Legitimacy

1952ToppsJRobinson

I have been reading about or studying the integration of baseball for many years, at first principally because I wanted to write about the effect that integration had on the quality of the game. Obviously if you add Jackie Robinson to a league, that league is not just ethically and morally better, the quality of play is also better. Much better. I mean, this is JACKIE ROBINSON for God’s sake. And then Doby, and Campy, and Irvin, and on and on.

Jackie Robinson and the extraordinary cohort of people who integrated the game in the 1940s and 1950s will always be baseball’s best story, one that can not be over-told. We (myself included) have been guilty of treating this story as a culmination rather than as an important chapter in an ongoing struggle. Today’s decreased number of Black American players, to say nothing of managers and executives, is one constant reminder of progress yet to be made. Another are the tales of just how difficult the lives of black players can be in today’s Major League Baseball. Like the rest of America, baseball has a long, long way to go.

Additionally, my integration-era research has led to collateral damage in my relationship with Jim Crow (pre-1947) baseball, and its cards. I still appreciate the history, and the stories, and I understand how great Wagner, Cobb, Ruth, and DiMaggio were, but the stories are a little less romantic, and maybe the players were all a little less great than I thought. It’s the other side of same coin–you can’t believe that Robinson, Mays and Aaron made the game significantly better without also believing that not having them made the game significantly worse.


For Christmas in 1981, I was given a beautiful 1982 calendar which I believe had been advertised in the New Yorker. With brief exceptions, it has hung on a wall in my dorm/apartment/house/office for the past 38 years–it is six feet away from me as I type. (In 2021, for the first time since 2010, the days will align.)

Its 12 pages tell the story of baseball cards chronologically–January is for 19th century tobacco cards, while the last row of December shows 1981 Topps. If you lay the calendar on a table and flip through months (the only way to really do it–the pages are 22″ x 14″), you get a high level view of 100 years of the hobby. And of Major League baseball.

IMG_1935

What the calendar also shows, visually and starkly, is Jim Crow: page after page, row after row, of White dudes.

The first Black face belatedly shows up in August, in the penultimate row, appropriately the 1949 Bowman Satchel Paige. The final August row features 1951 Topps, and includes both Monte Irvin and Luke Easter. These three men were the 7th, 10th, and 11th Black players in the Major Leagues in the 20th century. There are four more Black faces on the page for September, which highlights the 1951 and 1952 Bowman sets.

My calendar almost always (as now) is hung so as to display October. I don’t know if it was deliberate on the part of the designer, probably not, but October’s top row is like a punch in America’s face, and the next three rows don’t really let up.

IMG_1934

Here is a thought experiment. Imagine seeing a binder of 1956 Topps cards, except that all of the Black players have been removed. No Mays, no Aaron, no Jackie, no Banks, no Clemente, no lots of other stars. There are still great players in the binder–Mantle, Williams, Koufax, Feller, and more–but its obviously a worse group than the real set. Not just a little worse, immeasurably worse.

In other words, it would be … just like 1934 Goudey. Or 1940 Play Ball. Or T-205. Looking through that denuded 1956 binder would be at the very least uncomfortable, and more likely offensive, to a modern collector. And that is why I struggle with all the pre-war cards sets.

As Nick wrote a couple of years ago, “while cards have always existed, their role in defining who ‘real’ ballplayers are cannot be ignored.” If I collect cards to celebrate the baseball of the time, I have to ask myself: do I really want to hang a frame on the wall that glorifies segregated baseball? The 1934 Goudey card set, the T-206 set, and all pre-war card sets, perpetuate the lie that “organized” baseball sold America for decades, that these were the best players, the “real” players.

While major league baseball was barring great Black players from playing in its leagues, and most white newspapers were complicit in not reporting on the Negro Leagues, companies like American Tobacco and Goudey  were not putting Black players on baseball cards. There were a lot of minor league cards or sets in these years, there were sets for pilots, and actors, and dogs, and trees, but nothing for the many fans of Oscar Charleston or Bullet Joe Rogan or Biz Mackey. Didn’t they smoke, or chew gum?

Had any of these companies chosen to make a Negro League set, or, better yet, incorporated Negro League players into their flagship sets, it might have led to increased and earlier calls for integration, and would have made these players “real” to kids all over America. But they did not.

When it comes to baseball cards, the lie began to dramatically unravel in the 1950s.  By the end of the decade, nearly 10% of the players on the field had dark skin, and many of these were among the best players in the sport. If you collected, some of the best and most sought after cards depicted players who you might not have heard of had they played a decade earlier.  In 1956, ten years after White America wondered if Jackie Robinson would be good enough, there were 52 Black players on big league diamonds.  Nine of them are in the Hall of Fame. Nine.

I have been dabbling in the cards of the early 1950s in recent years. I don’t have any of the sets and doubt I ever will, but enjoy picking up an occasional example, including Ted Williams or Yogi Berra or Duke Snider.

Sing the praises of pre-war cards and players as you wish.  But the 1950s are the first time when the best players were allowed in the major leagues and in baseball card sets. Both enterprises, belatedly, had become legitimate.

 

Author: Mark Armour

Long-time SABR member, founder and past chairman of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, current President of the SABR board of directors, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.

24 thoughts on “Legitimacy”

    1. Nice piece Mark, Being a Staten Island kid and a Brooklyn Dodger fan in the 1950s definitely made me a “minority” and much of the taunting was unabashed racism, “N—-r lover.” from mostly NY Yankee fans in my neighborhood, which was actually fairly integraded.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Well done, Mark! An interesting question, not too distant from your upcoming SABR presentation, is what was the first set to include the ten best baseball players in the world (or U.S.).

    Topps/Bowman contract battles caused some holes in each while the absence of Musial in many sets may have disqualified others. Add to that the Negro Leaguers who MLB didn’t want.

    My best guess would be something like 1957 or 1958 Topps.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark, you touch on an uncomfortable truth. ALL of the accomplishments of the pre-integration players and teams are diminished by the absence of players of color. This is not to say that the great players would not have been great, but they would not have been quite as great with stronger competition to face. As for the cards, well, the Babe is the Babe but Bullet Joe Rogan in pinstripes and a card depicting that would have been sweet.

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  3. I should have added this to my post, but I have a thought for you talented faux card makers. How about a “Cards That Should Have Been” subset for 1934 Goudey or 1940 Play Ball using those designs (and sizes, and photo style) for a few dozen Negro Leaguers? Displaying those cards side-by-side with some of the originals would be true art.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Scott Hodges has been doing some of exactly this.

      http://popartredux.com/mobile/index.html#p=45

      Liked by 3 people

  4. I haven’t quite hit this extreme but I do know I’ve found myself less interested in type collecting pre-integration cards of Giants and a large part of that is partly due to the Jim Crow issue. Hubbell/Terry/Ott/etc are interesting. The rest? Not so much as it turns out. (PCL cards on the other hand I find super interesting)

    One of the nice things as a Giants collector is that the Giants jumped on the integration thing early. Hank Thompson’s rookie card is in 1950 and there are multiple black players starting with the 1951 sets. Add in how the late-40s sets include guys who are important parts of that 1951 team and there’s an enjoyable coincidence that my interest as a fan is timed with the start of modern cards. I don’t know how I’d feel if I were a Red Sox collector.

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  5. There were at least a few cards of Negro Leaguers made back in that time–in CUBA! For example, there were apparently two Oscar Charleston cards made in Cuba in the 1923-24 winter ball season, one from a company called Billiken (https://lelands.com/bids/oscar-charleston-1923-24-billiken-card) and one from Tomás Gutiérrez (https://robertedwardauctions.com/auction/2008/spring/503/1923-1924-tomas-gutierrez-oscar-charleston/). It’s so sad that it took another country to make cards of some of our greatest players. Josh Gibson’s rookie card, more or less, also comes from Cuba, although it wasn’t issued until 1951, after his passing.) Perhaps the makers of that calendar or some similar historical document could include some of those cards. It would still be a very small thing, but it would make a statement.

    Anyway, thanks for this article and especially for tying it in to problems which persisted long after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, and indeed have not ended by any stretch of the imagination. The New York Times had an interesting article about Rod Carew recently noting that when he played for the Twins, even though he was one of the most popular celebrities in the state, he couldn’t go jogging near his home because the police would stop him for Jogging While Black. And we know all too well that things haven’t changed all that much in that state.

    Black lives matter. Black opportunities matter. Justice and equality matter.

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  6. Having the same A Century of Baseball Cards calendar hanging in my closet all these years I got to thinking about another collection of “classic” baseball cards more or less contemporary with the calendar: the Dover Publications books of reprints that could be separated from the book. Four of the five books were by Bert Randolph Sugar. The 1977 Classic Baseball Cards had no post-integration cards but the next year’s Hall of Fame Baseball Cards had three Black HOFers (Jackie, Banks, Clemente) among its eight Topps cards. Nineteen eighty-two brought AL Baseball Card Classics but only 2/22 Bowmans and 1/8 Topps cards were of Black players. The same NL book from that year had only one Black player of 27 from Bowman but five Black players of eight from Topps. The 1985 Stars of the 1950s book (a non-Sugar book of Bowmans only) had five Black players in its 48-card set. No conclusions drawn but a card set of the best players of all races in the formats of the ’30s and ’40s cards would be a fantastic addition to the hobby in this 100th anniversary year of the Negro Leagues.

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  7. Wow, this is an awesome historical article. Lots of perspectives to consider here with an awakening of this country’s current mindset in regard to Black players and their roles as activists in expanding social awareness. So jealous of the incredible calendar used to validate your message. To ignore Black players while celebrating White players is like one hand clapping. Apartheid baseball should have never existed and this calendar speaks to those sins. Note, I miss my baseball cards, but I gave them up when I discovered girls. I didn’t want them to know I was a nerd. Batter Up!

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  8. Having collected baseball cards assiduously in my teens, long before old cards cost big money, at one time I had about 95% of all the Topps & Bowman cards issued between 1953 and 1970. Eventually I traded the collection for my first house. The earliest cards of black players in my collection, I believe, were the 1953 editions of Junior Gilliam, Monte Irvin, Joe Black, and Luke Easter. They were all big stars, of course. The first black non-stars, I believe, were Curt Roberts & Bob Trice, a year later. But ahead of them was a guy named Spook Jacobs, who apparently was white, but was given a nickname equivalent to playing in blackface. To the best of my awareness, no one considered this inappropriate, though it obviously was.

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  9. Well said, Mark. I sometimes like to observe that the Hall of Fame plays a dual role, both to recognize fame and to confer it when that is called for. You make a good case for baseball cards occupying a similar spot in our baseball world, and before 1947 the card makers abdicated a part, making unalloyed joy in their products awkward now. The manufacturers can be excused for not grasping the historical role they were playing beyond mere disposable entertainment, and that they were only reflecting their times, and were just going about making some money (often indirectly). Still, sometimes, you have a choice in what of your times to reflect – if they had felt it to be important enough, perhaps they would have invested effort in a break-even-at-best sideline of Negro League cards, just for the love of the game. But that’s a bit of a second-guess on my part, with the benefit of a 2020 vantage, even though obviously there are forward thinkers in every age. Forward thinking is rarer, and harder to pull off, than my comfortable hindsight. Ultimately I blame the stewards of the major league game, led by Landis, more so than these “semi-pro historians” who wound up documenting an aspect of the times for us through their cards.

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    1. Interesting comment. Why did they not produce cards for Negro league players? Prejudice? Did they not think doing so would make money? A little of both?

      Are there other cases from back then of products/novelties that were produced and marketed for white audiences only? My guess is there were but I really don’t know.

      Did black leaders ever approach companies like Goudy, asking them to produce cards? Were any efforts made for other products?

      Record companies certainly made alot of records featuring Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and other black artists. That must have been profitable for them to do so.

      Did the Negro league executives ever try to come up with cards for their players or other promotional type of materials?

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    2. I should add that my “observation” about the HoF is hardly original – it’s just that I can’t remember from whom I stole it. Possibly Bill James.

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  10. Thank you, Mark, for such a fine piece.

    I am sure there are many of us card collectors who have similarly wished that our collections could include the Black ballplayers from the years before 1947. But other than Jimmy Claxton’s 1916 Zeenut card, and some rare and costly Cuban cards, they don’t exist. No doubt, Mark’s point is valid: the ballplayers pictured in the Tobacco sets, the Goudey, Diamond Stars, and Play Ball sets, are a weaker group than they would be with the addition of their contemporary Black players. Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson – if only there were cards of them to display next to Wagner, Ruth, and Gehrig! Creme de la creme, without question.

    About twenty years ago, I came across a book on the sale table at Half Price Books, that helped me combine my interest in card collecting with my interest in baseball’s racial issues. The book is Crossing the Line, by Moffi and Kronstadt. Maybe some of you have read it. The premise is that, as courageous as Jackie Robinson was, we should not overlook the contributions of the other Black “pioneers.” Beginning with 1947, the book provides biographies of each year’s new crop of Black major leaguers. It continues all the way to 1959, the year the final holdout, the Boston Red Sox, finally worked Pumpsie Green into a game.

    I decided to assemble the cards of those players as a subset. It was a delightful project. I can’t say that I don’t enjoy my earlier cards. I get a kick out of the writing on the backs of the T205’s and the 1911 Obaks, despite the shameful fact that all that writing is about White guys. And my collection of early Jewish players has long been a sustaining passion. But there are no cards that I hold dearer than my Black Pioneers.

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