This is a guest post by Amelia Torres, a spring intern in the Office of Communications.
The Library’s Free to Use and Reuse sets of copyright-free prints and photographs are, as always, yours for the taking. You can explore sets that include compilations of travel posters, autumn and halloween, weddings, movie palaces and dozens more.
Since summer sports are upon us, let’s check out this one on … athletes!
Jack Roosevelt Robinson — Jackie — is one of the most consequential athletes in national history, and arguably the most.
In 1947, when brutal Jim Crow segregation still ruled most of American life, Robinson broke the color line in professional baseball, at the time the nation’s preeminent sport. Playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, mostly at second base, he endured innumerable death threats to become Major League Baseball’s Rookie of the Year, later its Most Valuable Player and a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
He went on to a second career as a prominent activist for civil rights and social justice, setting the template for the athlete-activist that continues today. His daughter, Sharon, was at the National Book Festival in 2019, discussing her memoir on growing up with her father and his commitment to social justice, “Child of the Dream.”
Today, Major League Baseball has not only retired Robinson’s jersey number, 42, from the entire league, but on April 15 — the anniversary of Robinson’s debut — every player on every team wears his number. No player in any other sport is honored in this way.
Even when he was still playing, though, Robinson seemed larger than life: He got the comic-book treatment as a hero then, too.
The photo above is the cover of Fawcett’s #5 in its “Jackie Robinson” series, which ran for six original issues over four years. (The Library has four of these.) This one from 1951 is 36 pages and includes biographical stories about Robinson, from a narrative of a series against the St. Louis Cardinals to his college days at UCLA.
The cover features Robinson wearing his blue Dodgers cap, his name in raincoat yellow, the rest of the type in bright white with lots of exclamation points. All of this was set against a bright orange background, the type of eye-popping color scheme typical of Fawcett comics.
Comic books in the midcentury covered all sorts of things, from romance to superheroes, but it’s important to keep in mind that Robinson’s comic was before segregation was overturned. It was more than a decade before the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 transformed much of American life. Before all this, Robinson was inspiring the nation — even its young readers — to believe in a future that they couldn’t yet imagine.
All for just 10 cents.
Joan Newton Cuneo, people! Race driving queen!
The lady was born into a wealthy family in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1876. As a kid, she learned how to operate one of the family’s steam trains. She took to newfangled automobiles, too.
By 1905, she was 29, a wife, mother, and race car driver, initiating a trailblazing career that lasted a decade. She hit the Glidden Tour for several years, road rallies that went several hundred grueling miles across parts of the country; roads, having never been made for automobiles, were terrible. She crashed. She came back. She had great success at a series of races in New Orleans. In every race, she held her own against male competitors. She once hit 111.5 mph on the Long Island Motor Parkway, a record for female drivers. She was a national celebrity.
Racing officials never warmed to the idea of a woman behind the wheel, though, and women were soon banned from races in the American Automobile Association. She kept on for a while, but a divorce, more bans against women drivers and a remarriage to a wealthy mill owner led to a more traditional life in Ontonagon, Michigan, a small village on the shore of Lake Superior.
She died in 1934 at the age of 57, her fame and exploits mostly forgotten.
“Mad for Speed: The Racing Life of Joan Newton Cuneo,” a 2013 biography by Elsa A. Nystrom, revisited her extraordinary career. In June 2018, the National Automobile Museum put her on the cover of its magazine, Precious Metal, describing her as a “racing hero.”
Above, we catch up with her in her prime, sometime between 1910 and 1917. Oddly, she posed without one of her signature hats. Nystrom writes that Cuneo always appeared in public as “feminine, not a feminist, dressed as a lady should … (but) not afraid to challenge the male establishment.”
You can see that sensibility here, in the common-sense bun, the wedding ring and a driving uniform with what appears to be a pleated skirt. It’s a picture that says power, direction and drive.
Lastly, let’s check out a track event, the low hurdles. This was particularly challenging for women in the early years of the 20th century, as proper ladies were deemed to be too delicate for most forms of strenuous exercise, much less competitive athletics, so our hurdlers had to make do with bloomers, skirts and blouses.
Women were allowed in a few events in the second modern Olympics in 1900, but of the 997 athletes in those games, only 22 were women. There were no Olympic track events for women until 1928. (Today, all Olympic events have female competitions and 48 percent of all Olympic athletes are women.)
The photograph above was taken in the 1920s at Central High School (now Cardozo) in Washington, D.C. The clothing certainly suggests we’re not fully in the Jazz Age, so it’s likely this was early in the decade.
Our hurdlers don’t appear to be teenagers, they’re not wearing school colors and there are no students in the stands, so we’re guessing this was not a school function but some festive holiday event — perhaps the Fourth of July, Memorial Day or Labor Day weekend. The sailors in uniform and the large American flag at the bottom left give that idea some support.
Some lively music, lemonade, a civic speech or two and some light-hearted athletic competition; look, the ladies are running the hurdles! The sun is out, there’s a light breeze, it’s a good time. World War I and the flu pandemic are over now; the Roaring Twenties are upon us.
Title IX, the landmark legislation that would pave the way for equality in women’s sports, was still half a century away.
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