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Hudson Valley Press

January 9th, 2013

Black baseball in America: rhythm with a stick

James Robinson, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs, stands in front of the Pride and Passion: The African American Baseball Experience exhibit at the Poughkeepsie Public Library. For the Hudson Valley Press/ Dana Albon

By Dana Albon

POUGHKEEPSIE - As part of Pride and Passion: The African American Baseball Experience, the Poughkeepsie Public Library held the first of six exhibits to take place over the next two months. If It Ain’t Got That Swing: Black Baseball and Music in the Jim Crow Era was the first that took place last Thursday. The library hosted three knowledgeable speakers who shared about the intertwined history of black baseball and music in the United States.

"Black baseball is reflective of the larger society at the time," explained Dr. Lawrence Hogan of Union College. Black baseball tracks back to the 1880’s with such greats as Moses Fleetwood Walker and Chet White when blacks were not allowed on any major fields.

The faster pace of black baseball changed the tempo of the game as most knew it, and naturally appealed to the jazz musicians who frequented the games. "During the day you would have the musicians at the games, and at night the players would show up at the clubs," explained Dr. Robert Cvornyek of Rhode Island College. This helped further entangle black baseball and jazz into one culture. Dr. Cvornyek spoke of the close community that was formed between the two as a result, especially due to segregation laws at the time, musicians and athletes were limited to the same accommodations while on tour.

Traditional black baseball gained much of its popularity around the same time that Jazz and Swing did. In the roaring 1920’s, Kansas City Missouri was considered to be the "cradle" or birthplace of the Negro National League. "The connection between the two [jazz and baseball] was natural," explained speaker James Robinson. Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs, the longest running franchise of the black baseball dynasty, from 1952-1958. Robinson reminisced with the audience of his time with the famed Monarchs and also shared a great memory of getting to sit next to Nat King Cole on the Monarchs bus after his own had broken down.

Jazz and black baseball have made a lasting impact of each other. The combination of the two created this culture where black athleticism and artistry were cultivated and shared in the face of segregation and racism. It didn’t just create friendships, it formed relationships between musicians and athletes that spanned a lifetime.

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