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Race to the Plate

Anyone familiar with the game of baseball and its history surely knows by now of the great Negro Leagues—the mark of America’s apartheid on the field of dreams—and then of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers. But relatively few know of an even longer and more unusual story, and one that confounds many of our expectations about life in the Jim Crow era. It is the story of interracial baseball, played before thousands of avid fans of both races in virtually all corners of the United States for decades before formal integration took place. And it is therefore the story of the complexity of race relations on a broader national stage and of the ways in which baseball itself (and other professional sports by extension) became truly national institutions. Thanks to Timothy Gay’s interesting book, this story should soon command the attention it deserves.

Interracial games had been a part of baseball for almost as long as the game has been played. Beginning as early as 1869 in Philadelphia, and becoming a component of professionalized baseball culture by the 1880s, teams of black players and teams of white players stepped out onto the diamonds and went at it for nine innings. Remarkably enough, it was possible for a team like the All Nations (with a roster of blacks, Native Americans, Cubans, Polynesians, Asians, and Italians) to “barnstorm” the country between 1912 and 1920, before they were transformed into the legendary Kansas City Monarchs of the original Negro National League. Otherwise, interracialism meant that all-white teams played against all-black teams. But even so, once the regular season ended, some of the stars of the Negro and Major Leagues (including Babe Ruth) would join the barnstorming tours for the competition, the fun, and the cash (though not necessarily in that order).

Gay focuses on the heyday of interracial barnstorming during the 1930s and 1940s, as the country suffered through the depths of the Great Depression and then the challenges of World War II. To give it a good narrative hold, he organizes his book around four of the important—and in some cases unlikely—figures of the interracial circuit. One was Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean, born of very humble Arkansas and Missouri roots (his father was a sharecropper), who became a star hurler in the early 1930s for the St. Louis Cardinals. Another was Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller, from rural Iowa, who pitched for the Cleveland Indians in the 1930s and 1940s. A third, though in a minor role, was Bill Veeck, best known for his later theatrical antics as owner of the Chicago White Sox, but earlier a great admirer of black ballplayers as well as a strong advocate for racial integration. Indeed, at one point, Veeck threatened to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and stock the team with African Americans—a move that Major League Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis apparently squelched.

But at the center of Gay’s book is the legendary Leroy “Satchel” (thanks to a redcap at a train depot) Paige. Growing up as something of a “street urchin” in Mobile, Alabama, Paige was caught shoplifting at the age of twelve and spent nearly six years in a juvenile detention facility called the Industrial School for Negro Children. There, thanks to an interested baseball coach named Edward Byrd, he learned how to pitch. Soon after his release in 1923, he started to pitch for the local Mobile Tigers, and then moved up to the Negro Southern League, where his talents began to make him a gate attraction even among the poor black folk. By the early 1930s, Paige was starring for the famed Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro National League—the most storied team in the history of black baseball. In the fall of 1932, he and the Crawfords played a seven-game series against a white all-star team put together by Casey Stengel.

What Dean, Feller, and Paige had in common, besides extraordinary baseball skills and a readiness to negotiate the currents of Jim Crow America, was a penchant for showmanship. Gay calls Dean “America’s first multimedia superstar,” as his colorful personality paved the way for a lucrative career in broadcasting and the banquet circuit once his playing days were over. Feller learned early that there was money to be made in barnstorming, and he worked to ensure that black and white players alike had a shot at the benefits of off-season ball. 

But in many ways it was Satchel Paige who stole the show. Dean regarded Paige as “the greatest pitcher I’ve ever seen,” and over the years Paige accumulated the record to prove it. He mowed down the Major Leaguers in game after game (he had a 1.20 ERA in the thirty-one games he pitched against Dean and Feller), drawing large crowds even in potentially hostile racial environments. By the 1940s, according to Gay, he had become a household name across America despite his exclusion from the big leagues. Together, Paige, Dean, and Feller helped to take professional baseball to small towns in fairly isolated settings: Oxford, Nebraska; Enid, Oklahoma; Jamestown, North Dakota, to name a few. They also came to the large cities that already had Major League and Negro League teams, and in some cases (as with Chicago’s Wrigley Field) broke down deep traditions of racial separatism.

The west coast proved to be particularly inviting terrain for interracial baseball, and the California Winter League, where black teams had played since the early years of the twentieth century, beckoned the barnstormers. Here Satchel Paige, in Gay’s words, “created art almost everywhere he performed.” He not only pitched against Dean and Feller, but also faced the likes of Joe DiMaggio, who would later insist that Paige was the greatest pitcher he ever faced and take the opportunity to denounce Jim Crow. Not incidentally, the Winter League and interracial barnstorming also showcased baseball’s huge public appeal out west (it often eclipsed the World Series in interest) and helped to pave the way for Major League expansion to Los Angeles and San Francisco in the late 1950s—moves that gave the sport a true national basis for the first time since professional play began.

And yet, even as Paige, Dean, and Feller demonstrated that baseball fans might well be ready for integration, the contradictions of Jim Crow America hung over them. Paige had mixed feelings about the prospects of integrating the game, successful as he was in the world of the Negro League and interracial barnstorming. What might integration hold in store for him? “You might as well be honest about it,” he reflected in the early 1940s, “There would be plenty of problems, not only in the South, where the colored boys wouldn’t be able to stay and travel with the teams in spring training, but in the North, where they couldn’t stay or eat with them in many places. All nice statements in the world from both sides aren’t going to knock out Jim Crow.” 

Thanks to Bill Veeck, Paige did make the transition to the Major Leagues, signing with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 at the tender age of 42. In July of that year, he became the first black pitcher in the history of the American League when he came in to relieve Bob Lemon (who played against him in the interracial games). Over the course of the season, tens of thousands of Cleveland fans packed Municipal Stadium, and the Indians won their first World Series since 1920 (not to mention their last).  

Dizzy Dean was astonishing for a poor Southern white boy in allowing talent and the almighty dollar to trump racism, and in recognizing the potential superiority of some of the black players. Feller was far more disappointing. The white media frequently meditated on the comparative abilities of black and white teams and ball players, and Feller was quick to see the deficiencies of the blacks. He belittled the skills of Jackie Robinson— “if he were a white man, I doubt they would consider him big league material”—and insisted that he hadn’t “seen one, not one” blackballer, including Paige, capable of making the majors. The record of the interracial contests suggested otherwise: of 432 exhibitions, black teams won 266 or 60 percent.

Gay’s attention to the details of the many interracial games will undoubtedly delight aficionados of the sport, though other readers may feel that it is a bit more than they bargained for. And it would have been valuable to learn more about how interracial baseball really played in the towns—especially the small towns—that hosted the barnstormers. We are left to reach our own conclusions based on the turnouts and the apparent willingness of town officials to give the green light. Still, Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert implicitly asks us to reexamine our assumptions about both the life and the death of Jim Crow. That is always good work.

Steven Hahn teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author, most recently, of The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (2009).