Elmer Mitchell and Institutionalized Racism

Elmer Mitchell, 1911

Elmer Mitchell in 1912 as a senior captain on the baseball team

By the early twentieth century, baseball had become established as one of the preeminent varsity sports at the University of Michigan. In the spring of 1910, Elmer D. Mitchell, the namesake of today’s Mitchell Field, joined the varsity baseball squad. Mitchell played three seasons as a centerfielder and first basemen, ascending to the role of captain during his senior year. During his time on the baseball team, Mitchell was coached by U-M law alumnus and future Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Branch Rickey, who began to rise through the professional ranks after his brief stint as Michigan’s skipper. In fact, by 1942, Rickey had taken over as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, where in 1945 he would sign Jackie Robinson, effectively re-breaking baseball’s color barrier—a feat that had been accomplished by Michigan’s Fleet Walker in 1883. 

After graduating from the University in 1912, Mitchell coached baseball throughout the state of Michigan before returning to Ann Arbor in 1917 to serve as U-M’s first varsity basketball coach. Following his second season in charge of basketball, Mitchell focused his efforts on rehabilitating the University’s sparse intramural sports program, which had folded during World War I. In 1919, Mitchell became the school’s first Director of Intramural Athletics. Mitchell helped further popularize the concept of “Athletics for All” on Michigan’s campus, and is often referred to as “the father of intramural sports.”

Even as Mitchell is recognized for his contributions to intramural athletics, he is also remembered for his controversial 1922 treatise entitled Racial Traits in Athletics. Throughout the 21-page publication, Mitchell discussed the athletic abilities of what he saw as various racial groups, such as “The American,” “The Irish,” “The Negro,” “The Jew,” and “The Oriental.” Through these descriptions, Mitchell attempted to connect his observations from sporting contests to larger claims about each of these supposed groups.

In his section on “The Negro,” Mitchell writes, “a colored youth who remains in school until the age of interscholastic athletics is usually of the bright industrious type, and the same qualities show when he participates in athletic games. The negro mingles easily with white participants, accepting an inferior status and being content with it.”[1] He continues by claiming that “when the negro plays on a team composed of members of his own race, as is often the case in baseball, where the professional leagues have barred him from their ranks….he is an inferior athlete, because many things crop out to handicap his natural skill. One of these is the tendency to be theatrical or to play to the grandstand, a trait which the presence of white teammates suppresses.”[2]

[1] Mitchell, Elmer D. Racial Traits in Athletics. First published in 1922 by the American Physical Education Review. p. 12.

[2] Ibid.