Review of The Culture & Ethnicity of Nineteenth Century Baseball

Jerrold I. Casway. The Culture and Ethnicity of Nineteenth Century Baseball. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017. $35.00, paperback.

Reviewed by Josh Howard

Jerrold Casway’s much needed volume on ninteenth century baseball analyzes the culture of the sport, and especially the “pitfalls” and “conflicting mores,” through the lens of ethnicity and race. Baseball culture reinforced and recreated norms as seen in broader white society like the selective inclusion of ethnic Americans who conformed to the standards of whiteness, masculinity, and Americanism. One of the major strengths of this work is Casway’s synthesis of events known to many baseball scholars but rarely discussed together and largely unknown to the general public. For instance, most baseball historians are aware of the tragic injustice of Octavius Catto’s murder and the athletic prowess of Lipman Pike, but rarely are these two men’s stories drawn together into a rich narrative of ethnicity and sport. In doing so, Casway successfully navigates the minefield that is history at the intersection of ethnicity and race. Too often, scholars conflate the injustices experienced by African Americans at the hands of white society with those of immigrants, hence the creation of false narratives like “Irish slaves” alongside the very real injustices faced by minorities. Most effective in avoiding such a narrative is by pointing out the responsibility of some individuals identifying as members of ethnic groups in furthering the oppression of others, namely the role of Irish ballplayers in forming the color line as early as the mid-1860s. Of course Casway is quick to point out that not every Irish-American ballplayer was a racist and not every non-Irish European immigrant was a saint, but ultimately concludes Irish immigrants embraced baseball as their own “vehicle and badge of assimilation” and sought to “expunge” African Americans from competition (31).

Like most other works on nineteenth century baseball, Casway focuses on what might be called baseball “firsts,” meaning places and people that were effectively baseball pioneers, while providing far more context than others. Some of these firsts are well-known with little new to add like John McGraw or Ben Shibe, but the majority individuals are those that appear in few other works. Ballplayers like Ted Sullivan and Lipman Pike received an entire chapter of their own for instance. However, a problem with this approach is it can represent exceptional cases as exemplary cases. It also neglects regional developments of sporting culture in areas that developed chronologically later, like much of the South and West, in favor of urban New England. Implications from this approach suggest then that these later developing regions were similar to New England, but many scholars demonstrate that is simply not the case such as David Vaught’s work on the rural West or William Akin’s on West Virginia.

This work is divided into chapters arranged by theme and in a loose chronological order. The first few chapters address the creation of the color line, which Casway rightly points out was a social reality long before Cap Anson’s infamous actions during the 1880s, followed by chapters addressing specific minority groups, primarily African-Americans, Irish-Americans, and Jewish-Americans. The final few chapters refocus on more general professional baseball culture – alcohol consumption, female fans, rowdiness, stadium construction, and supporter clubs.

These final few chapters are the ones that add significantly to baseball literature. If one were to pick up a game description from 1890 the majority of the text likely described the venue, fans, and extracurricular activities before delivering a brief game narrative and box score. While some certain do, most historians addressing baseball leave these cultural descriptions aside in favor of tracking club business, and on-field action. Casway’s chapters instead dive deep into the culture surrounding baseball events and, more importantly, how the rise of baseball popularity affected broader culture. Chapter twelve, appropriately titled “A Game Played By Idiots and Morons” after an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, and the following chapter on “rooter” culture explore the behavioral shift from passionate, sometimes violent rowdiness to more subdued family-friendly crowd behavior. Club built enclosed parks to keep out so-called troublemakers, generic fan activities like singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” replaced club-specific songs, and a rise in ticket demand, and thus prices, kept lower income Americans and especially recent immigrants away. More could have been said about the effect women had on baseball culture beyond the affection felt by male players, such as the role of women in combating rowdiness, but this short chapter on player relationships does offer new insight into how love interest affected the game.

Chapters six and seven are the one part of the book where further analysis was much needed. These chapters discuss the rise of baseball’s first major twentieth century businessmen – Charlie Comiskey, Connie Mack, and John McGraw, all of whom had families who fled famine and poverty in Ireland – and the professional pedigree of nineteenth century managers. Chapter six especially sets out to track these men and how the children of refugees were able to rise to the upper echelons of early professional sport. Casway effectively tracks their ascension, but readily admits failure in assessing the effect of each man’s background. Any further statement could only be “speculated upon” because none even mentioned their ancestry. Casway goes on to speculate that each man was likely influenced by their parents’ expectations and “immigrant ideals,” which is likely true but hardly enough to explain each man’s professional success (77). Chapter seven is similar in its shortcomings. Casway set out to connect prominent managers to their professional predecessors before concluding that measuring influence within these relationships can only be “speculated” upon (89-90).

Casway’s epilogue serves as a call to arms, so to speak, for historians of baseball to rededicate themselves to the nineteenth century game because in Casway’s view there is a near absence of the game in public memory largely thanks to long-standing neglect from the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In my view, this overstates the influence of the Hall of Fame on public memory and the interest the general public has for these stories. Casway is correct in asserting that “the modern game did not begin in 1903” and Jackie Robinson was not the first black ballplayer in a historically white professional league, but the NBHOF and other institutions tell that story. What may be more practical is for the NBHOF, Major League Baseball, and the thirty professional teams to embrace local and regional history. This would encourage the Philadelphia Phillies to embrace the history of Octavius Catto as a martyred sporting hero, for instance, or for a host of major league cities (potentially including New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Cincinnati) to do the same with Lipman Pike.


Josh Howard is a public historian and consultant with Passel Historical Consultants.

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