This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present.
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.
Over the four decades after that 1871 founding, the Red Stockings went through a series of nicknames, with the most consistent and longstanding reflecting those local roots: starting in 1883, they were generally known as the Beaneaters. In the early 20th century a new American League team was founded in the city; known initially as the Boston Americans and then as the Boston Red Sox, this franchise experienced immediate and lasting success, and the less successful National League franchise the Beaneaters would soon lose many of their players to this new rival and struggle to keep a fanbase in the city and region. Something new and different was needed to make the Beaneaters stand out on this increasingly crowded regional and national baseball landscape.
Unfortunately, in 1912 club president John Ward settled on racist stereotypes as the means to draw that renewed attention and fandom. The team had recently been purchased by James E. Gaffney, a New York City construction magnate who was also an alderman in the city’s Tammany Hall political machine. Tammany Hall, which had been named after the Delaware Native American Chief Tammamend, had long used a stereotypical “Indian chief” in full headdress as its emblem. And so Ward decided to honor Gaffney, and in the process to differentiate this New York owner and new franchise direction from its Bostonian roots, by christening the team with a new Tammany-inspired nickname and a stereotypical logo to go with it: the Boston Braves.
Over the subsequent century, the Braves would go through two moves, to Milwaukee in 1953 and then to Atlanta in 1966, but the nickname and (increasingly) stereotypical logos would endure. Indeed, it was during their years in Milwaukee and Atlanta that the franchise truly doubled down on the racist rituals, through the stereotypical mascot known as Chief Noc-a-Homa. Between its 1966 creation and the character’s 1986 retirement, three men played the Chief at home games; the first two were white performers in “redface,” but the third and most enduring was an Ottawa Native American, Levi Walker, who played the role from 1969 to 1986. Walker’s role unquestionably complicates narratives of this character as purely stereotypical, but it doesn’t absolve the team of the consistent and overarching use of stereotyping imagery—not just around the Chief, but with other characters (such as the early 1980’s addition Princess Win-a-Lotta) and rituals (such as the early 1990s use of the Tomahawk Chop, which has endured long past the retirement of these mascots).
What’s particularly frustrating about the endurance of the Braves nickname and rituals like the Chop is that the franchise’s history also features one of the most iconic social and cultural ambassadors in American sports history: Henry “Hank” Aaron. Aaron, whose playing career spanned the Milwaukee and Atlanta eras, was more than just one of the greatest baseball players of all time. “Hammerin’ Hank” was also a legend who consistently challenged histories of prejudice and racism: from his foundational professional origins in the Negro Leagues and move into a still-integrating early 1950s Major Leagues; through his successful pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record and the racist hate he endured and transcended; and to a long post-playing career as a leader for both the Braves and Major League Baseball in their continued efforts to address issues of racism in and beyond the sport.
Neither the Braves nor baseball, nor any of us, can forget the histories of stereotypes and racism that are part of the franchise and sport, as of every layer of American society. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work to change those images and live up to the legacies of the best of baseball instead. As a new baseball season gets underway in Atlanta, it’s time for the team to become part of those changes, and there’s a perfect new nickname right in front of them: the Atlanta Hammers.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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