Freelance journalist Dunkel spins the colorful yarn of an improbably integrated team’s wild days of independent baseball during the Great Depression.
As the new sport of baseball took hold of the American imagination after the turn of the century, teams of all forms sprang up across the country. For players unable to make the big leagues for lack of talent, personal issues or skin color, one of the legions of semiprofessional teams often offered a way to earn a living playing the game. In Bismarck, N.D., one of the areas hit hardest by drought and depression, successful car dealer and inveterate gambler Neil Churchill’s desire to put together a winning team led him to seek out the finest players available, regardless of race. The resulting mix of has-beens, wannabes and assorted others went on to dominate opponents across the Midwest, culminating in the 1935 National Semipro Tournament. Their success was due in no small part to the on-again, off-again presence of the legendary Satchel Paige, arguably the greatest pitcher of all time and a character worthy of many books for his accomplishments and antics on and off the diamond. Though the team’s inclusion of both black and white players is obviously noteworthy, Dunkel does not focus on racial politics or the issue of whether the Bismarck team was a precursor of things to come or merely a historical anomaly. The author does address the racism faced by the black players, many of whom would likely have been major league All-Stars had they been allowed to play, and he provides sufficient historical background to flesh out the story. But at its heart, the book is a tale of a time when baseball was more than just a sport, a multibillion-dollar industry or another form of entertainment competing for Americans’ attention.
A well-told account of a fascinating, and forgotten, chapter in the history of America’s national pastime.