In 1890 more than 40 percent of Chicagoans were foreign-born, and another 36.9 percent were children of immigrants. Many tried to retain their ethnic traditions, favoring their own music, theater, and religion. When Northeastern Illinois University history professor Steven Riess set out to study the leisure activities of this period in urban America, he found the saloon was second only to the church as the most important social institution in ethnic neighborhoods. But when Riess turned his attention to athletics, he discovered that sports were a great assimilating force. “An Irish saloon was unique in its ambience and clientele, but there was no such thing as Irish baseball,” he says. “Baseball was simply baseball.”
According to Riess, adult immigrants often considered sports to be a waste of time. But their children embraced baseball, boxing, and basketball, because “sports were American, and they wanted to be Yankees in the worst way,” Riess says. “The second generation seized whatever opportunities there were to take part in athletics. They anticipated that their achievements would gain them recognition and respect for the ethnic group in the broader society.”
That perspective also held sway among African-Americans when they first started migrating to Chicago from the south in the late 19th century. Blacks were on professional baseball teams as early as 1872, but they were typically excluded from indoor recreational facilities in white neighborhoods–though Riess says there were interracial baseball games in Washington Park, with white spectators lining up along the first-base line and blacks along the third. By the 1900s, however, the city’s parks had become the setting for racial confrontations.
Blacks typically had to pursue their leisure activities within their own community–but one black baseball team, the Leland Giants, won the city semipro title in 1907 and 1909. In 1920 former Giants pitcher Rube Foster founded the Negro National League, which was based in Chicago.
Riess says athletics ultimately benefited all newcomers. “One of the original purposes was to have a good time and gain prowess. But sports provided wholesome activities for young and old. Participation on a team has the potential for teaching respect for authority.”
Riess will lecture on “Sport and Leisure in Chicago’s Ethnic and African-American Male Communities, 1860-1920” today at 3:30 at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton; admission is free. The talk is part of the Chicago Seminar on Sport and Culture, an annual series of presentations cosponsored by the Newberry Library and Northeastern Illinois University. For more information on this and other offerings, call
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Wallace Kirkland Papers, Jane Addams Memorial Collection, Special Collections, University Library, University of Illinois at Chicago.