From Cap Anson refusing to play with black players in the 1890s to Leo Durocher sticking up for Jackie Robinson in the 1940s, baseball has many stories involving race. In his latest piece for Sons of Sam Horn, Dan Ennis looks at the first black Red Sox fan.
In 1979, reporter Marie Brenner of the Boston Herald wrote an article entitled “Why are there no black fans at Fenway?”
In 1991, the Boston Globe attempted to count the number of African American fans at Fenway Park and concluded that .02 percent of those present at the stadium were black.
In 2002, Howard Bryant published Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, and in that book he noted that black fans had never come to Fenway in great numbers: “Black fans felt uncomfortable at Fenway. They had viewed the team with suspicion and ballpark as unsafe.”
Images of Red Sox fans suggest the franchise has never attracted black fans in significant numbers. Here’s the Royal Rooters, that iconic Red Sox fan club of the early twentieth century:
Zooming in, I think the fellow in the upper left corner might be the sole black man in the photo:
A later, clearer photo of the Rooters offers no better prospects:
Maybe the gentleman on the far left-center is African American?
Those pictures of the Royal Rooters are assuredly representative — every photo of the fan club shows a group as pale as the crowd at a Radiohead or Coldplay concert. For much of the twentieth century, evidence of the existence of black Red Sox fans is shaky. Yet forty years before Red Sox manager Pinky Riggins declared “There’ll be no nigger on this ball club as long as I have anything to say about it,” and seventy years before Jim Rice was taunted with the nickname “Uncle Ben” in reference to the black man on the rice package, there was Asa Spades, the original black Red Sox fan:
Asa Spades (the name refers to “spade,” as in “black”) was a comic strip character who appeared in the Boston Daily Globe from 1910 until 1918. Drawing on racist stereotypes of African Americans, the character spoke in dialect and got into slapstick misadventures. Many of the strips centered on the character’s obsession with baseball and his particular love of the Boston Red Sox. Asa Spades occasionally interacts with the Boston Braves (particularly during the 1914 “Miracle Braves” season), but most of the baseball plots involve the Red Sox, and once Fenway Park was completed in 1912, that stadium provided the backdrop for many of Asa Spades’ antics.
The Asa Spades comic strip was written and drawn by white cartoonist Wallace Goldsmith. Goldsmith had a long career in Boston, having created comics for the Boston Herald and worked as a book illustrator (Darius Green and his Flying Machine, 1910). As a staff cartoonist for the Boston Daily Globe, Goldsmith was charged with providing images to go along with baseball coverage, and his single-panel game summaries allowed fans to picture baseball action in an era when newspaper photos were still rare:
Goldsmith’s Asa Spades character drew on shuck-and-jive tropes now considered so repellent it is difficult to comprehend a time when they were mainstream. Asa Spades has trouble holding a job (one strip is entitled “Asa Spades has a Job — For a Minute”). When he does find work, he is often fired, usually by being bodily ejected from his place of employment. Asa Spades is musical (often seen with a guitar, always willing to break into a minstrel tune) and itinerant (there are many examples of Asa Spades sneaking onto, and getting thrown from, trains). There are watermelons. Goldsmith appears to have been an equal opportunity racist, since Asa Spades calls his Italian neighbor “Spaghetti,” gets into a fight with a “Chinaman,” and accuses a Jew of being cheap.
Given the paucity of black Red Sox fans, it is surprising that Wallace embedded in Asa Spades such dedication to the team. In the winter, Asa Spades pines for the baseball season:
In the spring Asa Spades greets baseball’s return with joy, and attempts to travel to the Red Sox training camp (naturally, he gets on the wrong train):
Like any other Boston fan in the 1910’s, Asa Spades imagines what it would be like to throw as hard as Red Sox legend Smoky Joe Wood:
So dedicated to the Red Sox is Asa Spades, that even when injured, he sneaks out of the hospital to attend a game:
No fair weather fan, Asa Spades schemes to survive chilly early-season games. One strip features him strapping a stove to his back to keep warm and wearing the appliance into the stadium. Another shows him attending a game in a fur-lined barrel:
Whereas the predominantly white Royal Rooters were immortalized for their fanatical dedication to the Red Sox, Goldsmith created in Asa Spades a black character with an even more extreme level of devotion to the team. At a time when Boston was Red Sox crazy (the team won the World Series in 1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918), Asa Spades appeared frequently in New England’s largest-circulation newspaper, in strips often set at Fenway Park. The Red Sox — an all-white team with a nearly all-white fan base — were part of Boston’s white culture. Why was one of the the team’s most visible and dedicated fans a fictional black man?
In Boston Confronts Jim Crow, author Mark Schneider dismisses the Asa Spades character as a “harmless buffoon,” merely reflective of “the white culture’s image of the African American.” The truth is more complicated. Whereas there are plenty of Asa Spades comic strips that show the character engaged in buffoonery — pratfalls, impractical schemes, fisticuffs and pranks — over the course of the eight years the Asa Spades strips ran, the character acquired significant nuance and surprising depth.
Throughout the comic strip, there are details and examples that run counter to the most prominent elements of the minstrel tradition. For example, Asa Spades is often shown reading:
Despite his vocabulary, Asa Spades is presented as clever, and on occasion he solves complicated problems without resorting to physical comedy:
Rather than being a stock character in the Brother Bones tradition, Asa Spades quotes poetry:
He also has unusual skills and powerful friends, as the reader learns when Asa Spades pilots an airplane over the Massachusetts State House and is greeted by Governor Ebenezer Sumner Draper:
Or when Asa Spades travels to London and meets King George V:
A patriot, Asa Spades fights under the command of legendary General John “Black Jack” Pershing during the Mexican Expedition:
The character’s social conscience is emphasized, and there are two series that show Asa Spades helping poor whites. In one strip, Asa Spades is down to his last quarter, and plans to spend that quarter on a ticket to Fenway Park. Confronted by a hungry (white) street urchin on Lansdowne Street, Asa Spades gives the youngster the quarter, deciding that feeding a child is more important than attending the game. Struck at that moment by an automobile, Asa Spades is launched over the wall and into the ballpark:
In this case, there is indeed buffoonery, but the slapstick is triggered by a black man giving money to a poor white, a familiar scenario for Asa Spades, who commits a similar act in a later strip:
No reasonable person could conclude that the status of Asa Spades as a bona fide Red Sox fan eliminates the offensiveness of Goldsmith’s black (and black-face) minstrel-inspired humor. The character’s speech patterns are sufficient reminder of the racial pecking order. Nonetheless, there is a dissonance in the character’s attachment to the Red Sox, and it is through his membership in the society of Red Sox fans that Asa Spades reveals characteristics that undercut some of the racist assumptions of his era.
During the 1910 season, Asa Spades takes a break from the physical comedy and provides color commentary on the games:
As the Red Sox fought for the 1910 pennant, Goldsmith created a series of strips about Asa’s efforts to secure hard-to-get tickets:
The lack of tickets was a newsworthy issue in Boston, as the pre-Fenway Red Sox crammed as many people as possible into the Huntington Avenue Grounds. A July 20, 1910 game against Cleveland attracted a record 32,318 paying fans, well above the capacity of the ballpark. After the tickets gave out, the Boston Globe reported, some “thousands more” entered the stadium even though there were no seats available. Asa Spades, like many fans, had a hard time seeing his favorite team.
Like any fan, Asa Spades had strong opinions about what is expected from his sports heroes:
He was quite willing to call out performances he found uninspiring, punctuating his concerns with his characteristically garbled pronunciation of “mercy”:
Of course, Red Sox fandom was not entirely ennobling. Like the grown men of today who slather on body paint and appear at sporting events in undignified outfits, Asa Spades was all too willing to humiliate himself for his favorite team. In a 1912 sequence he offers to serve as a mascot for the Red Sox and ends up being pummelled by a preteen white boy. Nonetheless, Goldsmith — inadvertently, we must presume — grants his creation a dimensionality that goes beyond his usual Jim Crow expectations. This is seen most clearly when the comic strip takes a meta turn in 1913, and Asa addresses his status as a comic strip character.
Much of the humor of the Asa Spades strips was derived from the central character’s increasingly unlikely series of professions. Over the years Asa Spades works as a farmer, fisherman, delivery boy, matchmaker, and carnival attraction. His employment, whether it be standing on the street wearing a sandwich board or taking tickets at a “Dime Store Museum,” usually puts him in contact with the public. Soft-hearted, he quits a job in a taxidermy shop because he can’t bear the sight of dead animals. On occasion, however, Asa Spades would acknowledge the reader and note that his actual “job” was to be a comic strip character. One 1912 gag hinged upon Asa Spades telling off his cartoonist boss:
In other words, Asa Spades being hired, fired, and often unemployed are conditions of his employment within the comic strip world created by Wallace Goldsmith. In that sense, Asa Spades never was lazy or shiftless; he’s been busy and effective in his profession, countering the supposed negative work ethic of African American comic characters. A 1913 strip acknowledges this level of fictional reality. Entitled “Mr. Asa Spades is Back,” the premise is that Asa Spades has just escaped from a group of pirates (don’t ask). He is back, that is, at Fenway Park. In the strip Asa greets the white fans of the Red Sox:
After the game, Asa Spades is again treated with affection by white fans:
This 1913 strip presents an idealized image — the white crowd at Fenway calling the lone black fan into fellowship. Loyal readers of the Asa Spades comic strip would have known that “De Boss” was not any of the fictional supervisors who bedeviled the Asa Spades character at his low level jobs, but the cartoonist-creator. The artist decided how much time Asa Spades spent on fandom and and how much time he spent on buffoonery. With that turn from a proto-Stepin Fetchit-type to a character aware of his art, Asa Spades becomes a fantasy of black Red Sox fandom. That the first black Red Sox fan was concocted by a white cartoonist with a taste for lazy prejudiced humor is one of the ironies of Boston’s racial — and baseball — history.
Dan Ennis has written about prospect hype, an epic cage match, why the Red Sox win, sports media, and the original superfan.
Follow Dan on Twitter @DeanDanEnnis.