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Slinging Hash Balls: Nineteenth-Century African American
and Semiprofessional Baseball in Buffalo, New York
By Kevin Grzymala
During the last third of the nineteenth century, racial segregation arose in the South, and racial prejudice infested the North. The related stories of exclusion, struggle, powerlessness, and humiliation have ingrained themselves in our national consciousness as we continue to deal with the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. Yet, there were moments, precious moments, that challenged that era's escalating racism. This is an account of some of those moments, when African-American men dared to become baseball players. It involves city life, work, neighborhood, entertainment, and baseball. Black men used their limited resources as service sector employees and neighborhood residents to build competent, well-stocked ball clubs, and because of their workplace positions in a tourist center, they were able to secure a foothold in the entertainment industry known as semipro baseball. That their foothold was but a temporary one, the victim of racial prejudice, should not reduce the importance of their efforts.
Amateur Play: The Hardships of Learning the Game
Playing baseball promised black men many benefits: improved physical health through vigorous exercise; active recreation that temporarily eased the calluses of work; the development of friendships that could be parlayed into employment, courtship, or lodging opportunities; participation in the national phenomenon of athleticism sweeping into the daily lives of men; and the opportunity to demonstrate one's maturityone's manhoodwhich the larger culture did its best to deny. It was essential for still another reason: African American men used baseball as an exercise in identity construction, in trying to demonstrate to others around them, as well as to themselves, that they, too, were Americansones whose ancestors arrived here involuntarily, bound to labor for the benefit of their owners rather than for themselves and their families, creating tremendous national wealth but sharing in almost none of it, and encased in skin that conveyed this unique history to everyone they encountered. The ball diamonds of Buffalo, New York, became some of the proving grounds for African American acceptance into the broader society of which they were a part.
To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Summer 2001 issue.
KEVIN GRZYMALA teaches, writes, and lives in Northern California.
© 2001 Kevin Grzymala
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