From Polo Grounds To Cooperstown — Via Westport

Westporters flocking to “42” are inspired by the story of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier.

But 3 years after Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the sport still grappled with integration — not on the field, but in the stands. An intriguing incident involved 1 Westporter — and 2 others, 60 years later.

The  Saturday Evening Post cover of April 22, 1950 shows fans in the Polo Grounds — the New York Giants’ fabled home. Their hands stretch skyward, reaching for a foul ball.

It’s an iconic scene — a classic, feel-good, All-American illustration.

Saturday Evening Post better

But — according to a letter written in 2000 by illustrator Austin Briggs’ son — there’s a bit of back story.

The son — who shares his father’s name — says that his father’s painting showed Fannie Drain, a black woman who worked for his family and was loved by all.

“When the Giants were playing, she and my father — whose studio was at home –would follow the radio broadcasts avidly and vocally; her pride and pleasure in being included in the cover painting were deep,” Briggs wrote.

The Post editors told Briggs he would have to paint her out of the picture.

“He broke the painting, on a gesso panel, over his knee and walked out,” the son said. “The financial sacrifice was great, but he never regretted his act or repented his fury.”

Stevan Dohanos

Stevan Dohanos

The illustration was redone by Stevan Dohanos, a noted Westport illustrator and frequent Saturday Evening Post contributor. He used many of the same models, but replaced Fannie Drain (near the bottom left) with a large white man wearing a handkerchief.

Dohanos’ original hung in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York. And that was that — until last year.

Sarah Wunsch — a 1965 Staples High School grad, now a staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts — chatted about the story with classmate Tom Allen, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame President’s Advisory Board.

She wrote the Hall, in Cooperstown. She soon received a reply from Erik Strohl, director of exhibitions and collections in Cooperstown.

“I was unaware of the details behind this painting and I find the story very fascinating,” he said.

The details truly provide a picture of life in the 1950s, which may seem foreign to us now. I tell our visitors all the time that we can learn much about ourselves as Americans through the lens of baseball, and this painting surely fits that bill.

He promised to find a way to add the information to the exhibit. He said it would “provide a much wider context on the full story of the painting, including what it teaches us about race relations, both in baseball and in popular magazines.”

8 responses to “From Polo Grounds To Cooperstown — Via Westport

  1. brad french

    My dad was a sportswriter for the Associated Press in Philly during the 50’s. Wilt Chamberlain came on the scene then.
    A client of mine, Rhoda Miller, told me about her 1st husband being an artist featured on covers of the Saturday Evening Post. He used her many times to model to save money.

  2. Phil Perlah

    I was hoping for a different ending — The Hall of Fame found the fragments of the ORIGINAL Briggs painting and exhibited those, with the story. That would have made a much more meaningful exhibit.

  3. Jim Goodrich

    Branch Rickey was so appreciated by black atheletes that the Harlem Globetrotters took a team bus from NY to Pittsburgh to attend his funeral. A welcome surprize for the Rickey family.

  4. Larry Bartimer

    Was Fannie black–? The picture shows another woman on the left

    Larry Bartimer, CPA
    The Portfolio Strategy Group
    Investment Advisors
    81 Main Street
    White Plains, NY 10601

    • Tom Allen '66

      Yes, she was black. She was replaced in the illustration by the white guy with the handkerchief on his head. Here’s one irony among many: for any given Giants game back then and until they went west, maybe a third of the crowd was black and from the surrounding Harlem neighborhood. Reason: the Giants, along with the Dodgers, pioneered the signing of Negro League players and also players from the Caribbean baseball hotbeds. As far as we know the original Briggs illustration that was broken no longer exists, but the HOF has said that it plans to create a notation to be displayed with the illustration that tells the Briggs side of the story. That’s a pretty good ending.

      • Fred Cantor

        Tom–very glad you helped make this happen. My father and grandfather were NY Giants fans, which is why I was a diehard SF Giants fan as a kid, and they were both there on Oct 3, 1951. From what I remember of their stories about the Polo Grounds, the crowd was not segregated in any way–so, the ironic thing is, Briggs’ original painting was an accurate depiction of how black and white fans did indeed sit together at Giants’ games.

        • Tom Allen '66

          Very true, Fred. I went to many Giants games there as a little kid and that’s how I remember it, which is why Sarah’s account of the fate of the Briggs original struck a personal chord. I recall a night when our car wouldn’t start after a night game. The car was parked on Edgecomb Avenue on Coogan’s Bluff above the ballpark. The streets aren’t well-lit up there, unlike further south on Manhattan Island. Three guys emerged from the shadows to help fix the car and get it started. When they were finished they refused the money my dad offered and sent us on our way back to CT with a wave. For years I took my daughters to their dance class at Harlem School for the Arts just a few blocks away from where the ballpark was located at 155th/8th. Still a good neighborhood, although the Polo Grounds projects, where the stadium once stood, can be a little dicey, especially at night.

  5. A. David Wunsch

    Fannie worked part time for my parents, Helen and Harry Wunsch of Westport, for about 30 years, starting circa 1954. She was just wonderful, and we loved her dearly. She would tell us little anecdotes about the Briggs family whom she obviously liked a great deal .
    A. David Wunsch
    Staples, class of 1956