The Team that Conquered Mexico, MLB Style

Originally published on

Thousands gathered outside Mexico City’s train station on March 18, 1907, to catch a glimpse of their sporting heroes. The new arrivals were none other than the World Series champs, the Chicago White Sox. “Mexico is all stirred up over the visit of the Sox,” Sporting Life reported, “the hidalgos throng the streets, gazing open-eyed … and proclaiming their intention of crowding to the games.” Arriving a day later than planned, owing to what reporters called “bush league locomotives,” the team reached the Mexican capital, ready for its eight-day spring training that included exhibition games against Mexican teams.

Counting on good weather and with hopes of raising enough money to pay for the training and trip expenses, White Sox owner and president Charles Comiskey was also looking for the “right” type of player to join his team. “If the Latino player … [had] the right combination of talent and racial ambiguity, they would try to sign the guy,” explains Adrian Burgos Jr., history professor at University of Illinois and author of Playing America’s Game. Such prospects led Comiskey to Mexico City, where he hoped to tap into baseball’s growing influence in Latin America, since, as Sporting Life wrote, the game had caught “the fancy of the high Latin American races.” Comiskey was so hopeful that he had already planned a return trip for the following year.

In 1907, Mexico was in the last years of Porfirio Díaz’s regime. A dictator in everything but name, Díaz modernized Mexican industry and the economy through foreign investment, often at the expense of his countrymen. Besides money and business acumen, foreigners also brought sports like cricket and baseball. So it was not coincidental that as cricket’s popularity declined and baseball’s soared, U.S. investments and presence in Mexico surpassed those of the English.

Historically, baseball has projected certain American ideals — namely, democracy, fair play and intelligence — and been introduced to countries as a “civilized” alternative to other forms of entertainment. “Baseball … had attributes of modernization that made it attractive to the elites in nations attempting to become part of the cosmopolitan world,” says William Beezley, history professor at the University of Arizona and author of Judas at the Jockey Club and Other Episodes of Porfirian Mexico. At the turn of the 20th century, to play American baseball was to be modern, and Mexico eagerly stepped up to the plate.

“Even in the Land of Montezuma,” Sporting Life wrote, “base[ball] has become established along the usual well-defined American line.” This line was based on class, with the game proving particularly attractive to Mexican aristocrats, “especially young [Mexican] men who had gone to the U.S. for education and for travel,” Beezley explains. Conversely, the lower Mexican classes continued attending bullfights and playing pelota — a cross between handball and basketball.

With Mexican baseball in its infancy, the White Sox — aka “Comiskey’s invaders” — dominated the competition. Still, the Chicago Tribune described two Mexican players as the “greatest twirler[s] in Mexico.” The duo had pitched well despite the lack of defensive support that in one game resulted in 11 errors, leading to a 15-4 White Sox victory.

As with most countries, modernization in Mexico came unevenly. Uninspired hotel rooms, lack of hot water and no telegraph connection to the U.S. marred the experience for Chicago’s star players. High ticket prices for the exhibition games also limited the audience to the country’s elite, ruining Comiskey’s financial plans. “The Mexicans did not show the interest expected in the White Sox and the air was too rarefied for perfect training,” Sporting Life reported.

Just two weeks after receiving such a warm welcome, J.L. Comiskey, Charles’ son, said the team’s future trips to Mexico had been canceled. “Members of the team were thoroughly disgusted at the climate, their surroundings and everything connected with the trip,” he reportedly said,        

With Díaz ousted in 1911 by the Mexican Revolution, baseball slumped in the land of the ancient Aztecs until peace returned. The sport’s rebirth was influenced by the revolutionary government’s attitudes toward politics, society and even sport — all of which were used to symbolize the revolution’s accomplishments. Baseball’s class dimension and geographic reach changed so that it was longer enjoyed by only the country’s elite in the capital. “A lot of baseball was spread through the migration lines and the railroads,” Burgos says, explaining how the game expanded beyond Mexico City. “In a lot of railroad towns throughout northern Mexico, you [saw] baseball.”

It’s unsurprising, then, that so many of the country’s greatest baseball players hail from northern Mexico. Latinos now make up nearly 30 percent of Major League Baseball rosters. So while the White Sox’s 1907 spring training and exhibition games in Mexico City failed to hit it out of the park, they were part of the early effort to extend baseball’s international reach.


How Jack Johnson and the 4th of July Gave Birth to the Great White Underdog

Originally published on

Under the hot Reno, Nevada, sun, Jack Johnson—the first black heavyweight boxing champion—entered the ring and smiled. He stood there waiting for his opponent while a ring-side brass band, rumored ready to play “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” instead decided on “a selection of national airs.” The tunes inflamed the crowd’s already-high patriotism. After all, it was July 4th and tens of thousands had gathered to not only watch the “Fight of the Century” but to witness Jim Jeffries—the Great White Hope—reset the supposed proper racial order.

As Jeffries worked his way through the delighted throngs and into the ring, he carried with him the hopes of an entire race that had begged him to unretire and, as Jack London put it, “emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that smile from Johnson’s face.” In 1910, Jeffries finally heeded those demands, feeling a duty to at least try to regain the title for the white race. Jeffries said, “I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all.”

As the fight began, the challenger showed the confidence and pride of a man expecting to win. He was a heavy favorite; it mattered little that six years had passed since Jeffries last fought, or that Johnson was younger and in the prime of his athletic prowess. Jeffries was white and with that came—per the day’s “science”—inherent mental advantages that were enough to overcome any physical disadvantages. “The superiority of the brain of the white man to that of the black,” wroteCurrent Literature, “is undisputed by all authorities. The white man’s brain is a finer intellectual instrument than is that of his black brother.” With “all the laws of science and reason,” Jeffries was the assumed victor.

The “science” was wrong, and Johnson—described by The San Francisco Call as “a natural, grinning savage”—battered Jeffries. It was the beginning of his unwitting contribution to the creation of the Great White Underdog, an enduring mythology forged during two of Johnson’s fights held on the nation’s birthday.

In the 15th round, the seemingly impossible happened: Johnson knocked down the previously unbeaten Jeffries who then struggled to his feet. Jeffries went down twice more, standing up only with help from ringside spectators. With a knockout appearing inevitable, the crowd yelled for the referee to stop the carnage, “Stop it! Stop it! Don’t let him be knocked out!

The referee heeded their call, and the beaten Jeffries stumbled back to his corner aided by trainers and supporters. He exited the hastily built wooden amphitheater the same way he came in, but unlike his entrance, he left bruised and bleeding. One journalist in attendance said he “looked like a man who [had] lost all this world [had] to give. He looked that most pathetic of things—the conquered master. It seemed as though we ought to weep. And yet one could not weep.”

As for Johnson, he was unsurprised by his triumph. “I won just as I thought I would,” he said. “Right from the start I knew that I would win.” Johnson’s victory over the Great White Hope incitedrace riots across the country, leading to numerous African American deaths. And yet, noting both the momentous event as well a sense of desperation within their horrid societal conditions, some members of the black community believed the deaths—although tragic—were a suitable price to pay for Johnson’s victory. “It was a good deal better for Johnson to win and a few Negroes to have been killed in body for it,” the Chicago Defendera leading African American newspaper—wrote, “[t]han for Johnson to have lost and all Negroes to have been killed in spirit by the preachments of inferiority from the combined white press.”

The day after the fight also signaled the beginning of boxing’s social decline, at least for the time being. Some cities, fearing further riots, barred the fight film from being shown. Another reason offered for banning the fight: it dishonored Independence Day. Prize fighting did not end, but a black man holding the heavyweight championship drastically altered it.

Johnson’s next fight came two years later, again on July 4th, when he faced Fireman Jim Flynn. But unlike his previous bout, where the public considered him an underdog based on racial inferiority, Johnson was the overwhelming favorite against, “the gamest and the toughest of all the heavyweights.” Conversely, in an era of eugenics, newspapers repeatedly portrayed Jack Johnson as a Brute Caricature—“innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal.” Leading up to the fight, papers repeatedly mentioned the size discrepancy between Flynn and Johnson, reinforcing the monumental task the challenger faced.

The San Francisco Call noted Flynn’s perfect condition as he entered the ring, pointing to the pink glow that made him “a nice picture of health and manhood.” The same paper referred to Johnson as “black battler” and “tar baby.”

Expectedly, Johnson dominated Flynn. Outclassed, Flynn resorted to headbutts, leaping upwardswhen he found his head under Johnson’s chin. The illegal moves drew several warnings, but Flynn continued, claiming, “The —— nigger’s holding me … he holding me all the time.” Confronted with complete dominance by a black man, white supremacists grasped at the absurd to maintain white superiority and excuse Flynn’s cheating.

“Flynn fought one of the roughest fights in ring history,” wrote The Day Book. “In one department of the game, at which the black race is supposed to excel, the white man showed his superiority. He had the hardest head.”

In the ninth round, police stopped the fight, and though he was never close to hurting Johnson, some portrayed Flynn valiantly, casting him as the “brave fireman…who defied Jack Johnson for nine rounds on the Glorious Fourth.” Accounts of the fight made Flynn the aggressor and disparaged Johnson’s “slow, coldly scientific chopping” style. Randy Roberts, author of Papa Jack, one of several Johnson biographies, described the boxer’s way of fighting: “He generally fought with his weight on and his shoulders directly above his back foot. His hands were only held chest high, and he always had a clear view of his opponent. He looked like an artist leaning back from a canvas to evaluate the picture from a distance.”

Johnson’s style was reliant on skillful defense, but white fans misrepresented it as cowardly and lazy—attributable to his race—similar to reporters of the time noting Johnson’s smile, hinting at the Sambo caricature.

The Johnson-Flynn fight was likely the first time a white male—athlete or otherwise—was an underdog against a black man in such a public setting. Flynn, facing the superior size and athletic talent of a black opponent, was lauded and celebrated for his savviness, determination and intelligence. In the search for the Great White Hope, during these two fights on Fourth of July, the trope of the underdog white athlete was born. More than a century later, it persists.

After defeating Flynn, Johnson fought four more times before losing to white boxer Jess Willard in 1915. “Willard became an instant hero,” explains historian Jeffrey T. Sammons, “one who brought renewed confidence to the physical and moral strength of white America.” The photo of Willard knocking out and standing over Johnson became a common speakeasy decoration.

Johnson—who lived in self-exile after a racially motivated Mann Act conviction—maintained he intentionally lost to Willard. “It was hinted to me in terms which I could not mistake, that if I permitted Willard to win, which would give him the title, much of the prejudice against me would be wiped out,” he wrote in his autobiography, Jack Johnson In the Ring and Out. Authorities never reversed the conviction and Johnson continued living in exile until 1920, when he returned and served his sentence at Leavenworth Penitentiary. On the day of his incarceration, the front page of The Dallas Express, an African American newspaper, included a picture of Johnson with the headline, “Jack Johnson still wears his ‘Golden Smile’ as he enters iron gates of Leavenworth Prison.”