The Atlanta Braves Represent the Best and Worst of BaseballRoundup
tags: racism, baseball, Atlanta
Ben Railton is Professor of English and American Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. He's the author of four books, most recently History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism; writes the daily AmericanStudier blog; and contributes public scholarly writing and teaching in many settings.
This week, Major League Baseball will celebrate a new season with a controversially delayed Opening Day, with the reigning World Champions the Atlanta Braves hosting the Cincinnati Reds. As a baseball lifer who fell in love with the sport (and really with sports overall) watching the Braves every night on TBS in the early 1980s, the start of a stretch of historically awful seasons for the franchise, typing that sentence should give me a great deal of fan-joy. And it does—but as an American Studies scholar who thinks a lot about race and representation, knowing that a new baseball season will commence with tens of thousands of fellow Braves fans performing a powerfully racist collective chant brings quite a bit of frustration as well.
In a baseball season that will witness the debut of the new name and logo for the Cleveland Guardians (formerly the Indians and the abysmal Chief Wahoo respectively), it’s long past time that the Braves formally revisited and revised their own racist representations, starting with that terrible Tomahawk Chop (a ritual not limited to the Braves, but that’s no excuse). In so doing, they could help us collectively engage with the franchise’s and sport’s histories around race and region, identity and imagery, legacies that include some of the worst but also some of the best of baseball and sport in American culture.
Founded in 1871 as the Boston Red Stockings of the newly created National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NAPBBP), the franchise is thus not only the oldest continuously operating team in American professional sports—it also reflects baseball’s profoundly local and regional origins and foundations. Many of the sport’s first recorded rules and regulations were set down in 1858 in Dedham, Massachusetts by the Massachusetts Association of Base Ball Players, an organization that formalized the influential early version of baseball known as “The Massachusetts Game” (in contrast, as so much of New England sports have remained ever since, with the incipient New York Rules). Most of the players who joined the Red Stockings, as indeed with many who formed the NAPBBP, came directly out of these Massachusetts games and teams.
Even as the sport became gradually more nationalized and professional over the next half-century, as illustrated by the NAPBBP’s 1871 creation, most of baseball in both New England and throughout the nation continued to be played on that more local and semi-professional level. That created space for not only countless such semi-pro teams and leagues across the region, but for players from a variety of communities and walks of life to take part in this blossoming national pastime. In my current book project, I’m focusing on the story of one particularly unique and inspiring such group of players, about whom I first wrote at length for this column two years ago: the Celestials, the semi-pro team formed by Chinese American students at the Hartford, Connecticut Chinese Educational Mission. Those players, who came out of New England high schools and colleges before forming the Celestials, reflected the local and inclusive nature of 19th century baseball.