This guest post is from Doug Peach, a Folklife Specialist here at the Library of Congress. In it he describes materials that the Center has drawn on recently for two collection displays focused on sports and community.
The American Folklife Center is, perhaps, best known for its collections of music and storytelling—and for good reason. Our holdings feature the Alan Lomax Collection, a treasure trove of music from around the world. We also steward invaluable stories from formerly enslaved peoples through the Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories Collection. However, a closer look at our collections reveals that the American Folklife Center also has important materials related to sports. This blog post highlights collections featuring sports and sports cultures at the American Folklife Center. These collections detail well-known sports, like baseball, as well as regional sporting practices, like Appalachian independent wrestling, that may be less familiar. These materials elucidate the richness of sports cultures and highlight key individuals in sporting communities in the United States. We encourage you to explore each collection more deeply by clicking on the links below.
Baseball cultures comprise the largest collection of sports-related materials at the American Folklife Center. The collections detail Native American, Puerto Rican, African American, and Euro-American communities, from Nebraska to Massachusetts, picking up gloves and bats for the love of the game.
Puerto Rican Baseball in Lowell, Massachusetts (1987)
Baseball is the most popular sport in Puerto Rico and among its diasporic communities. Puerto Ricans held their first baseball game in the late 19th century and established their first teams in 1897. As Puerto Ricans moved from the island, they took the game with them. The AFC’s collections have a series of photographs of young Puerto Ricans in Lowell, Massachusetts playing baseball on August 27, 1987. The game, between “Los Latinos” and “Los Boricuas,” took place at Roberto Clemente Field—named for the famous Puerto Rican baseball star, who played 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The photos below show the two teams on the field in Lowell, accompanied by their parents, coaches, and umpires. The photos are part of the Lowell Folklife Project Collection at the American Folklife Center (AFC 1987/042). From 1987 to 1988, American Folklife Center staff and contracted folklorists documented ethnic neighborhoods, occupations, and community life in Lowell, Massachusetts—a city in the east of the state.
Softball Among Omaha Indians in Macy, Nebraska (1983)
In the early 1980s, staff at the American Folklife Center began to repatriate 1890s recordings of Omaha Indians to their communities of origin. In 1983, a repatriation trip coincided with the Omaha Powwow in Macy, Nebraska. There, AFC staff member Carl Fleischhauer took photos of powwow attendees playing a softball game. In the photos, one can see the local fans bringing their coolers and family members to watch the game, while the players cross home plate and swing for the fences. Today, a swimming pool occupies the area where this baseball field once stood. These photos are available in the Omaha Indian Music Collection (AFC 1986/038).
African American Legends in Baseball: Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, Ernie Banks, and Rachel Robinson
African Americans have made, and continue to make, important contributions to baseball in the United States. The American Folklife Center’s collections hold interviews, transcripts, photographs, and videos from three important African American players—Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, Ernie Banks, and Rachel Robinson.
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson (1935–2017) was the first female pitcher in the Negro leagues. Following her retirement from baseball at the age of 19, Johnson began another career as a nurse at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, DC, where she worked for thirty years. Ernie Banks (1931–2015) was a star player in Major League Baseball for the Chicago Cubs from 1953 to 1971 and was voted the “greatest Cub ever” by team fans in 1969. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Banks the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Both Johnson and Banks appear in two collections at the American Folklife Center. First, the two appeared at Baseball Americana—a 2009 symposium to celebrate the culture of baseball and inspired by the rich collections of baseball materials at the Library of Congress.
Second, Johnson and Banks were interviewed for the National Visionary Leadership Project (NVLP)—a multi-year effort to collect oral history interviews with leading African Americans in the United States (link takes you to a finding aid for the collection). The interview recordings, transcriptions, and photos associated with the NVLP are housed at the American Folklife Center. Also interviewed for the National Visionary Leadership Project was Rachel Robinson (born 1922). Robinson is the widow of Jackie Robinson—the player responsible for breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Robinson is a nurse, professor, and civil rights leader. After her husband’s premature death, Robinson worked tirelessly to champion causes they both supported, including affordable housing, college scholarships, and leadership training.
Statue of Comedian Lou Costello
Louis Francis Cristillo (1906–1959), or Lou Costello, was an American actor and comedian. Costello is most recognized for his comedic work with Bud Abbott in the duo Abbott and Costello. Their most famous routine was “Who’s on First?”—a skit about a baseball fan and manager trying to figure out the players’ names on a team. A 1938 recording of “Who’s on First?” was placed in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2003, affirming its status as an iconic piece of American comedy. Costello was memorialized by his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey with a statue on Cianci Street in 1992, seen in the photograph above. Costello is depicted with a baseball bat in reference to “Who’s on First?” The photos of Costello’s statue, taken by Martha Cooper, are part of Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting—a collection of interviews and photographs documented in Paterson, New Jersey over a four-month period in 1994 (AFC 1995/028).
Baseball Game in Southwest West Virginia
In 2000, folklorist Mary Hufford documented the opening day of the Little League baseball season in Packsville, West Virginia, where hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the occasion. There, Hufford took photographs of a local team and fans at the stadium. The close connection to the coal mining industry is documented in her photos, as a coal train runs parallel to the baseball field in the image below. In her notes, Hufford writes that “[t]he three ballfields have been at the mouth of Little Marsh Fork since the nineteen forties. Historically, each coal company sponsored its own team, and coal towns competed against each other.” These photographs comprise part of the Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia at the American Folklife Center (AFC 1999/008).
Baseball Batmaker Jack Marucci
Jack Marucci is a baseball batmaker, co-founder of Marucci Sports, and the Director of Performance and Innovation at Louisiana State University. In the early 2010s, Marucci became famous for the popularity of his baseball bats. Today, Marucci’s bats have surpassed Louisville Slugger as the most used bat among professional baseball players. Folklorist Jocelyn Donlon interviewed Marucci in 2014 for her collection Baton Rouge Small Businesses and Trades (AFC 2014/023). The project was funded by an Archie Green Fellowship from the American Folklife Center. In addition to the photo below, Donlon’s work includes an interview with Marucci about his work, his life, and his choice of Amish wood for his baseball bats.
Throughout the 20th century, Chicago, Illinois has been a hub for immigrant labor, bringing communities from Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia to the city. Many of these communities used soccer to maintain their national and regional identities in diaspora. Immigrants to Chicago formed teams with players from their homelands, celebrated victories with traditional food from their home countries, and cheered on teams from the sidelines in their native languages. The sports’ popularity in Chicago has been impressive. According to a 1977 Chicago Tribune article by journalist Steve Bogira, the city’s leagues had 350 teams, of which 200 were Spanish speaking. The game could also be divisive. The same article details arguments and fights—on and off the field—which took place among the city’s Latin American, Ukrainian, Czech, and Polish soccer teams.
In 1977, field researchers documented the city’s ethnic communities through the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection, housed in the collections of the American Folklife Center (AFC 1981/004). Photographer Jonas Dovydenas documented Latin American soccer teams, and their fans, taking part in a match at the summer of 1977 at what is believed to be Montrose Harbor Park.
Independent Professional Wrestling
In Appalachia, professional wrestling is a popular form of sport and entertainment. In contrast to national wrestling associations, like WWE, the local wresting takes place in parking lots, community centers, and armory gyms. According to folklorist Emily Hilliard, Appalachian professional wrestling is rooted in the disenfranchisement of the working class. As Hilliard argues, professional wrestling in Appalachia is historically linked to “rough and tumble” fighting in areas of the rural South, where working-class men used violent fighting to negotiate their social status and assert their authority. Contemporary wrestlers in Appalachia champion such violence, but, according to Hilliard “also defy real-life material conditions by asserting control over violence and converting it to a safe spectacle of entertainment” (2022: 161). For audience members, wrestling can be a form of escape and therapy, especially for men. When viewers make the wrestlers their proxies, and the wrestlers are victorious, the viewers’ own class-based struggles can be performatively and temporarily subverted (Hilliard 2022: 158–165).
In 2019, folklorist Delainey Morgan Bowers interviewed and documented professional wrestlers in Appalachia for a collection titled Independent Professional Wrestlers in Appalachia (AFC 2019/029). With funding from an Archie Green Fellowship from the American Folklife Center, Bowers’ work generated interviews with wrestlers and an impressive set of photographs.
A key collection of car racing at the American Folklife Center comes from the Ransomville Speedway—an important nexus for community in Ransomville, New York. Ransomville is a town of approximately 1,500 people. There, every Friday night, community members gather to watch drivers compete on the legendary dirt track. Local resident Ed Ortiz, and a group of local racers called the Ransomville Slow-Pokes, founded the racecourse in 1958. Today, the racecourse is a source of regional pride and local identity in Niagara County and the wider Buffalo-Niagara region.
Folklorist Edward Y. Millar documented the Ransomville Speedway in 2020 and 2021 through a project entitled The Ransomville Speedway: Dirt Track Racing in Western New York (AFC 2020/013). Millar conducted interviews and collected photographs with not only drivers, but with concession stand workers, mechanics, and announcers who contribute to the culture of the speedway. Millar’s work was funded through an Archie Green Fellowship from the American Folklife Center.
The American Folklife Center also stewards a small, but important, set of photographs of young skateboarders. The photographs depict young men in Lowell, Massachusetts, in parking lots and on city walls, practicing their tricks and observing the moves of their fellow skaters. The athletes gathered for a group photo, which illustrates their camaraderie and skateboarding’s role in the group’s cohesion. Folklorist Douglas DeNatale took the pictures as part of the Lowell Folklife Project Collection on September 1, 1987 (AFC 1987/042).
The Civil Rights History Project, housed at the American Folklife Center, is another important collection featuring leading African American athletes from a range of sports. Notably, the collection features interviews with track-and-field athlete Dr. John Carlos and basketball star Bill Russell. Click on their names to access the interview recordings and transcripts.
A note on the impetus for this blog post: Several times a year, the American Folklife Center is asked to display items in our collections for visitors and guests to the Library of Congress. In May and June 2023, the Special Collections Directorate at the Library of Congress asked the American Folklife Center to participate in two displays related to sports – one for a visit by members of the North American Society for Sports History and the other for visitors to the 2023 Congressional Baseball Game. Staff at the American Folklife Center gathered materials for the displays and authored interpretive captions. Approximately 250 people visited the displays. This blog post was created with materials from these two displays.
Hilliard, Emily. 2022. Making our Future: Visionary Folklore and Everyday Culture in Appalachia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.