Most readers have likely heard of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
And if you are old enough, you may remember the Brooklyn Dodgers. (The Dodgers were a Brooklyn, NY, team until they moved to the west coast in 1958.)
But have you heard of the African Dodger?
At first you might think I was just referring in an odd way to the first African American to “break the color line” of segregated Major League baseball since the 1880s, Jackie Robinson. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed him to play for their team in 1947.
But no, that African Dodger baseball shown above wasn’t a baseball used by Jackie. It is one of tens of thousands of similar ones that were used from the 1880s through the 1940s in a different kind of “ball game.” Which, in its heyday, was just as popular in America as apple pie and baseball.
In a professional game of baseball, if a ball thrown by a pitcher hits a batter in the head, it is called a “beanball.” And it is totally against the rules of the game. For good reason.
Several players’ careers have been impaired or derailed after being struck with a beanball. Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane was knocked unconscious and later hospitalized for 7 days in 1937, and never played another game. In 1941, Dodgers outfielder Pete Reiser was hospitalized for a month, one of numerous injuries which shortened his career. Lou Boudreau played only sporadically after being beaned in 1951, and retired the following season. Tony Conigliaro missed over a year after being hit in the eye, and his vision later deteriorated to the point where he was forced to retire. Dickie Thon returned from a gruesome beaning in 1984, but never matched his earlier success. On September 28, 1995, Kirby Puckett, the superstar outfielder of the Minnesota Twins, was struck in the cheek by a Dennis Martínez fastball, breaking his jaw and loosening two teeth. It would be his last game; during spring training the following year he developed glaucoma, which ended his career. [Wiki]
Starting in 1956, Major League Baseball required that all batters either wear batting helmets or protective plastic liners underneath their caps. Full helmets were made mandatory in 1971, and wearing a model with an earflap has been required since 1983. Minor leaguers (as well as most college, high school, and youth leagues) must wear helmets with a flap covering each ear.
Not so with the game of African Dodger. You see, in this “sport,” the whole reason for throwing the ball was to attempt to deliberately hit a person in the head. An African American person.
Yes, back in the day you didn’t go to the county fair to win a prize tossing balls at bowling pins or moving metal duck targets.
At the end, thirty feet or so from the counter that closed the entrance, a grinning Negro face bobbed and grimaced through a hole in the back curtain painted to represent a jungle river. The Negro’s head came right out of the spread terrific jaws of a crocodile. “Hit the nigger in the head, get a good ten cent seegar,” the barker said. “Three balls for a dime, folks. Try your skill and accuracy. Hit the nigger baby on the head get a handsome cane and pennant” (Stegner, 1957, p. 47).
This was a common chant at numerous carnivals, fairs, and circuses across the United States throughout the late 19th century until the mid 1940s, as Americans took part in one of their favorite pastimes, “African Dodger.” [Source]
And although the pic in the magazine above seems to show a person with some sort of “head covering,” this was not at all typical. For the whole point was that the African’s head was not protected in any way. (That was the thrill of the game … to “bean” him.) Nor was he permitted to “pull his head out” of that hole if he could tell a ball was about to hit him directly. He could only stretch his neck this way or that to try to stay out of harm’s way. Efforts that, all too often, failed.
… In Connecticut, Walter Smith was hit “with such force that several of the dodger’s teeth were knocked out, and the ball was locked so securely within the negro’s mouth that it had to be cut to pieces before it could be removed” (“His Mouth”, 1908). [ibid]
It got especially dangerous for Dodgers when 1) professional baseball players showed up to pay a nickel and take their three turns and 2) even moreso when they sneaked in actual professional “hardball” baseballs to substitute for the relatively lighter commercial African Dodger balls.
In St. Louis in 1913, it was reported that carnival organizers were “unable for hours today to secure an ‘African Dodger’ who would allow baseballs to be thrown at his cranium at the usual rate of three for 5 cents;” the reason was that future Hall of Fame fastball pitcher Walter Johnson was rumored to be at the fair (“Don’t Want”, 1913).
… In 1904 in New York, the Meriden Daily Journal reported how a dodger was smashed in the nose by a professional baseball player. The Journal reported that Albert Johnson dodged “fifty or sixty cents” worth of balls thrown by “Cannon Ball” Gillen of the Clifton Athletic club. Finally Johnson “exposed his head and face a little farther than usual” and was caught by a curve ball that left him unconscious. The article, which was written as a play-by-play commentary on the incident, concluded with the report that it “will probably be necessary to amputate the nose in order to save Johnson’s life” (“Hit African”, 1904).
… In Hanover, PA, William White was assaulted by local baseball players who brought their own heavy balls and “hit the ‘coon’ nearly every time.” The reporter described how “courageously” White took the punishment and wrote that the “negro was pretty well used-up.” Only after this, do we find out that the injuries sustained by White were internal and “may prove fatal” (” ‘Coon Hitting’ “, 1908). [ibid]
Or when some unscrupulous people even used stones.
… There were numerous reports of such incidents; for example, at the Sheraden Methodist Protestant Church street fair in Pittsburgh, John Jones “failed to dodge” and was hit “squarely in the eye” (“Ball Hits”, 1916). In Ohio, Grady Williams was struck in the eye by a stone by someone who “stood to one side and threw a stone at the negro” (“Threw Stone”, 1915). [ibid]
Attempts were sometimes made to outlaw this outlandish “sport,” such as a proposed law in Massachusetts in 1916, and this one to stop it at Coney Island in 1915:
When legislation was presented in 1915 to ban some forms of the game at Coney Island, the headline read: BAN ON “BONEHEAD” HITS. The proposed ban was framed as “depressing news” for those who may be unable to participate in the “soothing exercise of hitting with a baseball the head of an ‘Ethiopian’ as it protrudes from a hole in a canvas sheet.” But don’t just feel sorry for the players, understand that “many persons who have no more profitable use for their heads will join the army of the unemployed” if the bill is passed and Africans are no longer allowed to dodge (“Ban”, 1915). [ibid]
It would appear in all these instances, such efforts failed. For white folks just couldn’t seem to get their mind around what could possibly be wrong with a cheery pastime that had been a mainstay at fairs and carnivals for decades, enjoyed by young and old alike. And if anyone tried to talk about “danger” to the Dodger, there was a ready answer…
One response to objections to the brutality of the African dodger game was to summon authorities to provide “scientific” findings on the topic. A short article in The Wayne County Democrat cited “authorities on anthropology” who “state that the negro has a very heavy and massive cranium constituting a bony arch of great resisting power. One scientist refers to the ‘common habit of negroes, of both sexes in butting like rams'[which]…indicates that a negro’s head bones have defensive strength unknown in the Caucasian race.” The newspaper assures its readers that the dodger doesn’t mind. “He seems cheerful about it.” The players of the game, the ones who throw the ball, are just men with a “man’s desire to display his powers”, particularly in front of “women friends.” The article finally concludes that until there is evidence that shows “fractured skulls or brain contusions” or until the dodger takes issue himself, the game will continue. A final warning is provided to the dodger who may be considering a new line of work that “He might regret to lose a daily wage that comes with less effort than manual labor” (“The Black Dodger”, 1913). [ibid]
And so the game continued on.
If it was “off season” in a child’s area, with no fairs or carnivals or circuses, they could invite their little friends over and while away the winter evenings with their own Milton Bradley African Dodger-style table game available from about 1890 to 1910, cheerily dubbed “The Jolly Darkie Target Game.”
That one, of course, puts one in mind of that poor fellow who had to have the baseball cut in pieces to get it out of his mouth.
Or there was this similar table game.
Strangely enough, you can actually BUY one of these today.
Here it is described on ebay.
This extremely rare “Hit the Dodger” table top game dates from circa 1910 and consists of a wooden board, a tethered ball mounted to a flexible metal rod, a stereotypical metal “Sambo” figure (the target) and a cloth backdrop explaining the object of the game, “Hit The Dodger!/Knock Him Out!/Every Time You Hit Sambo The Bell Rings.” Players would take turns pulling the tethered ball back (like a slingshot) and releasing it, hoping it would strike the figure and ring a bell which was positioned behind it.
Racist memorabilia like this sells well right up to today. The “minimum price” on the game shown above is $200.
Here’s evidence from the 1920s that the ball kept rolling.
There may be no better example of the pervasiveness and brutality of the African Dodger game in American society than an advertisement in the Providence News on September 11, 1924.
Wants African Dodger to Face Balls at Club Fair
Do you want to earn a few precious dollars on the evening of September 19 and 20?
If you do and if you are not at all particular as to what happens to your head why apply at Room 10 in the building at 144 Pine street. Ask for Charlie and tell him you “saw his ad in the paper”. Charlie is looking for a lion-hearted and hard-headed young man who will act as an African dodger at the big carnival to be staged by the West Barrington Community Club. The reward? That is a little matter that you can adjust with Charlie. He will treat you fairly and will see that you reach the Rhode Island Hospital safely in the event that that [sic] one of the baseballs comes in contact with your head.
We beg your pardon for not detailing the duties of an African dodger. He just puts his head through a hole in a big piece of canvass and permits the aforesaid head to be used as a target by young men who toss baseballs.
One day last week an African dodger was killed in Elizabeth, N.J., and the week before a dodger was killed in Hackensack, but don’t permit these deaths to influence you. (“Wants African Dodger”, 1924). [ibid]
And the Dodger-style games were still going strong in the 1930s. You didn’t have to go to some rowdy adult carnival or fair to be involved either. Check out these young fellows trying their pitching arms at a … Young Men’s Christian Association Summer Camp!
I’m guessing they didn’t hire a “colored man” for that event. Some companies had long offered for sale “darky heads” to use for the purpose, such as this carved one from clear back in the late 1870s.
By the 1940s, the African Dodger was still a staple of the American diet along with apple pie. The Popsicle company had a character they used in advertising to kids that they named Popsicle Pete. Pete showed up in some issues of All-American Comics (forerunner of DC Comics) in little adventures. One of which had him and his friends attending a carnival…where Pete was enthused to try his “skill” at socking an African dodger.
But of course he would be no match for the comic Superheroes themselves, who are portrayed playing a special “dodger” game. (This gives more evidence how common the idea of the dodger games was in that era.)
Dodger references weren’t limited to All-American comics, either. Here’s Donald Duck getting ready to pull a dirty trick at the fair himself.
And Popeye and Olive Oyl in 1933 in a movie also starring Betty Boop. In the scene, Popeye stacks a large pile of Dodger baseballs on his arm, and fires them off in a constant volley, hitting the head of the little “African Dodger” over and over and over, leaving him totally dazed.
And even by 1961, the cultural memory of the “game” was so strong it showed up as a “gag” in a Snagglepuss cartoon.
I’m convinced that most folks born after 1950 or so are oblivious to the proliferation for a whole century after emancipation of such de-humanizing “sport” at the expense of African Americans. And to how deep such things were ingrained in the whole culture of the nation—and not just in the “legally segregated” south. For instance, the reports mentioned above of injuries attributed to the “game” were from places like New York and Pennsylvania. And the “Jolly Darkie” game would have been sold by Milton Bradley across the nation.
It has taken the age of the Internet to make available the documentation…often through “ephemera” of the times…of much of our shameful American past. I believe it is important to understand that past so that we can understand the roots of the present. This is the purpose of the “Museum of Jim Crow Memorabilia” at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, that has an amazing website that shines the light on those dark corners, and provides tools for helping all generations sensibly evaluate where we’ve been…and where we should be headed.
The founder of that museum wrote this about the African Dodger games:
It may be hard to imagine a world where such barbaric games were accepted and played, and to understand why people would allow themselves to be targets. This is another example of the complexities of relationships during the Jim Crow era. The idea that African Americans were sub-humans was prevalent and widely accepted. Religious speakers, politicians, and scientists all agreed and “proved” that the African was a “less evolved” creature and therefore not subject to humane treatment. Almost everything in American society pointed to a hierarchical structure, whites on top and blacks at the bottom.
With everyday objects, forms of entertainment, advertising and public policies confirming this hierarchy, it is possible to see how whites came to believe they were superior and how some blacks could internalize these images, practices, attitudes and policies and come to see themselves as inferior and to accept the role of target. It’s also difficult for many to see the negative impact of racist games when playing them is associated with fondness of yesteryear.
As much as we’d like to think that the attitudes that allowed such dehumanizing of blacks are “all in the past,” that is a very naïve concept. As much as the Internet allows us to see the ephemera of the past, it also allows us to see into dark corners of the present. Shortly after the death of Trayvon Martin, for instance, you could buy on the Internet gun targets of a faceless young person in a hoodie, carrying a box of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea, to use for “practice.” $16.95 for a pack of ten.
I’m suspicious that many folks, viewing for the first time the Popeye cartoon mentioned above, would find it just “humorous,” not dehumanizing. And would ridicule anyone who complained about the implications of the scenario in the cartoon, as being too “politically correct.”
We’ve got a long way to go.