By Michael E. Lomax
Syracuse University Press, 2003. 222 pp., illus., notes, bibliography, index. $39.95, cloth; $19.95, paper.
Review by Jeffrey Sackmann
As any avid reader of baseball history is aware, it is a rare book these days that covers truly fresh material. It is even rarer for that material to be of substantial historical and cultural import, with implications on other extensively studied aspects of baseball’s past.
Michael E. Lomax’s book, Black Baseball Entrepreneurs, uncovers and analyzes a part of baseball history that is both of these things. Both 19th-century baseball researchers and Negro League historians know just how sparse contemporary coverage is of early Black baseball. Yet by combining the more commonly utilized sources—Sporting Life, Sol White’s History of Colored Baseball, and the papers of the Philadelphia Pythians—with an array of less-familiar primary sources, Lomax accomplishes, if nothing else, an impressive feat of research.
Most histories of early baseball address the major events that created segregated baseball: the exclusion of the Pythians by the National Association of Base Ball Players in 1867, and the series of events in the mid-1880s that included Fleet Walker’s appearance in the American Association and Adrian “Cap” Anson’s belligerence when it came to taking the field with a Black player. And with that sketch, the more general histories consign Black baseball to footnotes until after the first World War.
Lomax ably fills the gap. Despite the fragmented nature of the Black game in the 19th century, his book offers a coherent narrative from, as he terms it, “a perspective that is closer to business and economic history.” That’s probably the only way such a history could be written. Little is known of all but the most famous 19th-century Black players—indeed, more information is available concerning the community leaders who formed teams, such as Octavius Catto of the Pythians—and surviving statistics from the era make later Negro League records look like a playground for sabermetricians. By focusing on the entrepreneurs who improvised methods to make Black baseball a profitable entertainment similar to the White game, Lomax is able to utilize a broader cultural approach that sheds light on the experience of Black baseball that a biographical and statistical perspective never could.
Non-academic readers may find Lomax’s writing a bit scholarly for their tastes: in delineating the subtleties of Black culture, he provides perhaps more, and more technically phrased, cultural context than is necessary for his history. If one is only interested in his biographical sketches of entrepreneurs or recaps of efforts to crown a Black “champion,” the academic cultural history may be tiresome.
Such stylistic concerns, however, do not lessen the incredible value of his accumulated research. Nor should they prevent any serious student of 19th-century or Negro League baseball from keeping it handy on their bookshelf. Even the bibliography is a document of value; the scope of Lomax’s study is so unique among baseball histories that his sources should provide a crucial starting point for anyone wishing to expand upon his work.
Republished by permission