The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution

By Neil Lanctot. Univ. of Pennsylvania. 496 pp. $34.95

If you know anyone who claims to be up on baseball history -- smarties who know the names of Joe DiMaggio's outfielder brothers or how many years Hoyt Wilhelm pitched in the minors -- ask them for whom Satchel Paige played (the Pittsburgh Crawfords) or Josh Gibson (the Homestead Grays) or Jackie Robinson in his pre-Brooklyn Dodgers days (the Kansas City Monarchs) or Larry Doby before the Cleveland Indians (the Newark Eagles). If they hit it out of the park on those (it's 1,000 to 1 in Vegas they won't), brush them back with this: Name the six teams in the Negro National League and the six in the Negro American League in the mid-1940s.

Bet the farm, or at least the fences around it: No one will know, except those who have just read Neil Lanctot's story of black baseball during its five-decade run to its final innings in the late 1950s. In remarkable detail -- 576 endnotes alone that consume 77 pages -- Lanctot takes us beyond the ball field where the Paiges and Gibsons played in forced segregation, and into the commercial and social realities of baseball in black communities. As much as the Paiges and others may be romanticized for being the equal of any white players, they remained trapped in an industry that was separate but emphatically unequal.

Lanctot, a history professor at the University of Delaware, traces the rise of black baseball to "the Great Migration of 1916-1919, when 500,000 blacks, responding to northern industrial demands and deteriorating social and economic conditions, left the south for the urban north." For a time, black baseball entrepreneurs attracted enough of a fan base to create two profitable leagues. But the Great Migration was soon brought low by the Great Depression. Financial backers pulled back, teams disbanded. A few managed to hang on. A modest turnaround came in 1934, when promoters drew 20,000 spectators to each of two doubleheaders in New York's Yankee Stadium. Satchel Paige, on the mound for the Crawfords and mowing down batters, was advancing from star to legend status. In 1938, nearly 11,000 fans came to a game in Washington's Griffith Stadium, a record for black baseball attendance.

Focusing more on the economics of black baseball than the feats of its players, Lanctot pursues one main theme throughout his 11 chapters: that the cash flow was often a cash trickle. Long overnight bus rides were common, along with mechanical breakdowns on the way to the next town 1,200 miles away. With no binding contracts, as was true in organized white baseball, players could be freelancers open to the next best offer. Paige, lured by $2,500, jumped to a team in the Dominican Republic. He said he preferred to "go to South America and live in the jungles rather than go back to the [Negro] league and play like I did for 10 years." It wouldn't last. Life under Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, a baseball fan when he wasn't imprisoning or torturing people, was more oppressive than anything in the States.

Lanctot offers a rich array of facts that history lovers can feast on. We learn that in the late 1930s it was the Communist Party and its fine newspaper, the Daily Worker, that led the drive to integrate baseball. White owners, nearly all political conservatives, were one with Clark Griffith, boss man of the Washington Senators, who said that blacks were a "tool" of the communists. As for access to the white leagues, Griffith said that "the nigras themselves didn't want it."

Integration might have happened during the war years of the early 1940s, when big league rosters were running low on players. But instead of signing established blacks, owners recruited white teenagers, including a 15-year-old pitcher. The Sporting News, as conservative as the owners who read it, denounced "agitators . . . who have sought to force Negro players on the big leagues, not because it would help the game, but because it gives them a chance to thrust themselves into the limelight as great crusaders in the guise of democracy."

The rest of the story is common knowledge, but with a footnote. In April 1947, Jackie Robinson came to the Brooklyn Dodgers, followed in July by Larry Doby to Cleveland, and Dodger Dan Bankhead, the big leagues' first black pitcher. While these three had to deal with white racism on the field and on road trips, a group that Lanctot calls "the black elite" and "black bourgeoisie" was worried that the emoting and enthusiasm of unruly working-class and poor black fans in the stands would reflect badly on the whole community.

Integration ended the Negro leagues. As sterling a historian as he is, Lanctot might have added one more chapter as an update: the current and continuing decline in numbers of black big leaguers, the low appeal of baseball among blacks in high school and college compared with football and basketball, the absence of black fathers to play catch with their children. Much of this was reported in the July 7, 2003, edition of Sports Illustrated by Tom Verducci, who asked the same question that was raised nearly a century ago, and is ably analyzed by Neil Lanctot: Does the black ballplayer have a future? *

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, is the director of the Center for Teaching Peace.

Satchel Paige