The Masks We Wear
There were professional black teams, too, the first and best known of which was the Cuban Giants, which began in 1885 when waiters at Long Island’s fashionable Argyle Hotel proposed a novel scheme to entertain guests who came from the city by rail or steamer. There already was swimming and boating, orchestras and balls; now well-heeled white patrons could watch the men who served them eggs and bacon play a lively game of hardball.
The waiters, it turned out, were good enough ballplayers that when the hotel closed for the season on the first of October, they played — and typically beat — Ivy league, semi-pro, and minor league teams along the Eastern seaboard and through the Midwest.
The hotel team was funded by a white businessman from Trenton and recruited the best black athletes around. But the very idea of Negro ballplayers was so repugnant to many white fans and teams that the all-Negro Giants felt compelled to call themselves Cubans and speak gibberish they hoped sounded Spanish.
~Satchel, Larry Tye
Have you ever had to pretend to be something that you’re not just to do something you love?
Chances are, your answer to that question is, “No. What are you even talking about?”
It sounds weird, but that’s exactly what was happening in the early days of baseball. The Post-Civil War Era should have been a time when people changed their prejudices. It should have been a time when people stopped and reevaluated the way they were living and the deeply-ingrained thoughts and practices of their lives. But they didn’t.
Instead of doing some deep self-reflection, they decided to foster hatred. In the short term, maybe it was easier to do it that way. In the long term, well… we’re still dealing with it, aren’t we?
It’s no surprise that racial prejudice played a major role in American society when we look back at the history books. In fact, it’s not really a surprise that it continues to play a major role in our society today. We are a country that was built — to borrow a phrase from an Avett Brothers song (“We Americans”) — “on stolen land with stolen people.”
As a life-long, avid baseball fan, I spend a lot of time learning about this history of the game. But one of the eras that has fascinated me the most is the plight of black Americans and the response to racial prejudice that we see. It’s a horrible, embarrassing history. In the earliest of days, there were African Americans on the field with white players. But there came a time in the late 19th century when a so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” between baseball owners prevented black players from playing.
If you ask me, this doesn’t seem very “gentlemanly”… but nobody asked, I guess. I may need to double check this, but I’m fairly certain (let’s say 95%) that there was no official rule banning black ballplayers. It was just understood that they weren’t welcome, and nobody (until Branch Rickey) had the stones to stand up against it.
As a result, some of the best players in baseball history never got the chance to show the world how great they really were. But, they always looked for ways to put their talent on display.
Whether it was off-season barnstorming tours, when teams of “amateur” black players would play against white teams, or the occasional tournament like the Denver Post Tournament that even featured a mixed-race team or two in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Or, teams like the Cuban Giants, who had to pretend to be Cuban in order to be deemed “acceptable” to play against white teams.
It’s a sad part of our history as Americans. One that we don’t know nearly enough about. I don’t know if history is written by the victors or just by the ones in charge at the time, either way, there is a significant history that has been forgotten. One that has caused names like Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Willie Wells, Judy Johnson, Hilton Smith, John Donaldson, and countless others to go relatively unknown, when they should have been just as famous as people like Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, Hornsby, and other legends of the game.
There have been some great works put out by historians in the last few years that highlight some of these players, and every time I read one, I can’t help but think what might have been. Nobody really knows, and that’s a tragedy.
But the real tragedy is the fact that there will always been these great players who had to hide their true selves just to get a chance to play a game they loved, and the masks they had to wear without ever letting the world know who they really were.