Saturday, July 14, 2012

Only the Ball was White by Robert Peterson

This volume is a piece of Americana, a history of black professional baseball before the color barrier was broken by Jackie Robinson in the Major leagues.  It is a history of that great blight on American society when great players like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson entertained thousands of Americans at big league ball parks when the Major League team was on the road.  It is a story of exploitation and greed, a story of prejudice but also a great story of hope and expectation that sooner or later America would see the real talent in Black Baseball.

One reads about the organizational skills of Rube Walker and how he took care of the his players.  One learns  of the promotional skills and business acumen of people like Abe Saperstein and Eddie Gottleib. The most interesting aspect of this history, however, is learning about the colorful personalities in Black Baseball.  For example, one learns how Satchel Paige refused to be exploited and was not afraid of changing teams when he felt slighted.

Satchel Paige did not develop a curve ball until he was in his 40s!  His fastball had that nasty habit of fooling batters because it hopped as it crossed the plate. He was a master showman and entertained every time he pitched.

One learns some great legends about the history of baseball.  For example, one learns that before there was a color barrier Black players had to worry about getting spiked by opposing players.  Wooden shin-guards were developed for the second baseman because he had to expect instead of a head first slide, a spikes high slide.  One learns that the prejudiced player would sharpen his spikes and split the shin-guards!

Josh Gibson, the Babe Ruth of the Negro leagues was so legendary that they tell the story that he hit a home run  ball that did not come down in Pittsburgh but was called an out the next day in Philadelphia when the ball landed in the outfielders glove!  The pitching great Walter Johnson testified to the talent of Gibson by calling him a $200,000 ball player because that is what any team would pay for his contract were it not for the fact that he was "colored".

Cool Papa Bell could be on third base before the catcher figured he was stealing second!

Not every black player was a major leaguer, however, so many players made there way to Major League Baseball: Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby.  Even Willie Mays got his start in the Negro Leagues.  Professional black baseball was so unnecessary and only highlighted this country's bigotry.  The book points out for example, that the baseball leagues in Mexico lacked any prejudice because there was accepted diversity.

This book is a worthwhile read in the history of American sports.

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