The Queen of Jazz and her love of baseball

By Marissa Del Toro
Woman in white suit and hat poses with man in baseball uniform and hat. Big smiles. In background, baseball stadium.
Photo of baseball with red thread. Text on ball: "Official Ball National League"
Baseball, signed by the 1984 San Francisco Giants. The autographed baseball was collected by American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996), who was an avid baseball fan. Autographs include George Riley, Joel Youngblood, Mark Calvert, Bob Brenly, Dusty Baker, Chris Brown, John Rabb, Dan Gladden, Steve Nicosia, Mark Grant, Bill Laskey, Scot Thompson, Fran Mullins, John Clark, and Duane Kuiper. (1996.0342.106)

Red thread is woven in and out of leather, uniting two different pieces into a single object that represents America's favorite pastime and an important part of American identity: baseball. Just as the thread unites the pieces, baseball itself bridges diverse communities and experiences in America. Many people from dramatically different backgrounds share the experience of going to a ball game, cheering for the home team, and eating peanuts and crackerjacks. In my research at the museum, I learned that baseball connects with another mainstay of American culture: jazz.

"Latinos and Baseball" graphic
The collecting initiative "Latinos and Baseball: In the Barrios and the Big Leagues" focuses on how Latino communities have been shaped by the game. Players from the big leagues to the barrios will be represented in this upcoming project.

Helping to develop a public program and work on the "Latinos and Baseball: In the Barrios and the Big Leagues" collecting initiative, I had the opportunity to explore connections between baseball and communities and realized there is a story connecting sports, music, and American communities of color. In particular, I was surprised to learn that Ella Fitzgerald, the Queen of Jazz, was a dedicated and devoted baseball fan. The museum preserves a significant part of her signed baseball collection with autographs from the Los Angeles Dodgers, the San Francisco Giants, and players of the 1984 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. She met and mingled with baseball legends Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays.

Black and white photo of woman on stage with microphone and sequined dress. Musicians behind her.
Ella Fitzgerald performing on stage at the Downbeat Club in New York City, 1949. Herman Leonard Photographic Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. (NMAH-AC0445-0000004)
Photo of baseball with red thread. Signatures.
Baseball signed by the 1971 Los Angeles Dodgers collected by Ella Fitzgerald. Autographs include Bill Sudakis, Willie Crawford, Jim Lefebvre, Bill Grabarkewitz, Jim Brewer, Sandy Vance, Don Sutton, Willie Crawford, Bill Buckner, Bill Singer, Hoyt Wilhelm, Bob O’Brien, Al Downing, Pete Mikkelsen, Maury Wills, Bill Russell, Tom Haller. (1996.0342.105)

Both jazz and baseball have greatly contributed to identity-making in America. Like many people, Fitzgerald fell in love with baseball when she was young. During her youth she would play neighborhood baseball games between exploring her other passions: dancing and singing. As her musical career skyrocketed, Fitzgerald never lost her love for baseball. Her appreciation for America's pastime actually intensified as she was given several opportunities to sing the national anthem at various ball games.

Black and white photo of a baseball player in uniform wearing a glove leaping into the air to catch a ball above his head, arm outstretched. Baseball field and Coca Cola ad in background.
A player from the New York Cubans leaps in the air to make the winning catch. George H. Scurlock. Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Jazz and baseball have connections beyond Fitzgerald. While jazz was growing increasingly popular in American society in the 1920s, baseball also provided an important hotspot for black America and African American entertainers. African American jazz musicians were known to frequently attend baseball games, cheering for their team and mingling with their favorite players.

Photo of baseball player in uniform holding bat and looking at camera. In background, stands with seating with spectators.
A batter from the New York Cubans warms up as he prepares to hit a home run. George H. Scurlock. Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

According to historian Jules Tygiel, Negro Leagues baseball symbolized a source of pride and accomplishment for African American communities, businesses, religion, politics, and entertainment. Baseball offered a protected arena for civil rights activities to occur and flourish against a culture monopolized by whites. The sport allowed African Americans to navigate through a world in which they constantly experienced discrimination. In many communities, baseball has been a sport that is able to transcend language, place, and time; it bridges gaps between communities and brings possibilities for hope of a better life. As Fitzgerald once sang, "This could be the start of something big."

Photo of baseball. Handwriting on ball says "Chicago East-West All Star Game 1937"
Baseball used in the 1937 Negro League East-West All-Star Game, played on August 8, 1937, at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. Buck Leonard (1907–1997), first baseman for the Homestead Grays, hit a home run to help the East win 7-2, keeping this baseball as a souvenir. (1981.0342.05)
Woman in white suit and hat poses with man in baseball uniform and hat. Big smiles. In background, baseball stadium.
Ella Fitzgerald poses with Willie Mays, who was a player for the San Francisco Giants. Ella Fitzgerald Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Want to learn more about the American experience through the transformative power of jazz? The museum’s Smithsonian Jazz team strongly recommends you check out their website to explore our jazz oral history collection, get tickets to performances by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, and more. Or sign up to receive a monthly jazz e-newsletter from the museum for regular reminders.

Marissa Del Toro was a Latino Museum Studies Program Fellow, summer 2015.