African Dodgers

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Sat Oct 1 00:53:12 UTC 2011

A few days ago, Merritt Clifton posted some notes to the SABR-L site
(Society of American BAseball REsearch)  that will be of interest here.
 This edited version is sent with his permission.

Date:    Sun, 25 Sep 2011 13:58:56 -0700

From:    Merritt Clifton <anmlpepl at WHIDBEY.COM>

Subject: African Dodgers

       John Donaldson was a black guy,  whose opportunities to pitch

professionally were circumscribed mainly by the color barrier.


       John Donaldson's career overlapped the careers of Rube Foster

and Satchel Paige,  but Foster peaked a bit earlier and Paige a bit

later,  and both Foster and Paige appear to have spent much more of

the overlapping parts of their careers in the largely black parts of

big cities.  Their milieu was segregated,  but not nearly as actively

hostile as Donaldson's situation,  in which he was often the only

black player in the game,  and performed primarily before white

audiences in the rural Midwest,  right when the Ku Klux Klan was

strongest in that region.

       Perhaps even more significant,  Donaldson performed in the

heyday of the African Dodger carnival sideshows,  in many of the

places where they were most popular.

       The African Dodger was a black guy who would stick his head

through a hole in a canvas drape.  For a nickel,  people would get

three baseballs to pitch at him.  He was allowed to pull his head out

of the hole & duck,  but not until the ball was already flying.  If

he got hit,  the pitcher won a prize.

       One of the early Mickey Mouse & Horace Horsecollar comic

books featured an African Dodger who tricked Mickey into paying him a

nickel to see what the African Dodger was watching through a hole in

a circus tent.  Mickey took the African Dodger's place at the hole

and promptly got hit by a barrage of baseballs.

       After I mentioned this recently to fellow members of the

Society of Environmental Journalists,  Long Island journalism prof

Dan Fagin found another Walt Disney reference to African Dodgers,  a

description of African Dodger shows in Popular Mechanics,  and a

Spencer Tracy film called "The African Dodger" at these links:




       The 1938 Walt Disney link was more recent than any of my own

file information on African Dodgers,  so I searched to find out when exactly the African Dodger

carnival sideshows appeared & disappeared.

       The earliest references at NewspaperArchive were mostly from

the Boston area in 1889,  but there was also one from Fort Wayne in

1889,  and all of the entries made clear that this was already a

familiar carnival attraction.

       The last mention of an African Dodger as a contemporary

carnival act came in the Fitchburg Sentinel of February 3,  1959,  in

Fitchburg,  Massachusetts -- where it was mentioned as a "new booth."

       The last mentions of African Dodger after that were almost

entirely in the recollections of old ballplayers,  notably Ty Cobb

and Leo Durocher,  who both recalled having been purportedly "the

original African dodger,"  because they ducked pitches thrown at

their heads so often.

       I thought that Jackie Robinson might inevitably have been

described as "The African Dodger,"  not least because he was thrown

at approximately as often as Cobb and Durocher,  if not more,  but in

repeatedly searches I was unable to find even one reference to Jackie

Robinson as an "African Dodger,"  even though African Dodger

sideshows remained common until after the end of his career,  when

they relatively rapidly faded out.

       Incidentally,  some of the earliest mentions of African

Dodgers were in connection with them being badly injured.  There were

efforts made to ban African Dodger sideshows as early as 1916,  and

perhaps even before that,  but itinerant carnivals were known for

offering quite a lot of things  including bootleg liquor and

prostitution,  which were also nominally illegal.

        ***.  I found 703 mentions of African Dodgers altogether,  and
spot-checked the entries rather than taking the time to read them all, to
pull together their whole

sordid  history.


Merritt Clifton


P.O. Box 960

Clinton,  WA  98236

E-mail:  anmlpepl at


Addenda by GAT:

The Dover Observer says: The Bangor fellow, who run the "African Dodger"
sold liquor and had to pay a $30 fine and costs, thinks that he didn't make
a very big pile at the Piscataquis Central Fair.

Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Saturday, October 24, 1885, p. ?, col. 4 , from
19th Century American Newspapers.

Closing Day at the Fair.  ***

***  Quite a number of the refreshment booths were is full operation, and
the artless "African Dodger" drew a great crowd during the afternoon.  ***

Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Monday, September 6, 1885, p. ?, col. 5 , from
19th Century American Newspapers.

***  Just at the west of Floral Hall was a small tent.  On one side was
painted a large sunflower with a hole in the centre.  Above the hole was the
inscription, "The African Dodger," and below, "The Patagonian Baby."  Through
the hole appeared the grinning countenance of the negro whose head was the
target for the hardest of baseballs.  The show was not new, but the negro
had had a political education.  As business grew dull he shouted: "Come, all
you good people.  Try your luck.  I've been in the business seven years, and
have as thick a skull as Henry George.  [he makes a political wisecrack]"

The Sun (N. Y.), September 29, 1887, p. 2, col. 4, from L. C.'s Chronicling

Danbury Day at Danbury Fair.  ***

Danbury, Conn.  ***  The Coney Island fakirs are here in force, from the
photographer who . . . will provide . . . a portrait of their future life
partner, to the African dodger who sticks his head through a round hole in a
sheet of canvas and defies the boys to hit him at short range with tennis
balls.  All are here, the merry-go-round, the juggler, the contortionist,
the sword-swallower, the "devil child". . . .

New - York Tribune,  October 6, 1888: p. 3, col. 3 (from Proquest's
Historical Newspapers)

On the last day of State Fair week we hear a beautiful and accomplished
maiden from Bangor lamenting that although she had gone over the fair pretty
thoroughly she had missed "the African dodger!"  She felt real sorry about

Maine Farmer,  vol. 56, no. 48 (Oct 11, 1888): p. 1, col. 2, quoting the
Lewiston Saturday Journal. (from Proquest's Historical Newspapers)

It's not surprising that "African Dodger" isn't in the OED, since the basis
of that section was compiled in the 1880s; but neither is it in HDAS or
Jonathon Green's new dictionary.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ.
Pr., 1998, but nothing much since then.

The American Dialect Society -

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