Sports as Political Theater: Virginia & West Virginia, 1870-1929 Edition

Recently Colin Kaepernick renewed discussions about the role of politics in sport. Some commentators wrongly present an argument that such protests are a recent phenomenon stemming from post-WWII civil rights movements. Stemming from a mythologized American sporting past, this argument would have us believe that sports prior to World War II were an oasis where sporting competition was pure. To me, flaws are obvious in the arguments of these “other commentators” and to show this we can go directly to their most revered sporting time period – nineteenth and early-twentieth century baseball.

This presentation analyzes a series of examples all centered upon amateur baseball clubs in Virginia and West Virginia from the 1870s through the 1920s. In short, every documented baseball club during this time period was in itself a political expression both on and off the diamond. In 1880s Richmond, boosters with an interest in athletics and Confederate sentimentality formed a baseball club explicitly for the purpose of boosting the Lost Cause with Confederate battle flags and games billed as "North v. South" affairs. In 1890s Clifton Forge, men formed a ballclub as a ploy to reshape town image away from that of violent racists to “gentlemanly” New South capitalists. And in 1910s Wheeling, Billy Sunday politicized his baseball past to more effectively deliver sermons in his successful campaign for West Virginia to outlaw alcohol. These examples along with others from Staunton, Charlestown, Beckley, and Bluefield demonstrate the long-standing connection between politics and baseball even from the sport’s earliest days.