Race, Ethnicity, and Assimilation on the Sports Page, 1920–41

Sunday, January 8, 2017: 9:00 AM
Mile High Ballroom 4B (Colorado Convention Center)
David Weinfeld, Virginia Commonwealth University
Sports journalists directly and indirectly contributed to the public discussion on assimilation and cultural pluralism in interwar America. In a 1923 article in Baseball Magazine, president of the Baseball Writers Association Fred Lieb wrote: “Next to the little red school house, there has been no greater agency in bringing our races together than our national game, baseball. Baseball is our real melting pot.” Lieb explicitly endorsed baseball’s assimilationist power. Yet sports journalists also played a unique role in spreading and combating ethnic stereotypes, especially in an era without televised sporting events.

In his 1938 book A Farewell to Sport, sportswriter Paul Gallico clearly distinguished Jews and other white athletes when he wrote “basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his oriental background [because] the game places a premium on an alert scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging, and general smart aleckness.” Sports journalists thus acted as important arbiters of ethnic identity and whiteness, particularly at the local level. For new immigrants, reading about baseball and boxing offered a doorway to Americanization but also an opportunity to support and identify with others who shared their backgrounds. By reinforcing stereotypes, sportswriters could encourage prejudice but also foster greater communal solidarity among those groups whom they offended.

This paper surveys the interwar sports coverage (primarily baseball and boxing) of mainstream (white) and African American newspapers in five American cities with significant ethnic and racial diversity: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington D.C. Preliminary research suggests that sportswriters offered three perspectives on athletes of European immigrant stock: assimilation, cultural pluralism, and prejudice, while always reinforcing whiteness as the ideal. The Black press, meanwhile, emphasized the integrationist possibilities offered by the world of sport.

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