Whites use to play “hit the coon” at fairs, throwing hard baseballs at black men’s heads

Published On May 11, 2015 | By Admin | All the way black, Before Dr. King, The latest posts

Q:  Somebody told me that whites used to pay to throw balls at blacks at the circus. Is this true?

–Stephanie S. – Columbia, Missouri

African Dodger Ball

A:  At the end, thirty feet or so from the counter that closed the entrance, a grinning Negro face bobbed and grimaced through a hole in the back curtain painted to represent a jungle river. The Negro’s head came right out of the spread terrific jaws of a crocodile. “Hit the nigger in the head, get a good ten cent seegar,” the barker said. “Three balls for a dime, folks. Try your skill and accuracy. Hit the nigger baby on the head get a handsome cane and pennant” (Stegner, 1957, p. 47).

This was a common chant at numerous carnivals, fairs, and circuses across the United States throughout the late 19th century until the mid 1940s, as Americans took part in one of their favorite pastimes, “African Dodger.”

The African Dodger, also known as “Hit the Nigger Baby” or “Hit the Coon” was as commonplace in local fairs, carnivals, and circuses as Ferris wheels and roller coasters are today. The purpose of the game was to hit the target with a ball-with one of your three throws-and win a prize. It sounds like a common carnival target game, but there was one unsettling part of the game, namely, the game’s target was a real live human being, a “negro” human being. In St. Louis in 1913, it was reported that carnival organizers were “unable for hours today to secure an ‘African Dodger’ who would allow baseballs to be thrown at his cranium at the usual rate of three for 5 cents;” the reason was that future Hall of Fame fastball pitcher Walter Johnson was rumored to be at the fair (“Don’t Want”, 1913). The game was so popular nationwide that newspapers mentioned the African Dodger game along with trained animals, illusionists, penny arcades, merry-go-rounds and magic shows in the list of a carnival’s attractions. Dodgers made headlines when they were seriously and horrifically injured-otherwise, they were nameless victims.

In 1904 in New York, the Meriden Daily Journal reported how a dodger was smashed in the nose by a professional baseball player. The Journal reported that Albert Johnson dodged “fifty or sixty cents” worth of balls thrown by “Cannon Ball” Gillen of the Clifton Athletic club. Finally Johnson “exposed his head and face a little farther than usual” and was caught by a curve ball that left him unconscious. The article, which was written as a play-by-play commentary on the incident, concluded with the report that it “will probably be necessary to amputate the nose in order to save Johnson’s life” (“Hit African”, 1904).

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