WWW. I MMA C U L ATA . E D U
Most people know who Jackie Robinson was, but few know of
the many Negro League baseball players who paved the way for
him. Sarah L. Trembanis, Ph.D., associate professor of History,
believes these African-American players, as well as their support-
ers, deserve some recognition for their accomplishments—not just
in sports, but in American culture as a whole.
“In many ways, the black baseball community functioned as
set-up men,” she writes in her book, forthcoming from McFarland
Publishing. Her book explores baseball and racial identity politics
in the first half of the 20th century.
“Just like their modern successors, Negro League baseball play-
ers played in relative obscurity within larger American society,”
Trembanis writes. “Their fans and press knew of their accomplish-
ments and successes but their audience was much smaller than that
of the white major leagues.”
Jim Crow laws left African-Americans with an enormous
“power deficit,” Trembanis said. But baseball gave them “a space
in which they could define for themselves what it meant to be
American, what it meant to be black Americans during a very dif-
The white community justified its rejection of black players
by claiming that blacks were physically and morally inferior. To
counter these assertions, the black press and black communities
celebrated African-Americans for their athletic abilities and sought
to establish a strong standard of black masculinity. Folklore devel-
oped around this ideal. James “Cool Papa” Bell, a Negro League
star, was said to be so fast that he could hit the light switch and be
in bed before the room was dark.
African-American players also sought to assert their moral
superiority over white players, who were widely known for being
involved in scandals and gambling. African-Americans wanted
to be known as respectable citizens who deserved voting rights.
“If they wanted to eliminate segregation,” said Trembanis, “their
behavior, their public image had to be beyond reproach.” Black
managers, as a result, sometimes required players to be married in
order to portray an image of being good family men.
Jim Crow was based on a binary system—you’re either black or
you’re white. But the “color line” was not necessarily so clear cut. If
their skin was light enough, some black players could play on white
teams by “passing” for Native American or Latino players.
Black leagues often had trouble finding places to eat when they
were on the road, because segregation rules were different from
town to town. So sometimes a light-skinned player would be sent
into a diner to order food for the team in a fake Latino accent. This
kind of “passing” exposed the inconsistencies in the arbitrary de-
terminations about racial lines that the white majority often made.
Baseball also served as a forum for debating black political ide-
ologies, such as how to support black institutions while not reinforc-
“You had some within the black political structure and
NAACP saying, ‘Segregation is bad on all ends,’ and others say-
ing, ‘Yes, segregation is bad, but we should still support black busi-
nesses and institutions because they are at a huge disadvantage.’
And black baseball was always trying to take advantage of that,”
said Trembanis. “They were selling themselves as more than just a
leisure sport…The argument was, you are doing something good
for the community, not just for yourself.”
Continued on page 78
SARAH L. TREMBANIS, PH.D.