Race & Ethnicity in Baseball Music

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“Play Ball, You All”: Baseball’s Turn Down Tin Pan Alley by Katherine Walden is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Although Radical Reconstruction policies were regionally-focused on the American South, the racial implications of the Civil War’s aftermath posed a number of threats to white American masculinity within and outside Southern states. Those threats only intensified as multiple migratory movements as well as large-scale influxes of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe reshaped the experience of living and working within American urban areas. Exploring this group of songs from within the TPA collection highlights how representations of baseball in American popular culture have responded to the changing demographics of America’s national pastime (which in the contemporary moment is becoming increasingly less “American”).

As previously mentioned, “Little Puff of Smoke, Goodnight” was composed by baseball player “Doc” White and was one of his more commercially-successful songs. Subtitled “a Southern croon,” the song uses racialized language of “mammy,” “pickaninny,” and “cory” to describe a “little colored child” or “little puff of smoke” going to sleep at night. The sheet music cover for the title includes the image of a small black child in his mother’s arms, with both seated in a rocking chair. In the background is the image of a house that closely resembles a sharecropper’s shack. Similar racialized language and an exaggerated Ebonics dialect can also be found in the 1925 title “Pickin’ On Your Baby,” which feature a dialogue between “Pickaninny,” a black child, and his “mammy Jinny.” Through the dialogue, the child protests his mistreatment at the hands of white children, stating “the white boys pick on me/…they never let me be/And I must not play in their yard/…They won’t let me in their games/And they call me names.” In the second verse, the child decides one solution for the mistreatment would be to avoid interacting with the white children, asking his mother “ain’t I sweet as choc’late candy?/When I stay where I belong.” Given the composers and lyricists for TPA during this era were predominantly white, the presence of songs in the TPA repertoire that attempt to recreate or communicate the voices, perspectives, and experiences of African Americans is troubling. That these songs do so using grossly caricatured language, style, and imagery suggests the long-term impact of blackface minstrelsy practices, themes, and character tropes continued to influence American popular culture outside Southern states.

Other titles from this group contain equally troubling content, including the 1909 “I Am That ‘Hen Roost’ Inspector Man.” Unlike other TPA songs with racialized content, this one was co-written by Lew Layton and J. Alf Wilson, both black performers who performed in blackface, highlighting the odd, restrictive, and appropriative racial expectations that were embedded in American popular culture during this period.[1] The contrast between titles in this group written by white and black TPA composers and lyricists would also be a rich site for future research. The construction of black male bodies in the sheet music cover imagery has clear associations with the exaggerated facial characteristics and physical mannerisms used in the black-face minstrel performance tradition. Additionally, the context and staging of the black body within those illustrations engages with stereotypes from the minstrel tradition, grounded in underlying racial and gender anxieties.[2] The song details how the black male main character worked to “clip the wings of all the ‘Fowls’ so they could not fly” and arrived at night “to investigate the Fowls.” In the first chorus, the main character describes himself thusly:

“I am that ‘Hen Roost’ Inspector man

Got my knowledge ‘bout chickens

Way down in Zululand

When I investigate your coop at night

I can tell you right away if them Fowls all right

From a third chorus:

“I can speak Bird language from A to Z

And I don’t ‘low no Fowls to talk back to me

‘Cause I Am that ‘Hen Roost’ Inspector man”


Although somewhat confusingly written by black men, the song clearly invokes a number of characters and tropes from the minstrel tradition. The notion of a black man stealing or abusing animal livestock reinforces the stereotype of the black man as inherently criminal and suspect, but the specific references to hens, fowls, and owls intersects with the gendered anxieties about white women falling prey to black men. References to hens, nests, and livestock as a coded language used to express white men’s gendered anxieties were also a frequent trope in minstrel sketches, and this song invokes stereotypes about both black male criminality and sexual deviance or promiscuity.

Like “Little Puff of Smoke, Goodnight,” the previously-mentioned song “Little Alligator Bait,” by baseball player George Moriarty, is written from the perspective of a young black boy speaking to his mother. And, like other titles mentioned, the song uses racialized language and a stylized Ebonics dialect to present the boy’s perspective. The style of the lyrics, however, does little to lessen the troubling nature of the song’s content. In the first verse, the boy tells his mother, “I’ve just been scared to death while comin’ home” because “De white folks dat I meet/Tells me I won’t be living long.” The reason for the boy’s anxiety is clarified in the song’s chorus (which ironically is indicated to be sung “Tenderly”), which describes the boy as “Little Alligator Bait” who, since he “ain’t got long to wait,” “better say ‘goodbye’ right now.” According to the presumably white narrators speaking in the refrain, the boy was cautioned to not swim any longer because “Dere’s an alligator waiting for you on dat shore…You know he’ll swallow you as sure as fate.” The rather shocking content of the song could be read as mere exaggeration, were it not for primary sources that detail how black children were used as bait in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century.[3]

Along with “I Am That ‘Hen Roost’ Inspector Man,” Arthur Lancaster’s 1907 “Brother Noah Gave Out Checks for Rain” is one of the few songs that also briefly mentions segregated baseball and the Negro Leagues, which were beginning to develop in earnest during this period. Although not covered at length in this paper, further exploration into how segregated baseball and the Negro Leagues were represented and depicted in popular music about baseball (and whether those representations differ when constructed by white or black writers or composers) would be a fruitful site for future research. But, considering the broader landscape of baseball representations in American popular culture, it is worth noting that that over time, these representations have become less explicitly racialized or discriminatory. However, the trend toward reinforcing a narrow, white male centric vision for baseball in the United States remains. For example, Ken Burns’s seminal 1994 Baseball documentary series gives only nominal attention to how African American players and the Negro Leagues have impacted how baseball operates as the national pastime. The documentary reinforces particularly romanticized, nostalgic representations of baseball, and the absence of sustained, thorough attention to non-white baseball emphasizes how even a purportedly neutral historical documentary works as a site of myth construction and cultural representation.

Within the plethora of baseball films, including those that began emerging during the TPA years, the only blockbuster film project that gives attention to non-white baseball is the 2013 Jackie Robinson biopic 42, which has been much criticized for its nostalgic, romanticized depiction of the Jackie Robinson story.[4] The only films to date that have remotely addressed the influx of Latino players with American professional baseball include comedic, caricatured references to Latino players in the cult classic Bull Durham (“Confusion on the Mound” scene) and a brief anecdote in American comedian Will Ferrell’s 2015 HBO faux-documentary Ferrell Takes the Field (final scene, speech from pitcher’s mound). An attempt is made to acknowledge ethnic diversity in the 2004 Disney film Million Dollar Arm, based on the true story of two Indian cricket players’ being recruited to play professional baseball within the United States. However, the film’s distortion of the historical events in service of a romantic comedy, “feel-good” plot limits the degree to which this film can be read as a more holistic multi-cultural representation of baseball.

However, what to make of the racialized content in the TPA songs remains a pressing question. Although much of the research on racism within popular culture during this period focuses on the blackface minstrelsy tradition and its legacy, this research can provide useful insights into what to make of these sheet music titles. While the derogatory and racist dimensions of these entertainment practices cannot be ignored, Smith contends focusing only on the racist and appropriative components or early American popular culture and entertainment forms can limit attention to other possible interpretations. Writing about early post-Civil War blackface minstrelsy, Smith argues “early blackface practices were neither simply incompetent imitation (of southern black folkways) nor mere racist parody, though the racism of the period was unquestionably part of the idiom; rather, they represent a theatricalization of a process of back-and-forth exchange that was present everywhere in the new republic.”[5] Smith, Cockrell, and Lott explore the blackface minstrel tradition, pointing out how, despite highly derogatory implications, these entertainment practices and their legacy provide valuable insight into how racial ideology and particularly white masculinity was constructed and communicated through popular culture forms.

Further complicating a “flat” reading of racism with popular culture during this period, Lhamon addresses how the visual dimensions of minstrelsy (both in performance and print culture) were read through a class-conscious lens, as notions of realism, spectacle, and meaning in the popular press were markedly different than the meanings constructed by the tradition’s typically lower- and middle-class white male performers, who used blackface as a performative mask and minstrelsy as a constructed character to express both fascination with black culture and resistance against elite white culture. Lhamon describes how “cross-racial folk mimicry” provided a space for (often young) white men to engage in a particular type of constitutive cultural exchange or “transaction” that did more than just oppress, appropriate, or caricature black culture and identity.[6] Although this project does not explore the social or economic class implications of popular entertainment forms during this period, a fruitful subject for future research would be exploring the impact of class, taste, and the economics of popular culture production and consumption on what content was produced by TPA composers, lyricists, and promoters.

[1] Henry T. Sampson, Blacks in Blackface: A Sourcebook on Early Black Musical Shows (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2014), 196.

[2] Discussions of minstrel scripts, stage directions, and performance content are based on readings of the following texts that include “how-to” guides for producing a black-face minstrel performance and encyclopedias of minstrel scripts and routines. Jack Haverly, Negro Minstrels: A Complete Guide (Upper Saddle River: Literature House, 1902); Walter Ben Here, The Minstrel Encyclopedia (Boston: W.H. Baker, 1926); Frank Dumont, Burnt Cork No. 2: A Collection of Minstrel Gags, Stories, Monologs, Etc. (New York: M. Witmark and Sons, 1911); Paul E. Lowe, The Minstrel Guide and Joke Book: A Comprehensive Guide to the Organization and Conducting of a Minstrel Show, and How to Make Up, Containing a Diversified Collection of the Latest Mirth-Creating Jokes, Gags, Cross-fire and Monologues Passed Over the Footlights by the Most Celebrated Artists in Burnt Cork on the American Stage (Baltimore: I. and M. Ottenheimer, Circa 1910); Charles Townsend, Negro Minstrels (with end men’s jokes, gags, speeches, etc.). (Upper Saddle River: Literature House, 1891).

[3] “Baits Alligators With Pickaninnies,” The Washington times. (Washington [D.C.]), 13 June 1908. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1908-06-13/ed-1/seq-2; “Babies for Crocodile Bait,” The Roanoke times. (Roanoke, Va.), 20 June 1890. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86071868/1890-06-20/ed-1/seq-3/; “Babies Used as Alligator Bait in State of Florida,” Atlanta Independent (Atlanta, Ga.), 11 October 1923. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=7FlcAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ZFYNAAAAIBAJ&pg=3872%2C6235610.

 [4] Another notable exception is the 1976 Motown Productions comedy The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, a baseball comedy based on Brashler’s 1973 novel about a barnstorming black baseball team during baseball’s segregated 1930s. Starring Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor, the film provides a realistic perspective on how segregated baseball and the barnstorming phenomenon operated in rural America.

[5] Christopher J. Smith, The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 2.

[6] W.T. Lhamon, Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 35, 91.

Race & Ethnicity in Baseball Music