplayers of color engaged in an actual championship game. In fact, close scrutiny of the ad suggests that, contrary to White’s assertion, embedded in the name “Cuban Giants,” is the prospect of a freak show of sorts.

As if to offer an explanation, quoting a mention of the team in The Sporting Life, a writer for the New York Sun noted that the Cuban Giants were, in fact, “neither Giants nor Cubans, but thick-set and brawny colored men.”5 Certainly, baseball enthusiasts, of whom there was no shortage in New York, would have recognized the name Giants as referring to the regular tenants of the Polo Grounds, and the Cuban Giants as an African American club of some merit. This ad, however, appears neither on a sports page nor in the nascent sporting press. Baseball enthusiasts— cranks—are not its primary target. Proximity to the ad for Buffalo Bill Cody’s enterprise, not to mention those for the spectacles of Nero’s fiddling and London’s conflagration, seems to suggest that, for at least some of the Times’ overwhelmingly Caucasian readers, the Cuban Giants were, at best, exotic curiosities—thick set, brawny colored men. At worst, they were freaks.

One of the earliest forms of printed advertising is the trade card. Generally associated with tobacco and candy, baseball trade cards were also distributed as souvenirs to commemorate specific events. While trade cards featuring African American players and teams, produced prior to the desegregation of the major leagues, were certainly uncommon, they were not completely unknown. A rare example of such a card features the 1897 Fence Page Giants, an African American club formed by two players who, contrary to convention, had played in Organized Baseball with otherwise white or integrated teams, Bud Fowler and Grant “Home Run” Johnson, in conjunction with two white businessmen, to advertise the Page Woven Wire Fence Company of rural Adrian, Michigan, and Monarch Bicycles. The Page Fence Company, notes Jerry Malloy,

was not unfamiliar with inventive promotional techniques. As a permanent demonstration of the capacity of its product to contain livestock, the company maintained a park in town stocked with various animals corralled by its woven wire fencing. This menagerie was transported by rail to nearby country and state fairs with Page Fence cages, thus displaying the strength and versatility of the company’s line of goods.6

The team, dressed in their natty black uniforms emblazoned in large white letters with the words “Page Fence Giants,” are pictured on the front of the card, along with their white manager, identified as A. S. Parsons. Printed on the reverse side is an ad for the company, reading, “Play Ball! Play Ball! Make Fence!!! Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.” Clearly, the language of the trade card, which would have been distributed to fans lured to games by the appearance of the luxurious private railway carriage in which the team traveled, as well as by the players themselves, who, after disembarking, paraded through town on their Monarch bicycles,7 equates ball playing with building fences.

According to Sol White, the notion that the team should be transported from town to town by a private train bearing the name Page Fence, affording the players the certainty of comfortable lodging in Jim Crow America, was the brainchild of Johnson and Fowler.8 As such, it served as a sort of protective enclosure for the players on the road. At the same time, it also served to keep them at a safe distance from the white people for whom they played, functioning as their own Page Fence. In this regard it bears a fairly close, though perhaps uncomfortable, resemblance to the fence separating the company’s traveling menagerie that traveled the same roads to the same towns as the team separated from fairgoers. Coupled with the private railway carriage, this trade card, and the very promotional nature of the team itself seem to suggest to white spectators that colored ballplayers, while entertaining to watch, are best kept at a comfortable distance, separated from spectators by a sturdy fence, be it real or implied.

With his Official Guide: The History of Colored Base Ball, Sol White did more than provide a window into a past populated by teams like the Page Fence and Cuban Giants; he also provided 14 pages of baseball-related advertising. The Guide’s ad copy differs substantially from newspaper advertising for the Cuban Giants and Page Fence’s promotional baseball machine, both of which targeted predominantly Caucasian consumers. That White’s Guide, originally published in 1907 on the cusp of the Great Migration, is aimed at African Americans is borne out in its advertising.

Some businesses, like John W. Connor’s Royal Cafe and Palm Gardens in Brooklyn, make it clear in their ads that they are black-owned. The Royal Café ad does so by specifying that the establishment serves as headquarters for the Royal Giants, owned and managed, not so coincidentally, by John W. Connor. On the facing page, Connor is pictured as a dignified, middle-aged African American with an avuncular smile.9 Even more direct is an ad for “The Roadside,” whose bewhiskered African American proprietor is pictured prominently, illustrating the minimalist copy, limited to the name and address of the establishment almost as if to say, “the only other thing you need to know about the Roadside is that it is black-owned.”10

A full-page ad for the Philadelphia Tribune, billed as “Our Only Colored Daily Paper,” also features a photograph of an African American man, city editor, G. Grant Williams. Not only does this ad target potential African American readers, using the pronoun “our” to denote a connection between the publisher, the editorial staff, and black baseball fans perusing White’s Guide, but also other businesses. With a small line of type at the bottom of the page, the Tribune lays claim to the role of “the best Medium for advertising when you want to reach the people.”11 And who are the people? They are members of the same community at which White’s Guide is aimed, baseball fans of color.

But not all the advertising in White’s Guide pitches black-owned businesses. One large ad sings the praises of promoters Schlichter and Strong, booking agents for the Philadelphia Giants, who call their outfit “the premier attraction among colored teams” whose “presence is eagerly looked for in all sections of the country.”12 That H. Walter Schlichter should advertise in White’s book is hardly a surprise, given that he is billed on the title page as the original editor. Nor is the presence of Nat Strong’s name unusual. Strong, a promoter based in New York, controlled booking in the majority of the area’s semi-professional baseball venues. In order to play lucrative Sunday games in the better semi-pro parks, it was necessary to deal with white booking agents like Strong.13 Even though some teams, like the Royal Giants, may have been black-owned, this ad is a reminder that African American baseball was still subject to white control, a factor which would provoke conflict and controversy at various times in its history.

The advertising in White’s Guide, even Schlichter and Strong’s ad promoting black baseball, exhibit a certain race pride, a pride that would continue to grow in African American communities in Northern cities fueled by the Great Migration. But to suggest that these ads signal a momentous advance for African Americans would be a gross overstatement. The status of African Americans, even the sophisticated Northern readers of the Philadelphia Tribune, as second-class citizens with limited possibilities, is indicated, however indirectly, in two other ads in White’s Guide. The “Headquarters for North Philadelphia Sports,” the Chauffeur’s Rest claims to be home to first-class pool parlors as well.14 While the ad suggests that its patrons are the upper crust of the sporting life—that is, boxing men, vaudevillians, gamblers, even pimps, and, presumably, sporting women15—the name says something else, that its high-class clientele are, in fact, tired chauffeurs.

Washington’s Manufactory, a dry goods emporium, advertises for sale its “High-grade Stationery, Finest Perfumes, and all kinds of Toilet Articles,” but judging by its prominent place in the ad and its type size, first and foremost among the products available at Washington’s Manufactory appear to be “Waiters Supplies.”16 Like the patrons of the Chauffeur’s Rest, Washington’s Manufactory’s target consumers are service workers, not business executives. The first-class sports that use high-grade stationery and the finest perfumes are, in reality, drivers and waiters.

As the ad in White’s Guide rightfully claims, the Philadelphia Tribune was an excellent medium to reach “the people,” especially the people who were African American residents of large cities such as its home, Philadelphia, as well as Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York, and Baltimore. Between 1900 and 1925, the percentage of the population identified as black in these cities increased as much as four-fold,17 leading to the proliferation of a whole series of race institutions, among them businesses like the saloons, hotels, and retail shops that advertised in White’s Guide, fraternal organizations, record labels, and, most notably, a lively black press, intended specifically for consumption by African Americans.18

By this time the Tribune, which commenced publication in 1884, was a major voice in the political, social, and economic life of African American Philadelphia.19 Along with the Tribune, weekly papers such as New York’s Amsterdam News and Age, the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Baltimore Afro-American became mainstays of their communities. The rapidly expanding African American urban population also led to the growth of black baseball aimed, specifically, at a black audience. According to Lawrence Hogan:

Prior to this time, black baseball clubs played for essentially a white clientele. The rise of black enclaves in the North, however, was too important for black ball to ignore. A new generation of both black and white entrepreneurs would attempt to tap into this growing market.”20

But how, exactly, were they to do so? In addition to the most consistently cost-effective and reliable method of marketing, word of mouth, spreading information by means of an informal network of neighborhood institutions like barbershops, beauty parlors, and social clubs,21 as well as displaying game placards in store windows, on taxicabs, and streetcars,22 black baseball’s entrepreneurs relied upon the weeklies. Since African American ball clubs depended upon gate receipts for revenue,23 publicity in the weeklies was an absolute necessity.

Ed Bolden’s Hilldale Club, one of the very few African American teams to control its own diamond, Hilldale Park in Darby, Pennsylvania, advertised regularly in the Tribune. According to the team’s ledgers, the Hilldales routinely budgeted between six and nine dollars monthly during the season to promote their games in the Tribune in the early 1920s. Although this seems like a paltry sum to dedicate to newspaper advertising, it represented a significant investment for a team that operated in the red during this period.24 In order to ensure that Philadelphia residents would be able to find their way to Darby, a mill town close to the city, long home to a considerable African American population, many of the team’s newspaper ads include specific directions to the park, via the “No. 13 Car on Walnut Street.”25

The relationship between the black press and the teams was reciprocal. Teams depended upon advertising on the sports pages, as well as promotion by the editorial staff, to ensure attendance, and the papers depended on teams to provide content. Directly below a series of ads for the Hilldale Club, an announcement in the Tribune reads “Feature your Own Ball Game—Send Snappy Accounts to the Tribune as soon as the game is over.—We Boost Clean Sports.”26

As was true of the black weeklies in general, the Tribune could not afford beat reporters to cover local African American teams as the mainstream press could. This made it necessary for teams to provide their own coverage. Such coverage, however snappy, was often unreliable at best. But no matter how snappy an account may have been, the Tribune’s ad copy makes it clear that news of games tainted by gambling or other unsavory activities were not acceptable. Only “clean” games were deserving of the Tribune’s support.

By virtue of its proximity to Hilldale ads, this notice serves yet another purpose. However indirectly, it tells readers that Bolden’s team is nothing if not on the up-and-up. The connection between the Tribune, the Hilldale Club, and good sportsmanship was further reinforced by the relatively huge sign atop Hilldale Park’s scoreboard, the only ad in the park, urging fans to “Read the Philadelphia Tribune.”27

With the rapid increase in urban America’s black population came an increased demand for housing. In Baltimore, for example, this led to the expansion of the city itself, including the annexation of formerly rural areas like Catonsville, home to a small African American community.28 With expansion came real estate development. And with real estate development came its natural by-product, advertising. A large ad in the Afro American of October 29, 1920, announces the opening of a “New Colored Development, Sale of Choice Lots, McDonough Heights, Catonsville.” “Ideally situated on high, healthy ground,” reads the pitch, offering prospective purchasers the opportunity to own beautiful lots, starting at 98 dollars each, which could be financed with the “Easiest of Easy Terms.”

But this offer to own a prospective piece of the American Dream was not enough to lure Baltimore’s black residents to fairly remote Catonsville, only a streetcar ride away. No, for that a “special attraction Sunday,” and the chance to watch Piedmont Tigers take on the Catonsville Social Giants in a game of baseball, would be necessary.29 That developers of a “colored” subdivision would advertise in the pages of the Afro American, using a game between blackball clubs as bait, certainly points to the growth of a vibrant community, a community to which baseball was clearly important during this period. But it also points directly to the harsh realities of African American life in Baltimore circa 1920. There was strict segregation on the playing fields and strict segregation in the housing market.

Game announcements and other baseball-related advertising regularly appeared in the many of black weeklies throughout the 1920s, despite the fact that attendance at the games themselves declined toward the end of the decade, a casualty of worsening economic conditions.30 And baseball was not alone. Even before the crash of 1929, black-owned businesses, a source of race pride and, more important, income, failed at an unusually high rate.31 The last to be hired, black workers were the first fired. By 1932 the black urban unemployment rate stood at close to 50%. Nearly half of all African American families in Northern cities were on relief rolls by 1935.32 Once again the economic profile of black communities was reflected by the advertising related to baseball in the black weeklies.

Alongside pitches for hair straighteners, pomades, and patent medicines claiming to alleviate “male problems” on the sports pages were ads for publications like Aunt Sally’s Policy Player’s Dream Book, Stella’s Lucky Dream Book, and Number Hit Forecast and Guide, asking black baseball fans, “Want to change your luck? Release your Lucky Number at glance.”32 Specifically, each of the publications claimed to guarantee success in playing policy or the numbers, a popular form of gambling in urban America during the Depression, especially black urban America. According to Paul Oliver:

Black superstition was the subject of lucrative exploitation of charms and philters, and cheap pseudo-religious votive ornaments and accessories alike, but it was in the systematic organization of the Numbers Racket that the most relentless and deliberate exploitation took place. The policy racketeers published “Dream Books” which gave lists of numbers which were supposed to have a mystic connection with aspects of human experience, with objects natural and man-made, and with every conceivable circumstance that might occur in dreams.34

Among the dream symbols to which numbers were attached, several were, in fact, related to baseball.

Numbers lotteries gave impoverished African Americans—in this case, readers of baseball news in the black weeklies—a chance to achieve social mobility, no matter how slim. With as paltry a bet as a single penny, numbers players, who had little opportunity for economic or social advancement, due in large part to race, could hope for a payoff as high as 500-1. And pay off the numbers did, particularly for the bankers who controlled the rackets. While in Harlem the numbers were controlled by Dutch Schultz during the 1930s,35 elsewhere numbers bankers were, in fact, race men, like Abe Manley, Alex Pompez, and, most notably Pittsburgh policy kingpin, Gus Greenlee, Negro League owners all. “Black underworld figures,” writes Neil Lanctot, “long a part of the industry and seemingly impervious to Depression conditions, would provide a necessary influx of capital into the moribund enterprise” of black baseball.

As the nation’s economy improved in the late 1930s, so too did the economic circumstances of black baseball’s primary fans, urban African Americans, though more slowly than that of their white counterparts. This improvement is reflected in baseball-related advertising, particularly in the black press. A series of ads, for example, appeared in the Chicago Defender, distinguishable from the paper’s editorial content only by the fine print at the top reading “advertisement,” with the headline “Piney Woods School Offers Youth Unusual Opportunities.” “A school that is famous for its extracurricular activities,” the ad touts Piney Woods’ black baseball pedigree in this way:

Followers of the Kansas City Monarchs like to see Ivy Barnes pitch who is sometimes called a carbon copy of Satchell (sic) Paige. This year, the Homestead Grays will present to the baseball loving public three Piney Woods boys, Leroy Bass, catching; Buddy Thompson, pitching; and Luke Easterling, third base. All of those boys received training with the Piney Woods Giant Collegians who have bested some of the fastest semi-professional teams in the country, including the famous “House of David.”37

The Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi’s Black Belt, here offering young Chicago boys with a talent for baseball the opportunity to secure scholarships, was founded in 1909 by Lawrence C. Jones, known to his students as Professor Ed or Uncle Ed, who began his career in education teaching sharecroppers to read in a sheep shed. According to an article published in McClure’s in 1922,

at Piney Woods they learn things like these: plowing, horse shoeing, washing and ironing, sewing, cooking, basket making, carpentry; they are working with the white people and never against them.38

Baseball was also a major part of their curriculum, though more so in 1940 than in 1922.

To a great extent, this ad does more than try to attract prospective ball-playing boys to a traditional black boarding school, it uses baseball in an attempt to reverse the trend of the Great Migration, to save poor young black children from the squalor of the city by offering them an education in country life. The ad promotes the school as a sure path to the Negro Leagues, one followed by Thompson, Bass, and Easterling, but in reality, what it offers is an education in manual labor and working for white people, never against them. The ad for the Piney Woods School sends two separate messages. On one hand, it banks on race pride associated with star Negro League players to attract students. On the other, it seems to refer back to the accommodationist attitudes of Booker T. Washington, who in 1895 told African Americans to “cast down your buckets where you are,” in the segregated South.39 In this way, it expresses a conflicted attitude about race that is reflected in baseball-related advertising in general.

As America moved closer to war, more and more African Americans were attracted to urban areas by the prospect of employment in the defense industries. Increased employment meant increased disposable income, which also meant increased attendance at games and increased purchasing power. But not all baseball-related advertising during this period pitched games or products. Some baseball-related ads spoke to a more important purpose. With a drawing of a beefy ballplayer of indeterminate race and the headline, “What is SWOC’s Batting Average?” the Steel Workers Organizing Committee urged readers to vote for the SWOC in the labor board election of September 25, 1941, in a nearly full-page ad on the “Afro Sports” page of the Baltimore Afro American. It reads:

This is baseball season and everybody thinks in terms of batting averages. If you know a man’s batting average you can tell he’s a big-leaguer. If you know a team’s batting average, you can tell whether that team is going places. So it’s a fair question to ask the SWOC: What is your batting average.40

It goes on to give a series of reasons to vote the union in, each ending with the tag line, “Not a bad batting average is it?” in bold print.

Why does the SWOC use baseball language and images to promote its cause, the unionization of Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrow’s Point plant? After an extremely contentious three-year battle to unionize the plant, at which many African Americans were employed, the SWOC, an affiliate of the CIO, forced an election. Perhaps in order to fight charges that unionization was anti-American, the SWOC chose that most American of images, the baseball player in mid-stride. It is no wonder that the player bears some resemblance to Lou Gehrig, who, though no longer the Iron Horse, had come to represent not only resilience but grace under pressure.

In a very pointed way, this ad differs substantially from the majority of baseball-related advertising in the black weeklies. While the race of the player is indeterminate, the language of the ad is not. The ad claims that if you know a player’s batting average, you can tell if he’s a big leaguer. Quite apart from the spotty statistical reporting for which black weeklies were known, there is one thing that readers of the Afro American knew for sure in 1942, that the players on teams they followed were not big leaguers, no matter how gaudy their batting averages.

Rare for an ad in a black weekly in 1941, this one makes no attempt to pitch its point directly to African Americans. Instead, it tries to reach the black readership with the same ad used to appeal to white steelworkers. Although the language seems insensitive, given baseball’s color line, it is, in its own way, quite the opposite. By refusing to change its language to speak specifically to one segment of its demographic, it indirectly points toward an emerging move toward equality within the union, if not within baseball or society as a whole. Editorial support of SWOC by the Afro American as well as the fact that it was voted in overwhelmingly by workers, African American and Caucasian alike, supports this notion.

Beginning in the 1920s, a mainstay of print advertising in the mainstream media was the celebrity product endorsement. And often the celebrities in question were baseball players. This practice proliferated in the 1940s, but not in the black weeklies. Certainly Negro League baseball, then in its heyday, had its fair share of star power. But for all the Josh Gibsons, Cool Papa Bells, and Satchel Paiges, product endorsements were virtually nonexistent. Paige and Gibson, when mentioned in a game ad, might guarantee a good gate, but they were not paid to sell Camel cigarettes or Gillette razor blades to African American consumers.

As popular as these exceptionally talented players were, they could not hold a candle to the iconic black athlete of this period, boxer Joe Louis. Endorsing everything from hair pomade to local tailor shops across America, he stands out as the lone African American product endorser of note during the late ’30s and ’40s. Even before his knockout of Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938, made him a champion to Americans, regardless of race, Louis was featured prominently in ads in the black press. So popular was he that he inspired the naming of the Brown Bomber Baking Company of New York City, by their own account, “The World’s Largest Negro Baking Company,” whose ad was illustrated with a drawing, in monumental style, of a strong black pugilist pummeling a white boxer. Brown Bomber Bakery, pitching its product with the slogan “11 cents spent for Brown Bomber gives you double value… a loaf of tempting delicious bread plus part payment of some Negro’s salary,”41 did not rely entirely on the sweet science to promote their “soft bread.”

One of the company’s most notable marketing ploys was its sponsorship of a semi-professional team, the eponymous Brown Bombers. In a way, the bakery took a page from Page Fences, using a baseball team as a living promotional tool. But while Page Fences sold enclosures, Brown Bombers sold race pride.

Oddly, bread, not hair pomade, dream books, or beer, was the one of the first beneficiaries of an endorsement by an African American ballplayer in the 1940s. Though his testimonial takes a position subordinate to a large endorsement by a bathing beauty who has clearly availed herself of one of the many skin- lightening products advertised throughout the black weeklies, praise is heaped upon Bond Bread by a proud-looking player in pinstripes, wearing the well- known interlocking NY of the lily-white New York Yankees, identified as “Walter Wright, famous ‘Brick Top’ of the Black Yankees.” It reads, “With rationing cutting down on the muscle builders we used to get in meat, I’m mighty glad to get Bond’s extra protein.”

Bond bakery, unlike Brown Bomber, was not black-owned. It did, however, advertise regularly in the New York Amsterdam News. While Bond routinely relied on the image of a happy African American homemaker to sell its products to New York’s black population here, the bakery capitalizes on the community’s enthusiasm for baseball. Unlike so many of the other baseball-related ads, however, Bond Bread did not advertise on the sports page. This ad appeared in the retail advertising section, where products were pitched almost exclusively to women. In this regard, Bond seemed to realize that African American women were a largely untapped market of baseball fans, and one that often controlled its family’s purse strings.

The dearth of product endorsements by African American baseball players in the pages of the black weeklies did not last into the 1940s. Seemingly from the very moment Jackie Robinson stepped across the major league color line, his name and image seem to appear on virtually every page. “For a treat instead of a treatment…I recommend Old Gold Cigarettes,” reads a testimonial ad by Robinson, a non-smoker, for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ radio sponsor, not just in the Amsterdam News and the New York Age, but also in black weeklies across the country. Where ads for Tuxedo Club Pomade, “the Pomade of Champions,” had once featured the profile of a black pugilist, now it sported a baseball player. And Jackie Robinson sold Bond Bread to New York City’s women, too. Appearing in the Amsterdam News in August 1947, one Bond ad relies on one of the oldest tricks in the advertising book, hearkening back to the days of the Page Fence Giants. Depicting a trade card with an image of the Dodger, the ad reads, “Your grocer will give you a pocket-size reproduction of this Jackie Robinson photograph, free for the asking.”42 The ad also features a little cartoon baker, decidedly Caucasian, saying “Take It From Jackie Folks, Homogenized Bond Bread is Really Something: It Stays Fresh Days Longer, Too!”

Jackie Robinson’s emergence as a major product endorser, coinciding with his emergence as a major leaguer, heralded a change in the connection between baseball, advertising, and race. What was once an extremely limited practice, using images of black baseball players to sell consumer goods, appealing to a marginalized demographic, became far more widespread, appealing to a much larger segment of the American buying public. In many ways, Robinson would lead the way to changes in the way in which African Americans were perceived in the media as much through his role as pitchman as through his role as ballplayer.

As other players followed Robinson from the Negro Leagues to the majors, they also followed him into the ranks of major product endorsers, often for national advertisers like Beechnut Gum, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, and a variety of tobacco products, in both the black weeklies and the mainstream media. Televised baseball, emerging, along with Robinson, as a force in 1947, contributed to the process, acclimating American consumers to the vision of baseball in black and white. Advertisers, while hardly color-blind, increasingly recognized the power of testimonials by black ballplayers to sell their products to a broader spectrum of potential purchasers.

The desegregation of major league baseball sounded the death knell for the organized Negro Leagues, as well as barnstorming and semi-professional African American baseball. But black baseball’s demise, and with it the demise of related advertising, was far from sudden. As the official souvenir program of the 1949 East-West Baseball Classic illustrates, Negro League baseball at its best was still popular enough to attract significant advertising dollars. With ads on virtually every page, the souvenir program attracted national advertisers like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Oscar Meyer, selling products associated with baseball, no matter what the race of the players and, more important, the fans might be. Longtime advertisers in the black weeklies, it is hardly surprising to see their ads in the program.

More thoroughly represented than national advertisers, however, are local, primarily black-owned Chicago-land businesses, courting African American consumers. Funeral homes, pharmacies, saloons, and segregated hotels make up the bulk of the program’s advertising copy. In this respect, the ads in the souvenir program resemble those published in Sol White’s Guide, half a century earlier. With the slogan, “For a Winning Personality,” for example, an ad for the Payne School of Modeling and Charm features a photograph of an elegant African American woman, clearly a product of the South Side school’s instruction in “Fashion Modeling, Photographic Modeling, Wardrobe Assembling, Body and Figure Control, Self Assurance, Corrective Make-up, and Hair Styling.”43

But unlike the tired chauffeurs and newly supplied waiters targeted by the advertising in White’s Guide, this ad is aimed at women. The women it targets, moreover, are not aiming for jobs which are functionally equivalent to those held by the original consumers of White’s Guide, maids, waitresses, and the like. Nor are they housewives, looking for the extra protein in Bond Bread. Rather, they are younger women considering careers in modeling, or those presumably looking to improve their prospects, seeking professional employment or simply in search of suitable young men.

Connecting athletics with ad copy, several of the ads in the program are visually and textually tied together with a theme, “From sports to business.” The enduring popularity of Joe Louis is apparent in a full-page ad for the Chicago School of Automotive Trades, Inc., with the slogan, “From the Boxing Ring to Business.” Ostensibly a profile of the heavyweight, entitled “The Influence of Sports on the Life of Joe Louis,” penned by sportswriter Wendell Smith, the copy reads, “He soared from the poverty-stricken cotton fields of Alabama to the heavyweight championship, like a shooting star zips across the azure skies.”44

Following a brief, though no less hyperbolic, synopsis of the Brown Bomber’s career, the profile tells consumers that since his retirement, “he has devoted all his time to his various enterprises and businesses. He is president of the Chicago School of Automotive Trades.” As the producers of Brown Bomber bread knew in the 1940s, Louis’s endorsement branded their product with the image of African American strength and resilience. Like Louis, the ad implies, students at the Chicago School of Automotive Trade might also ascend like a shooting star across the azure skies of success and financial security. Although its target consumer differs from that of Payne’s school by gender, its message is not entirely different. In its own way, each of these ads seems to suggest that entry into the middle class, even into the elite, is hardly out of reach.

Like Joe Louis and the beautiful woman gracing the Payne’s ad, a little hard work and proper training may be only a phone call away for the predominantly African American fans at the East-West game. And unlike the ads in White’s Guide, these speak to a rising sense of African American empowerment in a still largely segregated society, rather than representing the segregated status quo.

African American empowerment is also the unspoken message in an ad for John B. Knighten Jr. and Co., a South Side, Chicago, real estate company. It features an illustration of the nearly perfect nuclear family, consisting of a pipe-smoking father, a well-coiffed mother, perhaps a graduate of Payne’s school, and a little girl in pigtails, dreaming, via a balloon, of their slice of the American pie, in the form of what appears to be a spacious home, surrounded by ample open space. Outside the dream balloon, there is a nest resting on a branch, complete with chirping baby birds. The ad reads “Birds Have Nests! Do You Have a Home?” The only thing that distinguishes this ad from similar real estate advertising which might have been placed in the mainstream press, or in souvenir programs from a major league game, is the fact that the skin of the family in the illustration is shaded with crude lines. Its message seems to be, “You, too, African American baseball fan, can participate in the American Dream of Home Ownership.”45 With the appropriate training from the Chicago School of Automotive Trade and Payne’s, the final step toward the post World-War II American ideal is a visit to John B. Knighten Jr. and Co.

While, as the relatively large number of advertisers in the 1949 East-West game program suggests, African American baseball was still a going concern two years after Jackie Robinson made his debut in Brooklyn, that was not the case only a few years later. The 1952 East-West Game, for example, drew only 14,122 fans, as opposed to 46,871 nine years earlier.46 In a sense, black baseball ended as it began, not with organized leagues but with barnstorming teams owned by enterprising white promoters, traveling to small towns, often in the upper Midwest, playing in front of predominantly Caucasian audiences. Harkening back to the first professional African American baseball team, the latter-day Cuban Giants, owned and promoted by former Kansas City Monarchs owner Thomas Young Baird, were one such team. But the 1950s Cuban Giants, unlike their 19th-century namesake, were, in fact, Cuban.

Touring towns like Aurora, Illinois, Dubuque, Iowa, and Yankton, Nebraska, in the early 1950s, appearances by the Cuban Giants were touted in “advertorials,” promotional speech masquerading as editorial content. Long a mainstay of African American baseball reporting, Baird raised the black baseball advertorial to a high art, going as far as to pay at least one sports journalist in Texas, under the table, in order to promote an appearance by one of his teams.47 In the St. Joseph Michigan Herald Press on June 4, 1952, for example, on the same page as a one-inch-high ad, stretching across all seven columns on the bottom of the page, is an advertorial with the headline “Baseball Blends With Dancing At Ausco Park.” It reads,

President Ty Baird of the visitors has signed up three entertainers, two musicians who play an instrument called a ‘bongoe’ (sic) and a dancing comedian named Peter Sel who reportedly will imitate a waltzing penguin.48

Taking a page from his occasional business partner, Syd Pollack, the baseball impresario responsible for keeping alive the Indianapolis Clowns, Baird insisted that good baseball was simply not enough to put fans in the seats. Competing with the same increasingly popular medium that brought Jackie Robinson into American homes, television, a crisply played, interracial, multi-ethnic ball game was not enough. Much like the fans of the previous century, who were faced with the choice of whether to spend their precious entertainment dollars and leisure time on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Nero’s fiddling, or exotic black baseball, residents of St. Joseph were lured to Edgewater Park in its “twin city,” Benton Harbor, to see the Cuban Giants take on the team fronted by Ausco Products, Inc., a major area brake manufacturer.49

Fans were attracted not just with the promise of the slugging prowess of “Havana’s Babe Ruth,” ‘Bambino’ Berrera,50 but with penguin imitators, accompanied on that most exotic of instruments, not heretofore seen in person in the upper Midwest, the bongo. For the well-heeled readers of the Herald-Press, African Americans calling themselves Cuban would no longer be acceptable. For an audience increasingly familiar with “real” Cubans like Desi Arnaz’s alter ego, Ricky Ricardo, who made his first appearance on their television screens in 1951, only authentic Cubans would do. Despite the desegregation of the major leagues and the increasing visibility of African American baseball players in advertising, racial and, in this case, ethnic stereotyping still served as popular entertainment and promotional fodder.

Although large sections of the country, South and North alike, resisted desegregation, both formal and informal, the blurring of the color line by African American baseball players did herald changes, pitifully slow, but changes nonetheless, in the way in which race was perceived in America. The legacy of Page Fence Giants, The Chauffeur’s Rest, the SWOC, and Payne’s School of Modeling and Charm is on display in advertising today, be it in print, on television, or online. One of baseball’s ubiquitous pitchmen, Derek Jeter, may be seen as the new image of the “all-American boy,” one formerly held by the likes of the blond-haired Mickey Mantle. Most tellingly, Jeter defines himself as neither black nor white but both. This self-definition, as much an example of the social construction of reality as Effa Manley’s self-definition as black, speaks volumes about perceptions of race in America. Though, as reviled slugger with precious few endorsement opportunities, Barry Bonds, notes, race prejudice is still very much a part of American culture, its presence in advertising is conspicuous by its absence. Today, manager Willie Randolph sells Subway sandwiches in a New York Mets uniform, not Page Fences.

ROBERTA J. NEWMAN is a member of New York University’s Faculty of Arts and Science, specializing in the cultural history of both baseball and advertising. The recipient of a SABR-Yoseloff grant, Dr. Newman has published a number of articles on the socio-historic implications on the intersection of baseball and advertising.

 

NOTES

  1. “Amusements,” New York Times, July 5, 1888, 7.

  2. Sol White. Sol White’s History of Colored Base Ball with Other Documents on the Early Black Game, 1886-1936. Lincoln:Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1995, 12.

  3. “Amusements,”7.

  4. “William F Cody, Buffalo Bill,” www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/a_c/buffalobill.htm, March 9, 2006.

  5. Jerry Malloy, “The Strange Career of Sol White,” in Out of the Shadows: African American Baseball from the Cuban Giants to Jackie Robinson, ed., Bill Kirwin. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2005, 64.

  6. Jerry Malloy, “Sol White and the Origins of African American Baseball,” in White, xxxiii.

  7. White,24.

  8. Ibid.,24.

  9. Ibid.,83.

  10. Ibid.,52.

  11. Ibid.,69.

  12. Ibid.,79.

  13. Neil Lanctot. Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution. Philadelphia: Univ.of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, 24.

  14. White,116.

  15. Geoffrey C. Ward. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. New York: Vintage, 2004, 67.

  1. White, 7.

  2. Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung, “Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals by Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, for Large Cities and Other Urban Places in the United States,” www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0076.html, March 10, 2006.

  3. Lanctot, 4.

  4. Armistead S. Pride and Clint C. Wilson. A History of the Black Press. Washington, DC: Howard Univ. Press, 1997, 133.

  5. Lawrence D. Hogan. Shades of Glory. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2006, 128.

  6. Lanctot,190.

  7. Janet Bruce. The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball. Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas Press, 1985, 45.

  8. Lanctot, 196.

  9. Hilldale Club Ledgers, 1921-1922, Cash Thompson Collection, Box 3, African American Museum, Philadelphia, PA.

  10. Philadelphia Tribune, May 3, 1928,11.

  11. Philadelphia Tribune, May 16, 1925,10.

  12. Undated photograph, Cash Thompson Collection, Box 6, African American Museum, Philadelphia, PA.

  13. Catonsville Historical Society,“Catonsville History,” http://catonsvilleweb.com/history.html, September 28, 2006.

  14. Baltimore Afro-American, October 22, 1920,8.

  15. Hogan, 204.

  16. Lanctot,6.

  17. Hogan,204.

  18. New York Amsterdam News, September 23,1939,14.

  19. Paul Oliver. Blues Fell this Morning: Meaning in the Blues. London: Cambridge Univ Press, 1960, 132-135.

  20. Burton B. Turkus and Sid Feder, Murder, Inc.: The Story of the Syndicate.” New York: Da Capo, 1992, 95.

  21. Lanctot,9.

  22. “Piney Woods School Offers Youth Unusual Opportunity,” Chicago Defender, April 20, 1940, 8.

  23. Alma and Paul Ellerbe, “Inchin’Along,” McClure’s Magazine, vol. 54, no. 2, April 1922, 45.

  24. Ward, 40.

  25. “What Is SWOC’s Batting Average?” Baltimore Afro American, September 20, 1941, 22.

  26. New York Amsterdam News, April 6,1940,12.

  27. New York Amsterdam News, August 23,1947.

  28. East-West Baseball Classic: Official Souvenir Program, August 14, 1949. Collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY.

  29. East-West Baseball Classic: Official Souvenir Program.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Negro American League Expenses from the East-West Game, 1943 and 1952, Ty Baird Papers, 414:2:2, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS.

  32. Baird Papers,414:2:4.

  33. “Baseball Blends With Dancing at Ausco Park,” St. Joseph Michigan Herald Press, June 4, 1953, 12.

  34. www.fortmiami.org/museum.html,October6,2006.

  35. “Baseball Blends With Dancing at Ausco Park.”

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