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Sports in Historical Context: Sports Images in the Daily Worker Photograph Morgue

Today’s post comes from Michael Chui, who’s been working with me to process the Daily Worker and Daily World Photographs Collection. He’s a student in NYU’s Museum Studies program, and has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology. He’s got an interesting and unique take on the collection and some of the images he’s been seeing.
For the past year, I have had the pleasure of assisting with the processing of the Daily Worker photograph morgue at Tamiment Library. As someone with an anthropology and museum studies background, I appreciate the learn-by-doing archival experience that I have been gaining and the opportunity to learn about the Communist Party USA through the images that they collected and disseminated. I like to think of the collection as a pictorial overview of 20th century world history, touching on everything from international politics to B-list Hollywood celebrities. Of course this view of history is seen through Communist Party USA eyes, with a particularly focused gaze on issues of civil rights, workers’ rights, and communist leaders.
One of the arenas in which struggles for civil rights and workers’ rights appear in the collection is sports. Sports images in the collection depict complex stories, a combination of the promise of a world of integration and ongoing struggles for social equality. The folder for legendary Negro League and Major League pitcher Satchel Paige offers a striking example. An early 1940s photo shows Paige in a Yankees uniform, on the Yankee Stadium mound, and throwing a warm-up pitch alongside the retired, white, Hall of Fame Major League pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. Paige was not pitching for the New York Yankees though, but the New York Black Yankees, a Negro League team. During the 1930s and 1940s, Paige was a star attraction in several Negro League games (exhibition and regular season games) played at Yankee Stadium, generating much press coverage and fanfare. The photo seems laudatory to Paige on the surface. He is pitching in the House that Ruth Built, wearing Yankee pinstripes, and sharing the mound with one of baseball’s greatest pitchers. Alexander is smiling, clearly enjoying the moment. Yet despite the clear acknowledgement of Paige’s talent by Alexander and organizers of this particular game, Paige was not permitted to play in the same league as Alexander and the white Yankees until 1948. By then Paige was in his forties and Jackie Robinson had broken Major League Baseball’s color barrier in the previous year.

Jackie Robinson’s folder tells a similar mixed story of success coupled with continued inequity. There are very few photos of Robinson in action on the baseball field. Instead many photos show Major League Baseball bestowing awards and commemorations to Robinson, both after his playing career and after his death. Other photos show Robinson engaged with members of the National Urban League, United Auto Workers, and the NAACP. I do not know how involved Robinson actually was with these organizations, whether he was a devoted supporter or if these were one-time engagements. Nevertheless, the Jackie Robinson folder indicates that the Communist Party USA considered Robinson to be part of a complex national story. It would have been easy to document Robinson by collecting images of him playing ball, to focus on the personal achievements in his playing career and how it promoted African American talent to an integrating league. However, the Jackie Robinson folder is a much more careful selection of images. Taken together, the images tell of a great man who brought equality to baseball, but was part of a larger battle for civil rights and equality in the rest of American life.

img168In addition to professional sports players and leagues, sports images pop up in unlikely places in the Daily Worker photograph morgue. I found it both hilarious and humanizing to come across photos of two of the United States’ foreign enemies, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro, deeply enjoying sports in their free time. In two grainy photos that starkly contrast each other, Ho Chi Minh is shown competing in a fierce volleyball game with several other men and as a lone fisherman with his line cast in the water, sitting on a rock in a secluded tree covered area.

Several action shots capture Fidel Castro’s sports skills (or lack thereof). First, Castro is shown rising up for an open shot during a pick-up basketball game, the back of the photo indicating that it was played in Bulgaria. Other photos show Castro taking batting and pitching practice with Cuban league players in between games of a double header.
img169img171Unlike the Paige and Robinson photos, I do not see a basis for interpreting Ho Chi Minh or Fidel Castro sports photos as part of any larger political or social framework. Rather, I think the value of these photos is that they add personality nuances to Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro, just as the photos of Paige and Robinson add nuances to national civil rights struggles in the United States during the mid 20th century.

Michael Chui
Graduate School of Arts and Science
Master of Arts in Museum Studies, expected May 2011

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