Major League Spring Training is going on now, and though the pandemic has made the thought of going to a ballpark all but unthinkable before I’m properly vaccinated (and even after, maybe), a lifelong love of the game has sent me back to Ken Burns’s 1994 PBS series Baseball. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the entire series, but I must not have been paying proper attention to the earliest episodes because a throwaway line in Episode 2 (“Something Like a War”) sent me into historical archive research with a sickening feeling in my stomach.
It was in the discussion of New York Giants player/manager John McGraw, a titan of early 20thcentury baseball. At one point, narrator John Chancellor says, “To help him win he carried in his pocket a good luck charm, a piece of rope once used at a lynching.” I froze when I heard the line, but there was no follow-up. The documentary continued onward, providing exactly zero details as to how McGraw obtained the rope or why on earth he felt the need to put such a macabre and vile souvenir in his pocket on a daily basis.
After telling this to my friend and former OC Weekly colleague Gabriel San Roman, he quickly found this 2009 article from Springfield State Journal-Register columnist Dave Bakke. Fifteen years after Burns’s documentary, Bakke had discovered McGraw’s souvenir (with as much horror as I experienced) in Cait Murphy’s book Crazy ’08, about the 1908 Major League season. According to Bakke, McGraw obtained the rope from Springfield locals following an August 1908 race riot in which mobs of white people had attacked and killed Black people across the city. The actual rope given to McGraw had been used to kill either William Donnegan or Scott Burton, Bakke wrote.
“McGraw promised the locals that he would keep the rope with him during the remainder of the season as a good-luck charm,” Bakke wrote. “My jaw dropped to the floor when I read that.”
To emphasize the point: McGraw carried with him a piece of rope used to kill a man as a talisman—like a lucky rabbit’s foot. He was not ashamed or concerned about doing so. In fact, he was apparently happy and pleased to do so.
Wanting to know more, I jumped onto Newspapers.com. There, I was astonished to find a March 19, 1909 United Press story—not on McGraw’s lynching rope, but on fellow baseball Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie’s. Datelined Mobile, Alabama, the brief story (which ran in five papers, all north of the Mason-Dixon Line), detailed how fans in Mobile had given Lajoie, then manager of the Cleveland Naps, a “section of rope used in a lynching” as a “token of good luck.” The story included a surprising number of details on the lynching itself.
“[This was a] portion of the rope used to lynch the negro Richard Robertson, Saturday morning, Jan. 23, at the corner of St. Emanuel and Church Streets,” the UP reported. “On the morning of the lynching a masked mob of white men broke into the jail and overpowered the jailers and inside of three minutes they left the jail and the negro was hanged to a tree half a mile from the Mobile county jail.”
The article further claimed that the idea that portions of lynching or hangmen’s ropes would bring good luck to the possessor came from “the Spanish of olden times.” But most chilling of all, the article concluded by noting that, “Lajoie turned it over to the Cleveland club for framing.”
Like McGraw, Lajoie saw the rope as a good and honorable thing—something to brag about. He had even been told the name of the man who had died by it, and his reaction was to tell his ball club—which today is known as the Cleveland Indians—to locate a suitable frame for it.
Historians note that white mobs lynched more than 3,000 Black people—men, women, and children—from 1880 to 1930. It’s unlikely any of them were guilty of anything other than infuriating white egos and/or being successful within the white power structure. The taking of souvenirs from these lynchings was not uncommon, and they were often of an even more sinister nature than simply a section of rope. In his 2005 Theatre Journal article “The Black Body as Souvenir in American Lynching,” historian Harvey Young detailed how crowds would even pay for bits of the lynching victims’ bodies—burned bits of flesh, severed toes, teeth.
“I am interested in this feature, in large part, because I am haunted by the image of white hands, variably male or female, adult or child, holding aloft a slice of Sam Hose’s crisped liver, Richard Coleman’s burnt flesh, or George Ward’s toe,” Young wrote in his essay. “As a means of working through my own complicated relationship with this image while simultaneously spotlighting an often neglected area of lynching scholarship, I here focus on the lynched black body in the aftermath of the lynching event and variously read it in terms of the souvenir, the fetish, and the performance remain. I contend that the lynching keepsake not only can be defined by, but also can exceed, each of these three terms. Containing within itself the various features of the souvenir, the fetish, and the remain, the body part recalls and remembers the performance of which it is a part. It not only gestures towards the belief that motivated its theft, but also renders visible the body from which it was taken.”
Today, the names John McGraw and Napoleon Lajoie are still held in high esteem. They were certainly portrayed with near-reverence in Burns’s Baseball series. The Baseball Hall of Fame considers Lajoie “the first superstar in American League history.” It should surprise no one that there’s a granite monument of McGraw in Truxton, New York. In 2006, the sports writer Frank Deford fawned over McGraw, gushing that he was “the model for the classic American coach—a male version of the whore with a heart of gold—a tough, flinty so-and-so who was field-smart, a man’s man his players came to love despite themselves” and exclaiming that “every American could admire John J. McGraw.”
In fact, I imagine that many Americans–Black Americans–don’t admire McGraw or Lajoie, and for very good reasons. That the two men kept lynching ropes as good luck charms betrays a fact of American history white people mostly ignore, even today—bloody, violent racism infects nearly everything in America, including its beloved “national pastime.” It infects it not merely in the past, in those decades when Black people were banned from the majors and lynchings were common, but today as well, when we still speak of men like McGraw and Lajoie with respect. Their use of lynching ropes as charms betrays their sadism and racism, and our inability or unwillingness to reevaluate them on that basis betrays ours.
1912 photo of John McGraw: Charles M. Conlon/Wikimedia Commons