Former professional baseball player and current sports journalist Colton (No Ordinary Joes: The Extraordinary True Story of Four Submariners in War and Love and Life, 2010, etc.) returns with an account of the 1964 season of the racially integrated Birmingham Barons of the Southern League.
The author focuses on the fortunes not just of the team, but some key individuals: Barons’ owner Albert Belcher, manager Haywood Sullivan, pitchers Paul Lindblad and John Blue Moon Odom, players Hoss Bowlin and Tommie Reynolds. Numerous others pop up, as well—e.g., Bert Campaneris and, most notably, Charlie Finley, eccentric owner of the parent team, the Kansas City Athletics, a man whom some in the Birmingham organization came to despise. (He called up Odom, Campaneris and others—key losses for the Barons.) Colton also keeps track of the explosive racial issues occurring that summer. Birmingham had a nasty racial history (the church bombing that killed four girls had occurred just the year before), and the black players on the team had to endure taunts and humiliations of all sorts—not so much in Birmingham, but on the road. Colton describes the personal lives of his principals, too—their girlfriends, wives and medical issues (Bowlin was recovering from cancer). The team was in a tight pennant race that was not decided until the penultimate day of the season. Oddly, the author offers no endnotes or bibliography (he explains he’s writing a “nonacademic narration”), so readers may well wonder about the sources and fidelity of the many direct quotations and the specific thoughts of specific players. Still, he captures well the personalities of his characters; we see Campaneris’ fiery temper, Lindblad’s quiet humanity and humility, and Belcher’s worries about potential violence.
A competent but light-hitting account of a pivotal summer.