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Brooklyn’s African-American baseball tradition didn’t start with Jackie Robinson

April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day — the anniversary of Robinson’s 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. AP file photo

For Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The African-American baseball tradition in Brooklyn didn’t begin on this day in 1947 when Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field. Nor did it commence in the early 20th century with successful, professional teams like the Brooklyn Royal Giants.

To trace the nascence of baseball in Brooklyn’s African-American community, we must travel back to the mid-18th century, even before and during the Civil War, when the national pastime itself was in its infancy.

Then only about two decades old, base ball — in the mid-to-late 1800s, the sport was spelled with two words — was quickly flourishing, especially in the Northeast and upper Mid-Atlantic, says local sports historian Richard Hershberger. During the early 1860s, base ball was still an amateur pursuit, Hershberger says, a way for middle-class youths to “take their exercise together.” It was no different for the black population.

“Baseball served the same function in the black community as it did in the white,” Hershberger says. “The obvious parallels also served to legitimize the black community.”

Included in that grouping were aggregations in Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; and, of course, New York City and its surroundings, which were constantly continuing to evolve into cultural and ethnic melting pots.

One such locale was the Brooklyn neighborhood of Weeksville, a village of about 500 people at its peak established by upscale African-American investors and political operatives just a dozen or so years after the abolition of slavery in New York. The enclave was bounded by what are today Fulton Street, East New York Avenue, Ralph Avenue and Troy Avenue.

Today, Weeksville — which experienced a historical renaissance beginning in the late 1960s, with four vintage, circa 1830 houses on Hunterfly Road being named a National Historic District and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 — is part of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Around 1860, though, the sporting pride of Weeksville was the Unknown Base Ball Club, an aggregation of mostly middle-class African-Americans who played its first game as early as 1859, according to author Leslie Heaphy in her book, “The Negro Leagues: 1869-1960.”

But Dr. James Brunson, a professor at Northern Illinois University and the country’s pre-eminent scholar of 19th-century black base ball, is quick to point out that the new national pastime within African-American culture wasn’t restricted to Brooklyn.

“The Unknown Club was neither, as recent research shows, the ‘only’ or best ‘colored’ baseball organization at the time,” Brunson says. “In the 1850s, the colored ball clubs of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and possibly Pennsylvania formed a circuit that traveled between cities and played friendly ‘games of ball.’

“Brooklyn’s Monitors, Williamsburg’s Van Delkens, Jamaica’s Hensons, Flushing’s Hunters, Newark’s Hamiltons, and Baltimore’s Hannibals figured among the many teams that crossed bats at holiday events, picnics and it appears, colored barber conventions.”

For their part, though, the Unknowns had what was more or less their coming out to the mainstream New York City public came in the Oct. 17, 1862, Brooklyn Eagle, when a reporter from the paper — some historians speculate that it was Henry Chadwick, an England-born, early journalist and historian who is often called the “father of baseball” — moseyed around to the Bedford neighborhood in search of a good story for the paper after a white game was cancelled.

What he found was a game between two black teams, the Monitors and Weeksville’s Unknowns. The event was a revelation to the writer, whose article relayed genuine surprise that such a gentlemanly pursuit as base ball could be embraced by what he described as “piccaninnies.”

The article — begun with the headline, “A NEW SENSATION IN BASE BALL CIRCLES” — was laden with what today might be called snark, a mixing of sarcastic political jabs and unfortunate language that was common a century and a half ago but today would be considered offensive.

“Quite a large assemblage encircled the contestants, who were every one as black as the ace of spades,” the article stated. “Among the assemblage we noticed a number of old and well known players, who seemed to enjoy the game more heartily than if they had been the players themselves.

“The dusky contestants enjoyed the game hugely, and to use a common phrase, they ‘did the thing genteely.’ Dinah, all eyes, was there to applaud, and the game passed off most satisfactorily. All appeared to have a very jolly time .... It would have done ... luminaries of the radical wing of the Republican party good to have been present.”

With “playing [that] was quite spirited,” the author noted that the game was the first of a series between the two teams. The article concludes: “This is the first match to our knowledge that has been played in this city between players of African descent.”

The Unknowns triumphed over the Monitors, although the exact score seems a bit unclear — the paper lists a 41-15, but when the box score innings are added up, it counts 49-15 in favor of the Unions, including a 14-run fifth inning. (High scores were common in mid-19th-century base ball.) A center fielder named Smith led the way for the Weeksville crew with nine runs tallied

(As a matter of historical context, the base ball article was followed by a report of the Civil War’s bloody battle at Antietam.)

Pinning down the exact identities of the men on the Unknowns roster is a definite challenge; in addition to Smith, there are three men with the last name of Thompson, as well as a third baseman named Pole, a second baseman named Wright and a shortstop named Harvey. At the time, for example, there were multiple African-American families with the last names of Wright and Harvey, each with numerous male members who could have been the ones listed in the 1862 Eagle article.

What is known is where the contest took place. The game was played near the Yukatan Pond, which in the winter was a public skating facility during the first half of the 1860s, making the area an already popular social gathering place.

“The public ponds,” stated the Dec. 8, 1862, Eagle, “especially the ‘Putnam’ and the ‘Yucatan,’ afford good skating, and doubtless before this sheet reaches the hands of its thousands of readers, many of them will already have been on the skates.”

After the groundbreaking October 1862 game, the history of the Unknowns of Weeksville becomes somewhat cloudy. The Eagle subsequently makes several references to games played by other Brooklyn teams, like the Frontiers in July 1864 and  the Burnsides in July 1865, against an Unknown team from Harlem.

However, in September 1866, the Eagle reported that “[T]he Unknown B.B.C. [Base Ball Club] have [sic] changed their name to that of the Mutual Base Ball Club.” The brief article states that the address of the team’s secretary, G. Maynard, is on Fulton Street, at the edge of Weeksville.

Regardless of the details of the Weeksville team’s demise, the fact that the Unknowns existed as a source of communal self-respect and achievement was extraordinarily significant for the village’s — and, indeed, all of Brooklyn’s — burgeoning African-American population, says local historian Hershberger.

The northeastern cities in this era had a small black middle class,” he says. “They were largely excluded from joining white institutions, so they created parallel structures. This included baseball clubs. This was a self-consciously political act, staking a claim to middle-class respectability.”

But in many ways, the rich, albeit apparently short, saga of Weeksville’s Unknowns wasn’t just an African-American story. Base ball in Brooklyn has always been a passion for those who live here, regardless of color or ethnicity.

“Was baseball popular in Brooklyn?” Hershberger says with a touch of humor. “Heck, yes. It is hard to imagine today how ubiquitous it was.”

April 15, 2014 - 8:00am


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