Lost Legacy—the urbanization of sports in America (June 20)

HANK AARON—In this April 8, 1974 file photo, Atlanta Braves baseball player Hank Aaron holds the ball he hit for his 715th home run during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)

The year was around 1879. The industrial revolution was running at full blast. With all of these new manufacturing techniques and products beginning to enter the marketplace of a “new” America, there had to be a rest and recuperation process for the workforce in America. And that process was church and sports, in that order.
African Americans, Europeans, Asians were all part of a market built on blood, sweat and tears. Sports became not only a diversion, but represented the conversion of the physically demanding labor and conditions that were “hellish” at best to skills of hitting and catching a baseball. Exhibiting skills on a baseball field on Sundays after church represented far more hope for living the “good life” than pouring steel. According to www.sabr.org, in 1874 the highest-paid player in Major League Baseball was Ross Barnes, who earned the princely sum of $2,000. Around the same time, the average U.S. worker earned 22 cents per hour, generally averaging between $200 and $400 annually.
One of the only ways that a lower class White or Black athlete had to escape the slums of America and Europe was through sports. So from the final third of the nineteenth and extending to the mid-twentieth century and beyond, Black Americans were barred from participating because of some of the exorbitant salaries of professional baseball’s earliest stars. Baseball or any other organized professional sports were not going to “share the wealth” with Black athletes that were less than three decades removed from slavery. Why? Well, for one thing, baseball ceased being a sport of farmers and morphed into a psychological and even a spiritual outlet for the urban masses to experience a humongous “group therapy” with fellow laborers and could identify with their trials and tribulations. This gave them all a chance to boo, cheer, laugh and cry together.

According to Wikipedia, “Racial segregation in professional baseball was sometimes called a gentlemen’s agreement, meaning a tacit understanding, as there was no written policy at the highest level of organized baseball, the Major Leagues. But a high minor league’s vote in 1887 against allowing new contracts with Black players within its league sent a powerful signal that eventually led to the disappearance of Blacks from the sport’s other minor leagues later that century. During the 1920s to 1940s there were some light-skinned Hispanic players, Native Americans, and native Hawaiians who were able to play in the Major Leagues.”

“Light-skinned”…does that sound familiar? Here again the same economical “caste system” that had been perpetrated and regulated before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and implemented was now bursting with pride in the 20th century. Mighty Casey has struck out, again and again. We have learned that when Black athletes enter and maintain excellence in any sport, there are going to be false negatives and narratives to dilute the market value of that individual. How many times have you heard the talking heads say something like this concerning a promising young Black star…“He has great physical tools but he needs to be smarter.” Or when Black athletes make a play, something along this line jumps out of a talking head’s mouth: “Now that skill can’t be taught. If he can master coach so-and-so’s system, man, he can be great.”
No system made O.J. Simpson, Barry Sanders, Tony Dorsett, Jerome Bettis, Jim Brown, Franco Harris and Eric Dickerson Hall-of-Fame running backs. The only thing that could ever be watered down was their market value as far as salaries are concerned. There is no lost legacy for Black athletes as far as Euro-American professional sports is concerned. African American athletes never had a legacy in the first place. Don’t believe me? Ask Hank Aaron.
(Aubrey Bruce: abruce@newpittsburghcourier.com.)
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