How three baseball legends helped prepare the country for the integration of Major League Baseball.
As a result of a few primary factors, interracial baseball came to the fore during the 1930s and ’40s. These included the flourishing of the Negro Leagues; the emergence of Satchel Paige as, perhaps, baseball’s best pitcher (see Larry Tye’s Satchel, 2009); and the willingness of the game’s wackiest star and premier gate attraction, Dizzy Dean, and maybe the greatest fastballer ever, Bob Feller, to regularly pit themselves against black competition. Public-affairs consultant and former press secretary Gay (Tris Speaker: The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend, 2006) wisely eschews ascribing advanced racial consciousness to any of his featured players. The author makes clear that all three were motivated primarily by money. At a time when most players took off-season jobs to make ends meet, barnstorming the provinces after the World Series and before winter’s onset proved lucrative. Frequently last-minute affairs—until Feller came along, took over the promotion himself, introduced tight scheduling and pioneered the use of airplanes to maximize profit—these black-white exhibitions accustomed audiences to interracial ball long before Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson collaborated on their great experiment. Because record-keeping was haphazard, the process of reconstructing the contests, or even compiling the rosters, presents significant research problems, but Gay is up to the challenge. For all three of his principals, he offers colorful mini-portraits. He also provides compelling sketches of lesser-known players, including Negro League Turkey Stearnes, Cool Papa Bell, Bullet Joe Rogan and Hilton Smith, whose exciting brand of ball demonstrated for white audiences that the black player was every bit a match for his white counterpart.
An affectionate look at a rollicking slice of baseball history.