By: Tony Patrick
When Virginia Elite coach Kerri Cobb called Tara Johnson to invite her to join the Elite’s first-year 18-and-under travel softball program, Johnson’s first question was an important one. “Will I be the only black girl?” Johnson asked. She was surprised when the answer was no.
Johnson is not the first and most likely will not be the last black girl to ask that question when it comes to playing softball. This is paralleled to what black boys go through when it comes to baseball. Funny, because at a point in time there was a Negro League which was very important to the growth of the MLB. The likes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and of course the icon Jackie Robinson; the African American community in the 1920s and 1930s could not wait to burst on the scene and play baseball but in today’s day and age that is no longer prevalent.
Collective memory focuses on personal, collective, and national identities. Sociological studies of collective memory generally can be traced back to Halbwachs (1992), who was interested in the ways in which collective memory could bind communities and nations together or, alternatively, work to exclude people with different cultural backgrounds who had different understandings of the past. Collective memory is never constant between people; it is mainly the reason why different people, and different groups of people, remember different things in different ways. We all can go through a tragic event such as 9/11, as an American of course the whole nation was devastated, terrorized, and sadden but the afterthought today of a Muslim American may be all those things but also another feeling and that feeling is living today knowing that the American people categorized them as terrorists wherever they went. That feeling is something I have never felt before and plenty other people haven’t as well but Muslim Americans, that particular group of people have and will always live with that feeling.
The way Markovitz used collective memory to understand the Kobe Bryant rape case was interesting because he wanted to gain a sense of collective memory might play into public understanding of the Kobe Bryant case. Markovitz searched the LexisNexis and Ethnic NewsWatch newspaper and magazine databases using key words Kobe Bryant and rape. He eliminated all articles with fewer than 250 words because they did not address the case in depth. He was left with 800 articles from sports sections, editorials, op-ed pages, entertainment sections, and straight news sections of local, regional, and national papers and magazines. He conducted a qualitative content analysis coding for recurrent themes and paying special attention to the ways in which the coverage invoked collective memory. Markovitz looked to see if the two subjects, Kobe Bryant and rape, had any correlation or any parallels to one another.
My intent is to incorporate collective memory into how baseball is looked at by African Americans over time up until present day. Different variables play a role of the collective memory of how African Americans view baseball; may it be the unofficial color ban, to the Negro Leagues, and to when the color barrier was broken up. As time progresses we are starting to see less and less African Americans in baseball and softball every year, which is incredibly alarming to see because of the history and impact African Americans had on the game.
The identity of African Americans in the late 1800s was people are trying to find their own way after the end of the Civil War. Baseball was a part of that way; many Negroes aspired to showcase their athletic ability off in baseball. Many African American players were on the same minor league teams as the White players but never the major leaguers in the late 1800s. In 1867 the National Association of Base Ball Players was formed but banned black players. The African American athletes were pushed into the minor leagues were some of the players stood out and grabbed the attention of white team owners. John W. “Bud” Fowler was a second baseman by preference but almost played every position you needed him to play and did it at an exceptional level. Unfortunately Bud Fowler spent his career in the minor leagues. Fowler was a trendsetter like none other, he was just the knock at the door but Fleetwood Walker was the person who knocked it down. Fleetwood Walker played catcher and was considered one of the best of his time at the position. Walker became the first Black player to play for a major league franchise. Everything looked up for the African American players until in 1890; a gentlemen’s agreement had been made which would bar black players from playing in the major leagues for the next fifty-five years.
That in itself is collective memory because only two groups of people went through that situation of when the ban happened. Obviously the two groups will vary in how they always think about that situation. African Americans I believe felt betrayed, hurt, and resentful. I think that is what inspired the startup of the Negro Leagues. I believe the collective memory of what happened to them with the color ban in 1890 is what ignited the flame to strive and create their own baseball league. By the end of the World War I black baseball had become, perhaps, the number one entertainment attraction for urban black populations throughout the country. It was at that time that Andrew “Rube” Foster, owner of the Chicago American Giants and black baseball’s most influential personality, determined that the time had arrived for a truly organized and stable Negro League.
Under Rube Foster’s leadership the Negro League expanded across the United States, Midwestern, Northeastern, and an even bigger surprise was that it was a hit in the South. Seems like it is a great sense of pride has burst on the scene for African Americans, they had their own league, own players, and own fans. African Americans established a league all on their own so the sense of pride and accomplishment would be going through the roof for the community. It was relevant to play baseball back then for African Americans, they weren’t apart of playing in the minor leagues like they once were and now they were thriving on their own. It was bigger than baseball back then; baseball was just the platform they used to break down racial barriers at that point in time that is why I think it was so relevant to play baseball back then.
The Negro League lasted up until its final season in 1931, they also fell victim to the Great Depression. But quickly the Negro League was quickly revamped and brought back by Pittsburgh bar owner Gus Greenlee, and he picked right up where Foster’s league did and became a dominant force in Black baseball from 1933 through 1949. The existence and success of these leagues stood as a testament to the determination and resolve of Black America to forge ahead in the face of racial segregation and social disadvantage.
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier on April 18, 1946 and signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers organization by owner Branch Rickey. After a year of playing in the international league for the Montreal Royals, Jackie Robinson made his major league debut on April 15, 1947 starting at first baseman, ending racial segregation in baseball. Sounds like a good thing right? Wrong, this is when the downfall of the black baseball player happened. After Robinson paved the way for African American athletes to follow in his footsteps that means more and better players from the Negro Leagues started to disappear, meaning the fans were disappearing and going to watch the integrated leagues, so ultimately that led to the demise of the Negro League.
“Since 1981 — when African-Americans represented 18.7% of all Major League Baseball players — the sport has seen a steady decline in the demographics’ representation. Heading into the 2015 MLB season, only 7.8% of the league is African-American. That’s a 70% drop in 34 years. “
That stat is interesting because think about the time period 1958 was in and now fast forward back to 2016. Today, African American youth like the fast paced sports such as basketball, football, and track and field. I do not even think baseball even interests African Americans like it used to. When the color ban was broken then the bond between the sport and overcoming racial segregation wore off. It is sort of like when you get a new video game and you work so hard for a week or two playing countless hours and then you finally beat the final boss then you never play the game again. I feel like it was nothing left to strive for in the African American community as far as breaking barriers because they reached their ultimate goal which is to play in the major leagues.
I attend Christopher Newport University and in my four years here I have yet to see an African American player on the baseball or softball team but this year changed all of that. Transfer student Maiven McKnight is the first African American I have seen on on the pitch here at Christopher Newport. Maiven McKnight was born in Raleigh, North Carolina and went to Massaponax High School in Fredericksburg, Virginia where she has been playing softball since she was five years old. “My dad has been my personal coach ever since I was five years old. He is the one that got me started playing” McKnight stated. Throughout her youth her father was the driving force that kept her on the field. Growing up through middle school she was usually the only Black girl on her softball team. Getting so accustomed to being the only Black girl out there she just seemed to never think about it. “Growing up through middle school and high school, I just never thought anything of it. I was around my friends all of the time so I was one of them” Mcknight said.
Then it happened; Maiven was going to college and she chose North Carolina A&T, a Historically Black College University. “It was a complete wake up call for me. They were my family, my team was the first group of people to take me in under their wing, and they taught me everything I need to know to get accustomed to life at a HBCU. I met some of my best friends there” Mcknight said. Coming from a majority White middle and high school, going to a HBCU is a total wake up call for anyone it is certainly a change of pace.
Playing there for two years McKnight ending up not seeing eye to eye on a multiple of things with the coaching staff at A&T so she ultimately decided to play softball somewhere else. She remembered when she was getting recruited that Christopher Newport University was contacting her. She gave CNU’s coaching staff a call and that is what got the ball rolling and her ultimately choosing CNU. Going to a HBCU for two years then transferring to a Predominantly White Institution is transition I don’t think too many people have done that. So I had to ask the burning question, what was it like coming from a HBCU to a PWI?” McKnight responded, “Playing at a HBCU was eye opening to the cliché softball team and the entire environment of softball for me. My teammates were upfront with me from the beginning at my HBCU. Then coming here to CNU I noticed that the team was kind of thrown off guard by me. They seemed like they did not want to step on any toes but they also did not know how to approach me so some instances were kind of awkward for me. I came to the team with faux locs, which is a common protective hairstyle for African American women, which isn’t common here. It was unheard of at CNU for hair to look so deceivingly real, so to find that it wasn’t posed a lot of questions. I have to constantly educate them about my culture versus when I went to a HBCU, where there were no questions asked, we all related to one another on more than just a softball level.”
Like anything else it takes time to adjust to anything new and that is what the CNU softball team had to do when McKnight showed up. It was an adjustment for both sides, now McKnight thinks that the team and herself have gotten closer; bonding over practices, social outings, games, and just the overall love of the sport brought them all closer together. She is well aware of the fact that the decline of African Americans in her sport is happening and disheartening to her because she would love for all girls to enjoy the sport she grew to love.
When asked how she thinks we as a nation can improve on having all nationalities and colors to softball, McKnight responded, “Softball itself is a dying sport. No matter the race. There are areas that breed softball players, and these areas tend to be heavily populated with white families. It is overly expensive and time consuming to play travel softball to even get recruited to make it to the college level. I can’t think of any technical, permanent solution that would give young Black players to stick with the sport, besides the potential to earn a scholarship.”
The steadily decreasing number just doesn’t seem like it is going to go up without some serious game planning because of baseball’s lack of ability to appeal to the African American kids and just younger crowds in general, and lack of scholarships as well. The solution, if there even is one, will not come over night but it is something that we as a nation have to figure out how to incorporate all kids of all colors to strive to make America’s favorite pastime diverse again for everyone.