The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball Americas Game
336 pp., 26.99
Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball's Color Line
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013
368 pp., 25.00
Michael R. Stevens
Beer and Bismarck
Editor's Note: For years now, Books & Culture has marked the beginning of a new baseball season with a piece by Michael Stevens. When the 2013 season got well underway with no word from Michael, some worried readers wondered if the tradition had come to an end. Never fear. This week, Michael tells us about two newly published books that I expect you'll want to acquire as soon as you finish his piece. And coming next week, his forecast for 2013.
On Opening Day of this year's baseball season, the windchill in Michigan was in the low 20s. Good thing the Tigers were in Minnesota, where the temperature for the mid-afternoon start had surmounted 30! In such circumstances, many a soul in the crowd (and the dugouts) likely harbored a secret desire for the return of the monstrous Metrodome—this grim spring weather creates odd longings. There have been a few afternoons of catch in the driveway with my son Gabe in the past month or so, but you can only retrieve an errant grounder from a snowbank so many times before the zeal is dampened. Likewise, a snowmobile glove on the throwing hand precludes any close work on the breaking pitches. Yet, this wintry spring has invited that useful auxiliary activity also important for season preparation—the reading of a fresh crop of baseball books.
Several new biographies and autobiographies have recently been released, so that you can trace the highly successful trajectory of Tony LaRussa's managing career (but who was designing those incongruous early-'80s White Sox uniforms?), revisit the reckless splendor of the '50s and '60s Yankees (and then, speaking of incongruity, into the founding of Fellowship of Christian Athletes) with Bobby Richardson, or follow the truly stirring journey of Jim Abbot and his ascent to stardom as a pitcher who just happened to have only one arm. Good stories, all. But lately the deep history of baseball, with all its outlandishness and obscure, runic meaning, has been my chief entry point, and so also this year. When I received my copy of Edward Achorn's The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, my excitement was twofold. First, I had read with great pleasure Achorn's previous book on the consummate 19th-century workhorse pitcher (Fifty-Nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had) and the fascinating "same yet different" world of baseball 130 years ago. Second, the title of this new book, which sounds like yet another Russell Brand memoir, has the value of intrigue, and the subtitle augments that sensibility: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America's Game. So much for pastoral visions of erstwhile cricketeers and townball picnickers! Now, Achorn set the standard high in his book about Old Hoss, whose multifaceted character unified that narrative, even as his unbelievable and shoulder-numbing pitching exploits in the 1884 National League pennant race propelled the book forward. The Summer of Beer and Whiskey is a more diffuse book, not quite centered, but with many of the strengths that Achorn previously wielded—especially a keen eye for the sociology of late 19th-century America and a willingness to follow the episodic and anecdotal into those quirky alleyways that make baseball history so compelling.
The narrative begins with, and returns frequently to, the figure of Chris Van der Ahe, a German immigrant and saloon owner in 1870s St. Louis who, in the interest of bolstering his beer sales, bought and refurbished an ailing ballpark and put together a new team under the old name of St. Louis Browns. Von der Ahe knew little or nothing about baseball (and during his long tenure running the team, his knowledge appears to have remained spotty), but his marketing scheme for working-class folk—tickets half the price of a National League game; baseball on Sundays, often the only day off for blue-collar laborers; and liquor sales as the scandalous but lucrative engine of the entire enterprise—transformed baseball into a sport for all classes. As Achorn puts it, "Von der Ahe made baseball a much more inclusive game; in a sense, he helped make it the American game."
But that most venerable of baseball institutions, the National League, was a sharp critic of this tipping of the economic and moral scales of the industry, so Von der Ahe and other rogue owners gathered in late 1881 in Cincinnati to form a new league, anchored by low admission price, Sunday baseball, and, since "the delegation was top-heavy with liquor interests," the presence of liquid refreshment at games (though that was not without contention). Thus, the American Association was formed, a seedier and more free-wheeling little brother to the National League, vying for fans in several of the same cities as the NL.
At first, AA teams were routinely drubbed by their NL counterparts when they met in exhibition games. (Oscar Wilde apparently attended one such meeting during his American lecture tour, as NL Cleveland pounded AA Pittsburgh: " 'He liked the game very much,' one reporter noted, 'but the uniforms were not quite to his aesthetic taste.' " One wonders what Wilde would have thought of the polyester fluorescence of the late '70s Astros.) But by the end of the season the NL was worried: the upstart AA was raiding NL players and cutting into the profits of NL franchises.
Achorn's set-up for the crucial 1883 AA season takes a while, with the somewhat asynchronous but nevertheless highly intriguing introduction of Lew Simmons, a famed blackface minstrel singer who, as the owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, played a key role in the AA's development. In some ways, the Simmons story sounds like cowboy-crooner Gene Autry's later entry into the world of baseball with his ownership of the California Angels: Simmons was a legitimate world-touring musical star, albeit with a songbook of racist lyrics and a stageshow calculated to play upon every other conceivable late American prejudice of the day (including mockery of German immigrants with such numbers as "De Man Vat Likes de Lager Beer"—written before he met Von der Ahe, alas!). But unlike Autry, Simmons was an accomplished player before he became an owner; playing for the A's in the 1860s, he once scored ten runs in a single game.
Like Von der Ahe, Simmons decided to finance and bring to the AA a team to replace the one dropped from his city by the NL because of late 1870s gambling scandals. These two men, and their clubs, would prove the sort of rivalry that makes a whole nation stand up and take notice. But first, peace with the NL was brokered in early 1883, primarily through the work of new NL president A.G. Mills, an agreement driven by economic necessity and perhaps economic opportunity as well (the interleague exhibition games that spring and fall were among the most lucrative gate attractions in the sporting world, especially in cities like Philadelphia that had a team in both leagues). The two-league system of baseball has been a staple in America ever since.
When Achorn finally gets into his narrative of the 1883 AA season, he quickly hits his stride, with week-by-week and even game-by-game and inning-by-inning accounts, mainly focusing on the St. Louis team but also bouncing around to pick up the human-interest subplots that make his work on Old Timey baseball so rich. We read about the Browns' first big acquisition for the 1883 season, the Irish immigrant Tony Mullane, so adept at pitching and so handsome of visage that he was known as "the Apollo of the Box" (pitchers of the day worked not from a mound but a box, in which they could shift angles and take a running start). Achorn adds the delightful gloss, "At the plate he was a switch hitter. More remarkably, he could throw his pitches with both arms." That would make sense, given the workload of a typical ace pitcher in that era: the NL's leading pitcher of 1883, Pud Galvin, compiled an astronomical 656 1/3 innings! Though pitchers had for years been required to throw underhand, "in 1883, pitchers merely had to release it anywhere below the shoulder, though many cheated, sneaking in overhand throws."
Meanwhile, the Athletics had signed former NL shortstop Mike Moynahan, who had completed a play the year before after shattering his left forefinger—no gloves would be used until the end of the decade. "Later, the hopelessly mangled finger hand to be amputated at the first joint. Yet Moynahan kept on playing ball." On-field injuries weren't the only threats, since nearly all the players had off-season or even in-season jobs as well. Von der Ahe apparently helped several St. Louis Browns land jobs with the city fire department, and two of the team's mainstays, the Gleason brothers, were serving in that role when Jack was "injured so severely battling a St. Louis blaze prior to the 1882 season that 'for a time it was feared he would be permanently crippled.' " It seems he'd found one of the winter occupations that matched the hazards of his summer job on the diamond—and Tiger fans of yore were upset when Kirk Gibson went sky-diving in the off-season! Jeff Kent's motorcycle shenanigans (and/or hunting lodge knife accidents) be darned!
(A footnote on the Gleason story: Von der Ahe cut him and the team captain after a rocky start to the 1883 season, and 23-year-old first baseman Charlie Comiskey became the new team leader on the field, the first of many successes in baseball for the eventual and controversially penny-pinching owner of the new American League's Chicago White Sox through the first third of the 20th century.)
St. Louis' push through the season was accompanied by contempt for their nasty, small-ball tactics (and we thought John McGraw started it all), with the Philadelphia newspaper epitomizing the Browns as "vile of speech," and yet no one protected the isolated single umpires who had to manage both malignant players and savage crowds, with attacks not only from drunken fans but also acerbic journalists. Achorn gives us samples of this journalistic slander, including hateful doggerel poems such as "Mother, may I slug the umpire?" and the purplish-metaphor of Achorn's favorite sportswriter of the day, Cincinnati's O. P. Caylor: " 'The umpire seems to be a b-a-d man,' he wrote, 'beside whom a Russian Nihilist is a seraph.' " Billy Martin's sentiments, exactly!
Other teams in the Association get passing treatment as they enter the narrative of the Browns' journey, notably Louisville, with their stellar left-handed third-baseman Hickory Carpenter (the best lefty 3B in history? Where is Jamie Quirk to stand his ground?!) and the original Louisville slugger himself, Pete Browning, whose relationship with the bat-makers Hillerich and Bradsby became the stuff of legend. Browning himself had the typically bizarre profile of these 1880's players—his father died in a tornado when he was 12, so he dropped out of school and worked, suffering from inner ear damage that rendered him nearly deaf and in constant pain. His was a life of alcoholism, total illiteracy, and likely venereal disease (which also killed Old Hoss Radbourn), but he found his one true calling in pounding line drives around American Association ballparks with his custom bats. Such was his love of hitting that the man called the Gladiator actually returned following a brutal leg beaning, and "he enlisted another player to stand at home plate and run to first for him when he hit the ball—a legal form of substitution in 1883, if the opposing club granted permission." Aha, a precedent for that staple feature of church picnic softball rule-bending. (Note: pinch runner need not stand directly in the opposite batter's box!)
Achorn's drawn-out account of the pennant race's culmination has some wonderful moments, such as the observation that in the crucial final visit of Philadelphia to St. Louis, the crowd included Missouri Governor Thomas J. Crittenden, "still glowing from his recent victory over a reign of terror in the state. He had vanquished the notorious and vicious James Gang, former Confederate guerrillas and now train robbers who had generated headlines across America …. In time, a court convicted Robert Ford of cold-blooded murder, only to have the governor issue a pardon two hours after the verdict, then send Ford $10,000, his share of the reward." So, the outlaw spirit of these players seems a very real reflection of the outlaw madness roiling America's heartland in the 1880s. The pennant results that the controversial Gov. Crittenden witnessed—well, I'll leave in suspense the potential readers of this volume, which is written with some of the flair and pacing of a good mystery novel. Instead, I'll draw attention to what I believe is Achorn's best piece of baseball sociology, in Chapter 10, "Cap Anson's Nightmare," and his account of a player on the margins of the pennant race, but who should be central to baseball history, namely, Moses Fleetwood Walker.
Though all-black baseball leagues were already flourishing in the 1880s—the viciously racist and highly influential National Police Gazette deigned to follow the competition among what it called the "coon clubs"—nevertheless a few young black men played on white teams, among the first and the most brilliant being Fleet Walker, described by Achorn as a "tall, graceful young man" and "a rarity in 1880s baseball in that he was a college-educated gentleman." Walker studied classics at Oberlin College and attended, mainly for its baseball team, the University of Michigan in 1882. By 1883, he was the catcher, and leading gate attraction of the Toledo franchise of the Northwest League (a high enough minor league to warrant inclusion as the third party of the truce involving the National League and the American Association).
The NL had officially barred black players by 1881, but when Cap Anson brought his powerhouse Chicago White Stockings on an eastward swing in August 1883, he scheduled some lucrative exhibition games. Upon arrival, the bigoted "Anson made a point of stressing to Blue Stockings manager Charles Hazen Morton that he and his men would be playing 'with no damned nigger' that afternoon. Morton was roused to anger and ordered Walker to warm up; he would play right field. The 'beefy bluffer,' as the Toledo Blade called Anson, 'was informed that he could play his team or go, just as he blank pleased.' " A further hurrah to the Toledo Blade's editor (and to Achorn for his good newspaper archive work) for defending Fleet Walker as " 'a gentleman and a scholar … the superior intellectually of any player on the Chicago club' " (which, by the way, included the future evangelist Billy Sunday). Anson appears to have been so stung by the insult of playing with a black man on the field of white men (of course, he had caved in and played for a split of the gate receipts) that he ever after militated against blacks in big league baseball. Achorn notes that "what would have otherwise been just another meaningless exhibition game became one of the most consequential games of baseball ever played."
With Toledo's entry into the successful and expanded American Association in 1884, Fleet Walker became the first black man in professional baseball, joined briefly by his brother Welday that season, and tormented by his own pitcher that year, the same Tony Mullane of the '83 St. Louis squad, who ignored the signals of his gifted young catcher in a particularly spiteful attempt to injure and humiliate Walker; until, that is, the erudite Fleet went to the mound during a game and reportedly said "I'll catch you without signals, but I won't catch you if you are going to cross me when I give you a signal." Small but courageous bits of the slow baseball martyrdom which Jackie Robinson, over 60 years later, would revisit with commensurate fortitude. (I'm looking forward to seeing the Robinson biopic, 42.)
Alas, Fleet Walker was dropped from the Toledo team by the end of 1884. He endured five more seasons in hostile minor-league settings with a handful of other black players (including teaming in Newark in 1887 with pitcher George Stovey for an all-black battery), but by the time he retired from Syracuse of the International League, he was the only black player left—until the 1946 Montreal Royals of that same league hosted Jackie Robinson for his warm-up season before he was called up by the Dodgers. Walker's subsequent life was spent in disappointment, and he published a book in 1908 that actually advocated black migration back to Africa, his bitterness at the failed promise of integration putting him in Anson's separationist camp, though for very different reasons. Anson himself was lauded throughout his life as a paragon of baseball virtue and became a charter Hall of Famer. Go figure.
In the summer of 1883, amidst moral angst over Sunday baseball with liquor sales, and rival leagues vying for fans and players and money, a significant emergence of baseball into the central place in American affection was at work. As Achorn puts it: "In a league of drunks, actors, minstrel stars, cartoonists, tea merchants, dreamers, newspaper correspondents, bombastic grocers, epileptics, hot-tempered Irish managers, fainting catchers, fetishistic and hard-of-hearing sluggers, great shaggy mammoths, owners playing in their street clothes, inauspicious yellow dogs, and seriously confused left-handed third basemen, anything might happen as the great season approached its climax." Anything, that is, except black players and white players meeting with equanimity on the greensward to strive together for an excellence transcending bigotry and ignorance. But Moses Fleetwood Walker's brave, lonely vigil would not go unheeded forever.
+ + +
Indeed, another slice of baseball history to come into my hands this spring provides a link in that chain of courageous figures fighting on the margins of baseball's color barrier. But Tom Dunkel's Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball's Color Line throws a wonderfully disorienting knuckleball, telling the story of the integrated semipro team of mid-1930's Bismarck, North Dakota—yes, that one state capital that eluded us on the fourth grade geography test (how many of us put "Fargo"?), that outpost on the Missouri River that epitomized the isolation of the vast American heartland, that former outpost from which George Armstrong Custer set out on his fateful Little Bighorn venture (among the casualties of that disaster was Private William Davis, third baseman of the Fort Lincoln baseball team!). Dunkel's backgrounding, both of the frontier milieu of Bismarck (yes, named by the German immigrant community after Otto von) and the wild and decentralized nature of early 20th-century baseball, especially west of the Mississippi, where the big leagues ended with St. Louis, makes for entertaining and informative reading.
By 1909 there were apparently some "246 minor league teams loosely tied to 35 leagues" across America before the affiliations with major league teams were formalized, largely through Branch Rickey's example with the Cardinals. (Is everyone ready for Harrison Ford as Rickey in 42? Han Solo has become a strict Methodist social crusader? I must be getting old). Bismarck's pre-World War I team went under the burdensome moniker of Kirk's Klotz, and the State Prison in town had a crack team, and speaking of prison, the 1925 Bismarck town team played a Scobey, Montana squad sporting Happy Felsch and Swede Risberg, two of the notorious Black Sox who'd thrown the 1919 World Series and been labeled outlaws by big league baseball. (Apart from greed, they may have relished the opportunity for reprisal against the penurious czar of the Pale Hose, former St. Louis Browns captain Charlie Comiskey, who had apparently followed Chris Von der Ahe's model of draconian ownership).
Dunkel centers the narrative around his Branch Rickey figure, Neil Churchill, owner of the Bismarck Chrysler dealership, good friend and fellow basketball aficionado with Abe Saperstein, who founded and barnstormed with his Harlem Globetrotters. But Churchill also became interested in Bismarck's baseball fortunes, as a matter of civic pride, and he found a rabid and devout fan base for any sort of baseball. This was the heyday of bizarre barnstorming teams like the House of David from New Buffalo, Michigan, founded in a religious cult, never cutting their hair or beards, and openly basing their game on the showy and skillful modes of black baseball. Black barnstorming teams were welcome and often drew large crowds challenging local white teams, though ominously in 1926 the McCoy Nolan Colored Giants played a game while Bismarck was hosting a local Ku Klux Klan rally. But Churchill, who like Rickey had been a player himself and recognized the great skill of black players (though unlike Rickey, he also was an inveterate gambler, often financing his teams through dubious and reckless betting ventures), was undaunted by the racism of the era. He saw that a successful and thus profitable team could not exist in Bismarck without paid talent, and once arch-rival Jamestown had begun to import a few players from the fluid and talented Negro Leagues, he did the same at the beginning of the 1933 season.
Dunkel offers an aside on Moses Fleetwood Walker at the end of his long backgrounding section, where he points out succinctly that "Baseball wasn't born monochromatic." He notes that various teams had tried in the intervening years to slip "Latin" or "Cuban" players across the color line, and that even John McGraw had tried to smuggle a black player onto his 1901 Baltimore Orioles under the pseudo-Cherokee label Charlie Tokohoma (the ubiquitous Charlie Comiskey apparently "ratted out" the experiment to baseball authorities). But when the teams of the North Dakota Western Slope League started 1933 with openly integrated lineups, not as a novelty but to ramp up the competitive level, a ground-breaking bit of baseball history was unfolding on the high plains.
Churchill signed a young black catcher from St. Louis named Quincy Troupe, along with a pitcher who'd played for the Negro League St. Louis Stars when Troupe was a batboy, Roosevelt Davis. They boarded among the 46 black residents of Bismarck, among them Nancy Millet—" the black woman who cooked and cleaned for Colonel George Armstrong Custer was ninety-one and going strong. And she lived only a few blocks from the baseball field." Millet, whose life had touched American history at one its most infamous junctures was about to see, in her old age, a bit of meaningful social awakening.
The Bismarck team of 1933 was good, but Churchill wanted it to be better, to dominate the Jamestown rivalry and to revive a local economy ravaged by drought and the Depression. (Dunkel includes a few wonderful vignettes of FDR visiting North Dakota in the '30s and offering an ineffectual East Coast elite version of commiseration.) Churchill needed his unexpected star, his X-factor, just as Rickey needed his Jackie Robinson to take the Dodgers over the hump. But if Churchill had elements of anti-Rickey in his shady dealings, so also the player he signed for the August 1933 late-season push was a kind of anti-Robinson—he was, as it turns out, the inimitable pitcher Satchel Paige. Ah, that nexus of myth and fact, that pitcher for a hundred different teams (sometimes more than one at the same time!), that wandering combination of Nolan Ryan's arm, Yogi Berra's tongue, and Zorro's elusivity.
Abe Saperstein, through his connections in black baseball, tendered Churchill's offer, and Paige, though under contract to the Pittsburgh Crawfords (or maybe to protest his contract amount!), took the long train ride west. Dunkel offers a thoughtful reading of this strange connection: "In some ways North Dakota suited him, given its abundance of fiercely independent farmers and ranchers, its stubborn cusses and sagebrush eccentrics. Paige had a thoroughbred ability, but the heart of a wild stallion." Even more intriguing is the response of Paige to the event, which Dunkel relates: "It wasn't until after I signed up with Mr. Churchill that I found out I was going to be playing with white boys," he said. "For the first time since I'd started throwing, I was going to have some of them on my side. It looked like they couldn't hold out against me all the way after all." Not until 1948, well into his middle-age and a full 15 years after Neil Churchill's bold move, would Paige get his chance in the big leagues during the Cleveland Indians championship run—but it was the Major League's loss, and Bismarck's gain, that the fans of North Dakota got to see him in his prime.
Of Paige's month with the Bismarck team in 1933, the rubber match game with Jamestown leapt out at me, first because Paige and his Jamestown counterpart Lefty Brown, an accomplished Negro League veteran pitcher, led their integrated teams as they dueled to a 1-1 tie after 11 innings: "With darkness falling, the umpires stopped play. No one asked for their money back. 'The ball game was declared to be equal to any big league game ever played by fans who have seen games coast to coast,' said the Jamestown Sun.' " It was a glimpse of the future of baseball, tucked away in eastern North Dakota because the big league cities wouldn't tolerate such fraternization among the races. Cap Anson's enmity was alive and well, but the Western Slope League was practicing civil disobedience!
The second bit of intrigue from this game was the glance to the past of baseball, in this case frontier baseball (and you can guess the year that was featured): "Jamestown's mayor, Oscar Zimmerman, making use of a newly installed public-address system, welcomed everyone, but Elmer Marrell stole the pregame ceremony. He'd pitched for Jamestown in 1883 [italics mine] and was showered with applause as he slowly walked onto the field, in uniform." So a man who may have pitched against Cap Anson, or even Fleet Walker, on the 1880s barnstorming circuit, now inaugurated a game where blacks and whites happily, even jubilantly, competed side by side. Where were you that night, Kenesaw Mountain Landis and the good ol' boys club of big league owners? Had you looked closely, you would have seen a little fissure in your precious color line that night, as Paige and Brown combined for thirty strikeouts.
Paige went 14-0-2 for Bismarck in his month of work, and finished the season against the all-star team of the American Association, by then the name of a high minor-league farm system. Dunkel offers a cheeky speculation: "They challenged Bismarck, perhaps feeling full of oats because seven members of the team had just signed Major League contracts." Paige fanned 14, and Bismarck won the game 15-2. The crack widened, ever so slightly.
After a 1934 "lost season" in Bismarck—Satchel Paige, ever the vagabond, never showed up to renew his pitching post, and dust bowl heat and winds ravaged the landscape and economy yet further—Churchill's energies and Dunkel's narrative settle into the pivotal 1935 season, and especially the new pinnacle of semi-pro baseball in American, the "Little World Series" organized by the entrepreneurial Hap Dumont in Wichita, Kansas.
This rollicking event was dubbed "The National," aptly so, as teams from all reaches of the country participated (among them an all-Japanese American team from Stockton, California, led by 4'11'', 115 lb. pitcher Kenso Nushida, who'd broken the minor-league barrier for his own race). On the other end of the stature spectrum, the Bismarck squad now sported 6'3'', 210 lb. outfielder Moose Johnson, a hard-drinking and hard-swinging son of Finnish immigrants in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, along with a finally re-signed Paige and famed Negro League catcher-pitcher Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, later a mentor to the young Roy Campanella during his Negro League apprenticeship.
Wichita was a city with an intriguing baseball history, including at least one possibly unprecedented exhibition game on June 21, 1925, as the local newspaper reported that "Strangleholds, razors, horsewhips and other violent implements of argument will be barred at the baseball game at Loland Park this afternoon when the baseball club of Wichita Klan Number 6 goes up against the Wichita Monrovians, Wichita's crack colored team. The colored boys are asking all their supporters to be on hand to watch the contest, which besides its peculiar attraction due to the wide differences of the two organizations, should be a well played amateur test." The Monrovians won 10-8. Tiny cracks, tiny fissures, amidst the narrowness and hate.
Dunkel's account of the 1935 inaugural "National" is detailed and brilliant, moving amidst the panoply of intriguing characters—Dumont brought in Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson as honorary sponsors—novel teams (ten all-brother teams applied, but only the fighting Stancza's of Waukegan, Illinois were invited, though the Deike family team of central Texas, who'd often scrimmaged with a lanky first-baseman named Lyndon Johnson, crashed the tourney in Texan style)—and corporate-sponsored powerhouses, especially the Halliburton Cementers of Duncan, Oklahoma (yes, that Halliburton!), who arrived in their owner's private plane. The tournaments finest draw was the Bismarck team, especially with Paige pitching, even though the major-league scouts who were present unanimously counseled Dumont in private to drop the all-black teams and the offending integrated teams. And Dunkel carries that irony through the twists and turns, all the way to Paige's triumphant victory over the Cementers squad in the championship game: "Paige had seen a lot of baseball, but nothing quite compared to this. Usually when a black man got engulfed by screaming white people someone was carrying a rope."
The aftermath of the great 1935 season takes up another 50 pages of the book, and reads as a rambling but at times moving denouement, as integrated baseball in North Dakota faded out, through financial hard times and bigotry, and the cast of characters from the Bismarck champs went on their separate ways, some even to the big leagues eventually. Paige's final appearance in a publicity stunt for the 1965 Oakland Athletics, was a consummate finale: "They plopped him in a rocking chair out in the bullpen before a home game with the Boston Red Sox. Funny stuff. Then Satch walked ketchup-slow to the mound and shut down the Sox for three innings. He was then fifty-nine and got touched for only a single hit, by a Hall of Famer in the making, Carl Yastrzemski." If he could do that at the cusp of sixty, imagine what he would have done in his prime, against Ruth and DiMaggio and Williams.
Perhaps only the Bismarck team caught a glimpse of "what might have been" in their heyday. Satchel said of that wonderful experiment put together by Neil Churchill, "'That was the best team I ever saw. The best players I ever played with. But who ever heard of them?'" Come and read Color Blind, and you can count yourself privileged to be in that number who have heard.
Michael R. Stevens is professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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