Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Book review: Color Blind - The Forgotten Team that Broke Baseball's Color Line

Over the weekend we took the kids to see 42. Now I understand that some of the scenes were apocryphal and others were mixed in from later seasons but I thought the movie did a pretty damn good job of conveying the mood of the time.

I thought it was a sign of how much society has changed that when I told my oldest daughter what the movie was about she said it was stupid that blacks were not allowed to play major league baseball (special thanks to @Mariloutheclerk for pointing out I forgot the "not" in the preceding sentence). She was blown away by what she saw on the screen. While we still have a way to go in race relations in this country, we have made tremendous strides since the late-40's.

But, before Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers, there was the local semi-pro team in Bismarck, North Dakota - what may have very well been the first integrated baseball teams in the country. In Color Blind: The Forgotten Team that Broke Baseball's Color Line, Tom Dunkel takes us back to Depression-era North Dakota and Neil Churchill, the man behind the curtain.

Back in the 20's and 30's baseball was a lot less organized than it is today. There were a handful of minor leagues that served as pipelines to the majors but most baseball teams were independent. Most of them were either factory-sponsored or so-called town teams. There were also the barnstormers such as the House of David who toured the nation. For black ballplayers they were limited to the Negro Leagues and such teams as the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Homestead Grays, the Chicago American Giants and the Kansas City Monarchs.

Neil Churchill was a town booster who was already involved in the town's basketball squad when he got involved in baseball. He set out to make the Bismarck Nine the best squad in the state. He did it by signing outcasts from the minor leagues and by going after players in the Negro Leagues.

His most notable signing was the mercurial Satchel Paige who spent parts of three seasons pitching for the Crawfords and Bismark. The year after Jackie Robinson's debut in Brooklyn, Satchel Paige helped the Cleveland Indians win the World Series. Bismarck rode Paige's magical right arm to victory in Hap Dumont's 1936 National Invitational Baseball tournament.

Paige's battery teammate was catcher Quincy Troupe who could hurl the ball over the outfield wall from his knees behind home plate. Troupe started off with the Chicago American Giants before Neil Churchill convinced him to head north. After his time in Bismarck, Troupe spent most of the rest of his career playing in Latin America - though he played in the states long enough to lead the Cleveland Buckeyes to the Negro League crown in 1945. He also signed the first white player in the Negro League.

When the Dodgers purchased Robinson's contract from the minor league Montreal Royals, they also tried to pick up Hilton Smith who convinced the Kansas City Monarchs (by then a barnstorming team) to sign Robinson. Smith decided, at the age of 35, that he was too old to play for Branch Rickey and he opted to remain with the Monarchs. Smith became the ace of the Bismarck staff when Paige left for good.

Tom Dunkel's book is a trip back to a time when baseball really was the American pastime. His book is full of ballplayers you won't find in the history books and feats that seem almost magical. It is also a tale of the terrible inequities of racism and segregation and a reminder that some of the best players to ever put on a uniform and step onto a field were never allowed to do so at the highest level of the game.

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