Review of When Baseball Went White

Swanson, Ryan A. When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Dreams of a National Pastime. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014. Pp. xx+198. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $29.95 hardcover.

By Dain TePoel


University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

“To say, as many historians have, that baseball’s racial segregation resulted from a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ is roughly the equivalent of asserting that the Civil War stemmed from a difference of opinion” (p. vii). Ryan Swanson’s first book begins with this compelling hook for baseball historians and fans who may have long questioned the simplicity of the “gentlemen’s agreement” as an explanation for baseball’s policy of racial segregation. This first sentence simultaneously signals Swanson’s aim and purpose in writing When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Dreams of a National Pastime. From the outset, he argues that baseball historians’ treatment of segregation is insufficient.

Graciously, he takes several baseball scholars to task for myriad factual errors, inaccuracies, slight distortions, and simple mistakes that have led to the positing (and re-positing) of conclusions without support from primary resources. In a rare moment, Swanson shifts from his historical narrative to address the reader directly. He bemoans, “Imagine reading that Jackie Robinson broke into the Majors in 1947 . . . no, maybe it was 1949. And then Robinson played for either the Dodgers or the Giants. And an executive named “Rickey” or possibly “Rooney” helped bring about the acquisition of baseball’s first black player. This would not suffice” (p. 105). He points out these flaws not to “one-up” fellow scholars, but because these discrepancies demonstrate that an understanding of how baseball codified its policy of racial exclusion “has not even been handled to the point where all the details are confirmed” (p. 105).

An assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, Swanson endeavors to add historical nuance and scholarly precision to understandings of how racial segregation and white exclusivity emerged and solidified in organized baseball following the Civil War. Or, to answer his own question, “how did baseball develop to the point where it needed Jackie Robinson in the first place” (p. viii)?  His probing of the historiography of baseball’s segregation makes a significant intervention. In particular, he offers a course correction to the imbalance of scholarship on the processes of baseball’s desegregation in the mid-late twentieth century, with a thoroughly researched and detailed interrogation of “the mechanics of segregation” (p. viii) that established organized baseball’s whiteness during the Reconstruction era. Historians, he contends, have not misunderstood baseball’s segregation; rather, their reliance on the simplicity of the gentlemen’s agreement thesis belies a lack of focus on this critical period.

His major thesis, supplanting the gentlemen’s agreement, is that white baseball leaders’ desire to foster baseball as the national pastime was the major force behind baseball’s segregation. Northern baseball leaders, white newspapermen, and baseball writers strove to spread baseball’s popularity south of the Mason-Dixon line, touting baseball’s ability to heal and empower fractured Americans. Though the push to nationalize baseball was in no way new, Swanson illustrates how the pursuit of sectional reconciliation with Southern whites compromised, or stymied, the potential for racial progress during Reconstruction. “The segregated world that baseball created in the 1860s and ‘70s mirrored, and helps explain, the segregated norms that would emerge subsequently outside the lines of the country’s baseball diamonds” (p. xvii). Indeed, sport simultaneously reflects and embodies culture. Swanson might have gone further to suggest that baseball also helped shape racially segregated norms in the Reconstruction period. Additionally, Swanson’s thesis reveals a potential limitation in the premise of the study: that there was a period when baseball “went white,” or, conversely, a time when white-organized baseball in the United States was not rooted or embedded in white structures and power relations, whether according to policy or practice.

Baseball, as a game, evades ownership based on race, ethnicity, and class, not to mention gender. Baseball is white, heteronormative, and male, but it is also black, brown, female, gay, and lesbian, for example. But as an organized sport, social formation and cultural product, organized baseball clearly has, and had, dominant racial, ethnic, class, and gendered characteristics. Thus, some readers might question whether baseball, as a nationalist, white-identified, white-centric social world, institution, and cultural entity went through a temporal process of its “whitening” vis-à-vis the potential for racial pluralism, or more appropriately, bi-racialization? Perhaps a more apt description of the evidence, analysis, and conclusions Swanson offers is “how white baseball remained white” through Reconstruction.

Swanson’s deft weaving together of the several intertwining forces that shaped baseball’s segregation comprise one of the book’s major strengths. These components include newspapermen’s promotion of baseball as both the national and white man’s game, the unequal partitioning of baseball land and property, and the success of black baseball clubs amid these hostile circumstances. In addition, he highlights several specific instances that furthered organized baseball’s white-only policy. Two of these significant moments were the removal of Thomas Fitzgerald, a supporter of black civil rights and influential political figure, from the presidency of the National Association of Base Ball Players and Philadelphia Athletic Base Ball Club; and violence against black players, including the murder of African American political organizer and Union army veteran Octavius Catto. Swanson impressively foregrounds the context and milieu that hampered the possibility for integration, such as the Confederate-memorializing of baseball in the South, emergence of professionalization in the 1870s, and scant evidence to suggest black ballplayers clambered for positions on white clubs.

The book is smartly organized into three major sections, each containing three chapters that have an individual focus on either Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., or Richmond. He chose these three cities because of their large, concentrated African-American population and thriving baseball clubs, but also because they allow for the “complexities and the overarching patterns of the Reconstruction era” (p. xv) to surface above and below the Mason-Dixon line. Meanwhile, D.C. serves as the fulcrum for the politics of federal Reconstruction in contrast to geopolitical “sectarian” interests.

Swanson supports his findings with thorough and extensive research. His primary sources range from the Baseball Hall of Fame to state historical societies, the Frederick Douglass papers to National Archives and Records Administration, newspaper accounts from each of the cities to major sports presses of the time, and much more. The use of secondary source literature is as comprehensive, including baseball, civil rights, and Reconstruction-era histories, in addition to studies on the culture of segregation, race, class and power; race relations in the urban south; urban and labor histories; and records from the US census bureau and US Congress.

When Baseball Went White is lively and engaging as Swanson traces the stories of particularly influential figures in each city to illuminate the mechanics of segregation. Chapters are balanced in length and flow expertly between description, interpretation, and analysis, making the book highly readable as a whole. The work is on solid sport studies ground in its examination of baseball as a conduit to understanding race relations. Ultimately, his carefully researched apprehension of Reconstruction-era baseball adds to existing knowledge about the processes of segregating society at large, and the particular failures of political reconstruction. Historians, baseball fans, and undergraduates should all benefit from his demonstration of baseball’s contribution to the social and political history of Reconstruction.  In light of persistent racial/ethnic tensions, contemporary debates over “the right way to play the game,” and MLB’s self-congratulatory annual celebration of Jackie Robinson in mid-April, it would be wise to keep in mind Swanson’s reminder that “baseball teams never escape[d] the realities of their times” (p. xvii).

Dain TePoel is a PhD Candidate in American Studies at the University of Iowa. Email him at or reach out on Twitter @DainTePoel






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