SHADOW BALL 

Books discussed: 

Paige, LeRoy. Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever. 1993, University of Nebraska.

O’Neil, Buck. I Was Right On Time. 1996, Fireside.  

A coworker mentioned to me recently that he had watched a segment from Ken Burns’ Baseball film on public television, and was intrigued by the Negro League segments presented. Aside from a cursory knowledge of Jackie Robinson, he confessed that he knew little about the Negro Leagues. Being a baseball fan and SABR member, I often forget the lack of knowledge the general public has about this period of baseball history. The Negro League players have been left in a baseball backwater, forgotten by most fans until a notable player dies or anniversary passes, then given short shrift as a curiosity.

In my view, the only fair way to cope with the fact of baseball segregation is what I like to call the Bill James method. In his New Historical Baseball Abstract, James notes that his player rankings are premised on his desire to never penalize a player for factors beyond his control. As near as possible, James attempts to evaluate all players based on what they did on the field, without punishing white or black players for the conditions they did not create. Thus, one must judge Negro League players equally when discussing the best players of all time, trying to make whatever adjustments can be made.

The fact of baseball segregation is one that is deeply offensive to most people. While not on a par with securing voting rights or integrating public places in historical import, the integration of baseball remedied an injustice that was laughable. Baseball authorities actually had the temerity to stand up in public and claim that blacks were not skilled enough to play in their supposedly major leagues, or that no blacks had asked for a tryout, or other ridiculous ruses to hide their naked ignorance and racism. The scar it leaves on the body of baseball statistics offends me, and the pain of stars like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige moves me to anger.

Paige’s autobiography, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, describes Paige’s nearly 40 year career of playing baseball for pay, from the sandlots of the American South to the American Negro Leagues, Mexico, Venezuela, and finally, much too late, the Cleveland Indians of the American League in 1948. Paige’s work, like many Negro League stories, has to be given an allowance for hokum and faulty memories, but still stands strong as a story of baseball on both sides of the color line. Paige talks of his anger when Robinson is given the pioneer’s role, but it may be successfully argued that Paige’s on field antics, such as the hesitation windup and waving in outfielders to strike out the side, may have worked against him in that role. The read is enjoyable, if a bit simply written and selective in its choice of anecdotes.

John “Buck” O’Neil was a contemporary and teammate of Paige’s. While not a superstar of Paige’s stature, O’ Neil is much more accepting of what took place, choosing to value what he had rather than what he was unfairly denied. O’ Neil’s book is written in a less vernacular style, but also tells a fascinating tale of O’Neil’s own play in the Negro Leagues, along with his coaching and post career fame as a source for the Burns film.

Both books are less scholarly analysis than storytelling session, but tell fascinating stories of games and players gone by. The Negro League is something to be celebrated, O’Neil tells us, rather than mourned. The conditions that led to the league’s formation were evil, but cannot be undone. Reading these books helps the fan feel like they were able to witness these fabled performers from years past. As the society at large learns more of the history of the baseball in the shadows, reading works such as these can help gain greater understanding of the Negro League past. --MikeWebb

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