Recalling the glory days of black baseball

Once overlooked by history, the Negro Leagues are now widely celebrated.

Ironies abound in the history of black baseball. As historian Jules Tygiel points out in his introduction to Lawrence Hogan's Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball, they began in 1867, when the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first organized league, refused to admit an all-black team.

The association's rationale: Admitting black teams might cause problems, "whereas by excluding them no injury could result to anyone." Those were the days when segregation was advanced, with full sincerity, as a win-win solution for all.

But perhaps the greatest irony has been the rediscovery of the history of the Negro Leagues, and the larger realm of black baseball, during the past several decades.

By the early 1960s, only 20 years removed from its heyday, the Negro Leagues had almost entirely disappeared from our historical memory.

Yet today, black baseball has been thoroughly researched, written about, and celebrated. Indeed, there is probably a greater awareness of the Negro Leagues now than there was in the 1940s, when black baseball was at its peak.

"Shades of Gray" is the latest addition, and a very good one, to the growing shelf of books on the topic. Lawrence D. Hogan, a history professor at Union College in New Jersey, is credited as the chief author, but eight others - a scholarly starting lineup, each with expertise in specific subject areas - are listed as "collaborative authors." The book is the result of a comprehensive study of the history of African Americans in baseball commissioned by the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Much of the work of this landmark study involved filling in the statistical gaps by tracking down box scores for league-sanctioned games from more than 120 period newspapers.

While the book contains plenty of statistics, game summaries, and accounts of spectacular athletic achievements, "Shades of Glory" is much more, as Hogan sets the teams and leagues in the cultural and economic context of the black experience and the communities in which they played, broadening the book's appeal to anyone interested in this fascinating chapter in American history.

It's little surprise that the nation's racial attitudes are reflected in its popular pastimes. Baseball caught on during the Civil War, and both black and white teams began to form in the late 1800s as the game evolved from a casual amusement to a more professionalized spectacle. A handful of blacks even played on otherwise all-white teams, but as integration declined in post-Reconstruction America, the last black player was forced out of organized baseball in the late 1890s.

Independent black teams proliferated in the early 20th century, culminating in the formation of the first viable leagues of all-black teams in the early 1920s. The leagues collapsed during the Depression, but new leagues had formed by the late 1930s.

It was during World War II that black baseball thrived. By the 1940s, the decades-long migration of blacks from the South had swelled the black populations of northern industrial cities, where most black baseball teams played. Due to the wartime economy, more African-Americans were working than ever before and had more money than ever to spend on leisure activities. Despite a host of organizational woes, the Negro Leagues enjoyed a measure of financial stability.

This was also the era that produced some of black baseball's greatest stars - Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, James "Cool Papa" Bell, among others - although the entire history of black baseball abounds with superior athletes. Sidebars scattered throughout "Shades of Glory" highlight many of the outstanding players - some famous, some obscure - and other individuals important to black baseball.

A further irony is that the war effort that was a boon to black baseball also spurred integration and, ultimately, the demise of the Negro Leagues.

When Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, the Negro Leagues became almost instantly obsolete. All eyes were on Jackie and virtually every black baseball enthusiast in America became a Dodger fan.

As Buck Leonard, star first baseman for the Homestead Grays, put it succinctly: "After Jackie, we couldn't draw flies."

Though few tears were shed at the demise of the Negro Leagues, nor would anyone wish for their return, Hogan reminds us that something was lost when black baseball died. The Negro Leagues, like other black institutions, were born of necessity, but evolved into something unique.

They were not, as novelist John Edgar Wideman has noted, simply a black version of what white people did.

My one complaint with this otherwise fine book is its lack of both footnotes and a bibliography. On the other hand, the 50 or so photographs are outstanding, and include many images not commonly found in other books on the subject.

David Conrads is a freelance writer in Kansas City, Mo.

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