Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Detroit Tigers History Vol. 2: Li'l Rastus

A little over two months ago Detroit City Councilwoman Barbara Rose-Collins created a mini-controversy when she stated that she wasn't sympathetic towards the efforts to save Tiger Stadium because of her childhood memories of the racist history of baseball at large and more specifically the steadfast refusal of former team owner and horseless carriage magnate Walter Briggs to sign African-American baseball players. Briggs refusal resulted in the Tigers being the second to last team to integrate when they finally traded for Ozzie Virgil in 1958 over eleven years after Jackie Robinson had broke the color barrier after signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Of course Rose-Collins statements weren't nearly as big a controversy for her as when she fired a homosexual aide because she was afraid he might have AIDS. However her opinion on Tiger Stadium's fate did elicit a wide range of sentiments in defense of and opposed to her assertion. Of course everything devolved, as it usually does when the topic of race and Detroit is brought up, into an argument between people from the city blaming white suburbanites for being afraid and or reluctant to visit or work in the city and people from the suburbs blaming Coleman Young and the City's most recent administration for making them feel unwanted and unwelcome in the city. It seemed like the only thing the commenters could agree on was wanting to punch in the face all of the skinny-jeans and scarf-wearing Black Kids-listening Ann Arbor undergrad dildoes (dildos? dildi?) who felt compelled to interject with comments like "I visited Detroit once this summer and found the mixture of magnificent Art Deco buildings with abandonment and urban decay hauntingly beautiful." Pricks.

After reading through the array of comments, blog posts and op-ed pieces regarding Rose-Collins opinion it appeared that most people took an extreme position on the subject. They either dismissed racism as an unfortunate but ultimately irrelevant portion of the stadiums history which shouldn't impede the efforts to save the stadium while others supported the Councilwoman's views and wanted to put the racist past of former owner Briggs to the forefront of their advocacy to tear down the eyesore in Corktown. Since I'm constantly racked with indecision (you should see how I act when someone asks for my suggestion on where to get something to eat, it usually involves me suggesting everything from Barbecue to Mexican to Thai food then hemming and hawing until tears well up in my eyes and the person I'm with becomes so frustrated and annoyed with my antics that they end up not talking to me during dinner) and have a hard time choosing a side and making a strong argument for my position, which may end up being a problem after I become a lawyer. Naturally my opinion falls somewhere in between. As a student of history (and I hope that sounds as pretentious as I intended) I hate when people pick and choose what parts of history to remember. So under that flimsy line of reasoning I'm going to drag the story of L'il Rastus out from the annals of Tiger Stadium history. This isn't an indictment on the Stadium or the team or a show of my support for either side of the argument proposed by Rose-Collins, but rather an unbiased and agenda free look at a piece of history for both the Stadium and the team. It happened and right or wrong (definitely wrong unless the ghost of Nathan Bedford Forrest is reading this blog) we can't and shouldn't just forget about it because, well, that would make up no better than the Germans.

The story of L'il Rastus goes like this. In early July of the 1908 season the Tigers were battling through a horrible midseason slump. Allegedly Ty Cobb showed up to the Bennett Park and found a homeless black orphan who looked to be about ten years old hanging outside of ballyard. Throughout the history of the game baseball players, even the greatest ones, have been a superstitious lot. Ballplayers are either trying to maintain their good luck (i.e. lucky undershirt), change their bad luck (i.e. switch up the height of their socks), not upset the Baseball Gods (i.e. not stepping on the foul lines while going on or off the field), or in the case of Wade Boggs they are completely insane (i.e. eating chicken before every game, taking batting practice at 5:17 every day, claiming to hit better during games his mistress Margo Adams attended without underwear on, etc.). Ty Cobb was no different than any other player when it came to being hung up on irrational superstitions and with his team mired in a downswing Cobb decided to change his behavior in order to change his teams performance. So instead of running the young African-American orphan over in his brand new 1908 Chalmers Runabout as he was typically wont to do Cobb rather generously invited the young child into the Stadium to work as a clubhouse attendant.

The young attendant endeared himself to the team by running errands for the players and he quickly became the Tigers de facto batboy and mascot. Since the young man was in the clubhouse so often, even sleeping at the Stadium after games and while the team was out on road trips, the Tigers players brought him within the camaraderie found inside most pro sports teams locker rooms and christened him with a nickname. Since this was the early part of the 20th century and political correctness consisted of NOT getting blind drunk and burning down the haberdashery shop owned by a Polish immigrant, baseball nicknames weren't very sensitive (Yes, I only wrote the previous sentence so I would have an excuse to use the word haberdashery it doesn't make my point any less salient). For example nearly every player with Native American ancestry was given the nickname "Chief" and just about every uneducated player from the country was called "Rube". Worst of all in the first half of the twentieth century, before baseball became integrated, it was common for baseball players with dark complexions to be given the moniker "Nig". So it should come as no surprise that the Tigers gave their youthful orphan attendant the designation of L'il Rastus. Shortly thereafter the Tigers players took to rubbing their bats on L'il Rastus head for good luck a habit that was elegantly described by the Detroit News in July 1908 as such

"The Tigers had a pickaninny batboy with hair full of corkscrew kinks. When (Germany) Schaefer went to bat in the fourth he rubbed his bat in the darky's hair and then singled. Some of the rooters advised Cobb to try the same method but the pickaninny, knowing Ty's nativity, kept well out of his way."

Wait, instead of elegant I meant to write blatantly and overtly racist. Apparently the sports editor at the Detroit News doubled as the Grand Wizard of the Detroit Klan Chapter either that or he was my grandfather. Either way the News writer/editor was not only unabashedly racist they were also wrong regarding the relationship between Cobb and L'il Rastus as by most contemporary accounts Cobb and the young man were friendly with each other and L'il Rastus worked for Cobb at his home in Georgia during the offseason. (Although it should be noted that L'il Rastus did disappear from public view after working at Cobb's Georgia home following the '09 season, his true name and identity lost to history, so there is anywhere between a 1-100% chance that Cobb ate the child but I digress). But that's beside the point

For those readers who haven't travelled to the early 20th century or through parts of the present day Deep South there are at least a couple of things from the previous paragraphs that should jump out as patently offensive. First is the nickname itself. Rastus has been a highly offensive pejorative name for African-Americans dating back to the appearance of character of Brer Rastus in the first Uncle Remus book released in 1880. Uncle Remus books were a collection of stories and fables from the Deep South that were collected by Joel Chandler Harris and infamously put to film in the infamous Disney movie Song of the South (Hopefully Blogger isn't associated with Disney in anyway or else that last sentence I wrote will likely be replaced with the Mouse Ear logo or an advertisement for The Lion King 8: Rafiki's All Anal Adventure). However in the early 20th century Rastus became synonymous with the portrayal of any happy and naive African-American and commonly appeared in many different minstrel shows, books and popular songs. There were also a series of short comedy films produced with titular character Rastus that included such names as "How Rastus Got His Chicken," and "Rastus Among the Zulu's". Finally and most famously Rastus is the name of the character who appears in the Cream of Wheat logo that began in 1890 and continues to be used to this day.

The second racist gesture may be harder to pick up on as it has faded into relative obscurity but it was the act of rubbing L'il Rastus head for good luck. This used to be a relatively common practice and a way for whites to be disrespectful and/or condescending towards African-American's in a subtle and passive way. This practice fell to the wayside entirely by the late 70's early 80's as it became a much more common way for people to get their asses kicked then it was to subtly pass off as racism. Now that that's out of the way let's get back to the conclusion of the L'il Rastus story.

As the Tigers continued to win the team attributed their success to the presence of their batboy/mascot and rubbing their bats in L'il Rastus' hair, so naturally he started to accompany the team on the road. Beginning in September, however, the Tigers luck once again began to turn for the worse as they started to lose ground in the race for the A.L. pennant. Just as something can be deemed to be a good luck charm when things are going well it can just as easily be regarded as a jinx when things start to go poorly and in this regard L'il Rastus was discarded from the team and treated no differently than if he had been an old pair of lucky socks. The team believed there was such a negative hoodoo surrounding the child that during the 1908 World Series against the Cubs the Tigers banished their former batboy to sitting in the visitors dugout. In displaying their collective ignorance the Tigers may have in fact established the existence of the Baseball Gods as they watched the Cubs run roughshod over them en route to winning their second consecutive World Series over Detroit 4-1. In fact L'il Rastus proved so lucky that the Cubs have not won a World Series since he last graced their presence while sitting in their dugout. Great now some jerk from Chicago is probably going to dig up his bones and place them under Lou Pinella's seat on the bench. Forget I said anything.

I would quote sources but I'm so far removed from writing history papers in undergrad that I've forgotten how to make proper citations. So I'm just going to say that I got most of my information from the book Crazy '08 by Cait Murphy. This book is amazing so instead of giving you page numbers I recommend you just go out and buy it and read it cover to cover. You'll be a better baseball fan and person for it.


Buy Generic Viagra said...

What do you mean with a "mini-controversy"? I think it was a huge issue. I think she doesn't felt anything about the main point behind all this. We are talking about homosexuals and they are doing an important work in this kind of "silly" controversies.

Hostpph said...

grrrr this is the second volume too, it seems I am finding the second parts of everything in here haha, I will look for the first part, thanks anyway!