New Major Essay Weeds through Racial Blame Rhetoric on the Drawing of Baseball’s Color Line, while also Proposing a Novel Way to Improve Fact-Checking in Nonfiction Books

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A new 12,000-word essay on the longform journalism Web site The Atavist focuses on who or what caused baseball’s color line to be drawn in the 19th century. But the most significant part of the essay may be its detail on a novel proposal that Rosenberg has made to the Washington Post on potentially solving one of the biggest problems in the U.S. nonfiction book industry: how to get authors to fact-check their books better.

New Major Essay Weeds through Racial Blame Rhetoric on the Drawing of Baseball’s Color Line, while also Proposing a Novel Way to Improve Fact-Checking in Nonfiction Books

Although journalistic standards dictate that writers should indicate when they are speculating and not merely citing facts, some writers on the drawing of baseball’s 19th-century “color line” against blacks sometimes do not observe such standards, and state that early Baseball Hall of Famer and racist Adrian “Cap” Anson clearly bears a big chunk of the responsibility for it, declares Anson four-book biographer Howard W. Rosenberg in a newly available essay on the longform journalism Web site The Atavist ( Rosenberg has compiled and analyzed a range of faulty and excellent prose on the subject, mostly from books this century. His spark was a column in the Washington Post last December that led him to research the subject far more broadly than he did in preparing his books. The writer of the column ( was Post sports columnist Kevin B. Blackistone. Blackistone, who is also a University of Maryland visiting professor of sports journalism and an ESPN “Around the Horn” panelist, wrote that Anson’s plaque should be revised, in light of “his role in spearheading racial segregation in baseball.”

Jackie Robinson broke professional baseball’s color line in the 20th century. Far less familiar is that several dozen blacks played professional ball in the 19th century, including a pair of brothers who appeared in a major league in 1884. In the 20th century, with a few asterisks, blacks were shut out of organized baseball until the mid-1940s. Rosenberg observes, “Since the wrongful discrimination against blacks from public life is such a major topic of historical interest, who or what caused baseball’s color line to be drawn is one of the most socially important issues in the sport’s history.”

A point of comparison can be made between Anson and another early Hall of Famer, Ty Cobb, who played in the early 20th century. In the mock trial on ESPN in 2003, which was about whether Pete Rose should be eligible for the Hall of Fame because he bet on baseball, Anson and Cobb were singled out for being racists who, despite that character flaw, were still elected. Witness and former pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee first mentioned Anson and Cobb, and prosecutor Alan Dershowitz later rehashed their names.

Recent biographies of Cobb have various takes on the intensity of his racism, and they cite various biographical details about him. However, studying Cobb’s alleged racism is an exercise in analyzing that individual. Anson, by contrast, has been directly linked to the drawing of the color line, so analysis of the effect of his racism is more like a “whodunit,” with bigger implications. In his essay, Rosenberg deals with just one biographical detail about Anson that may be relevant: what to make of the fact that he was a big figure within the sport, as possibly affecting the views and actions of players and officials on other teams.    

Rosenberg’s essay on The Atavist reaffirms a conclusion that he originally reached in the 24-page appendix, “Anson and Blacks,” in his 2006 book Cap Anson 4: Bigger Than Babe Ruth: Captain Anson of Chicago. On racial matters, Rosenberg wrote, “his argumentative nature could be readily discounted by those around him. So, the notion that he had ‘coattails’ in persuading players and officials on other teams to do as he did is rather spurious.” In his new essay, Rosenberg also traces a secondary, relatively new line of one-sided attack on Anson, which claims that he was prejudiced against the Irish too.

After completing most of his research, Rosenberg searched for similar essays of the fact-versus-speculation kind on the Internet and in full-text databases and found nothing of any great length in the English language. So, his essay could be of interest to journalism classes and journalists for that, not to mention its focus on a big moment in U.S. racial history.

A significant, modern-day media topic toward the end of his essay stems from his 2004 Cap Anson 2: The Theatrical and Kingly Mike Kelly: U.S. Team Sport’s First Media Sensation and Baseball’s Original Casey at the Bat. That book is mainly the definitive biography of longtime Anson teammate Mike “King” Kelly, the biggest star in early baseball of Irish descent.    

After the Washington Post reviewed a 2012 HarperCollins book that extinguished Rosenberg’s Kelly biography in its very first sentence, without catching the error (see, Rosenberg proposed to the Post that it inform Post-eligible-for-review publishers of the value of having their authors double-check their books for superlatives that relate to other authors – and got mostly a cold shoulder. “Besides potentially lighting a fire under lazy authors, such double-checking would protect self-published authors, who the Post bars as a class from review consideration,” Rosenberg writes in his essay. He cites, for background, for example:

Rosenberg can provide background on the history of major articles on deficiencies in book fact-checking. The most recent notable one was in The Atlantic in 2014 (

An extensive article in 1998 in the Columbia Journalism Review laid out the problem, and a citation to it can be found at Written by Steve Weinberg, it observed, for example:    

“News organizations ask their audiences to come back day after day, and without trust in the accuracy of the product, that is unlikely to happen. Thus, daily and weekly journalists are closely watched by their editors; fact-checkers combat mistakes at many magazines. But book publishers are attuned to single purchases, and whether readers connect the publishers to problems about accuracy is questionable.”

Besides not being readily available on the Internet, online references to Weinberg’s landmark article, “Why Books Err So Often,” are few, considering the estimated tens of millions of avid book readers in the United States alone. Rosenberg opines, “Admittedly, what to do about the fact-checking problem in the U.S. nonfiction book industry may be considered too abstract, although coverage did spike a decade ago after a high-profile event: on her television talk show at the time, Oprah Winfrey recommended to her book club a first-person memoir, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, that Frey claimed as nonfiction, which turned out to be a mix of fiction as well. However, arguably for the first time, if you are unhappy with the factual quality of mainstream nonfiction you have read that was published, say, in the past year or two as a first edition, from an author not known for stressing fact-checking, you can blame the author, the publisher, and – for showing no interest in using its clout to potentially solve the problem – the Washington Post.”

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