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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

The Other Red Sox Nation
Book Review by Mikhail Horowitz

Ernest C. Withers (photographs), Daniel Wolff (essay). Negro League Baseball. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004, 192 pp., $35, cloth.

 

There's Frank Thompson, unkindly nicknamed "Groundhog," with his harelip, chipped tooth, and strabismal eye, maintaining his dignity for the camera as he quietly stands with his wife amid a gaggle of laughing teammates. And there's Casey Jones, beaming as he crosses the plate; and lanky Ollie Brantley, following through on the mound; and the bowlegged shortstop, T. J. "Tom" Brown, hunkering down in the scraggly infield grass. Red Sox one and all, but they never played in Fenway. They took the field at Martin's Stadium in Memphis, Tennessee, in the brief Indian summer of black baseball that followed the integration of the so-called major leagues. Their park was demolished in 1960, but the glory days of the Memphis Red Sox—and those of the Homestead Grays, Birmingham Black Barons, Kansas City Monarchs, and all the other fabled teams of the Negro leagues—had long since passed into the afterlife of oral recollection, accounts in the archives of black newspapers, and photographs.

And what a trove of photos this book is. It not only documents a crucial moment in both the history of baseball and the history of America, but it offers us fresh, heretofore unseen glimpses of its lost world to stand beside the iconic portraits of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and one or two other stars who have come to represent, for good or ill, the full spectrum of the amazingly variegated Negro leagues in the public consciousness. Ranging among the Red Sox and their rivals, it summons back for long-overdue curtain calls such inimitable and unjustly forgotten stars as Jimmy Newberry, who baffled batters with his "dipsy doodle"; Pepper Bassett, who occasionally, during exhibition games, would catch an inning while seated in a rocking chair; and Pedro Formental, a Cuban slugger who once (according to The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues) showed his contempt for the prevailing social order by using his Cuban passport to dine at a white restaurant in Dallas.

Moreover, Negro League Baseball chronicles the day-to-day continuity of a rich, vibrant community—not only of ballplayers but of doctors, dentists, pharmacists, gamblers, soldiers, musicians, children, and church-goers, all living and thriving as best they could under a political system that regarded them, if it regarded them at all, as equal to the dirt between its cleats.

A lifelong citizen of Memphis, Ernest Withers was a freelance commercial photographer whose presence was ubiquitous on that city's African American social calendar for more than fifty years. (According to a bio on the dust jacket, the eighty-three-year-old Withers remained hale, and still working, at the time of the book's publication.) He photographed funerals, weddings, nightlife, the cream of black society, and, inescapably, baseball. The game, as Daniel Wolff points out in his elegant, insightful essay, was perhaps the country's largest and most lucrative black enterprise in the years following the Second World War. Although Withers was in no way a rabid fan—he photographed the Red Sox on a pay-for-hire basis for the team's owners, four brothers who represented the upper crust of the city's segregated populace—his portraits radiate warmth and affection for his subjects, and a willingness to portray them as they are.

Yet when Withers and his camera came along to document the Red Sox in 1946, the Negro leagues were, as Wolff notes, a "carefully tensed structure . . . about to collapse," thanks to the fact of Jackie Robinson's signature on a Dodgers contract. Few suspected the collapse was imminent; but after Robinson and Larry Doby established themselves as bonafide stars, and the baseball establishment saw that not only would the center hold, it would flourish (for one thing, more fans—especially black fans, eager to see their heroes triumph on formerly forbidden fields—started packing the park), the big league clubs began to plunder their blackball counterparts. The best and the brightest of a new generation of black stars were snapped up, as the black owners readily sold them off to the highest bidders and, in the process, foreclosed on the future of their own franchises. Yet what else, indeed, could the black team owners have done? Caught between the Scylla of separatism and the Charybdis of a nascent social movement whose success, by definition, would ensure the obsolescence of their enterprise, they could only solace themselves with the knowledge that they had been a major part of "the astonishing culture that African Americans had managed to create within the white man's country," as Wolff writes—a culture that, for all its "rich complexity . . . [was] artificial and, ultimately, fragile."

Wolff's essay does an excellent job of situating the subculture of black baseball within the larger culture of black America, and provides a greater, more illuminating context for many of Withers's photographs. Discussing, for instance, a photo that depicts the aftermath of a rhubarb between the Red Sox and the Indianapolis Clowns, he notes a telling detail: Although the players and the umpire are black, the cops are white. If such brawls, as Withers recalls, were rare, it wasn't because black pros were in any way lacking competitive fire. Rather, "the white power structure in the city would have ended Negro baseball if there had been regular trouble. The sport these photographs reveal was played in a segregated stadium in a segregated part of town in a segregated city, state, and nation: diamonds within diamonds."

In another photo, there's a sell-out crowd at Martin's Stadium, circa 1940, with seats spilling over into the areas between the stands and the foul lines. At first, the eye is drawn to the sweeping panorama: the game in progress, the trinity of light poles, the crude, colorful billboards that were a distinguishing feature of vintage ballparks. But the caption guides us to the lower left, where, almost inconspicuous among the black throngs, a couple of white fans are intently following the action. If the image seems to suggest a sort of "Peaceable Kingdom" of interracial harmony, that notion is quickly dispelled when we realize that, at that time and in that place, the reverse—a pair of black fans integrating a game at Russwood Park, where the all-white Memphis Chicks of the Southern Association played—would not have been countenanced.

Some of the more striking—and more (to our postintegration sensibilities) disturbing—images are those of such famous black baseball clowns as Richard "King Tut" King, Joe Henry, Ralph "Spec Bebop" Bell, and Reese "Goose" Tatum. Placing their antics within the "faster, looser, more daring" game of blackball, Wolff writes: "Apologists have tried to downplay this aspect of the Negro leagues, arguing that black baseball was essentially an imitation of the majors: ėshadow ball.' But the photographs of [these clowns] . . . reveal one extreme of a game that had invented its own culture—and was unabashedly about entertainment." Such entertainment—much like that offered by the black minstrel tradition, which featured dancers, comedians, musicians, and singers, subtly subverting the white status quo, even as they enacted racist caricatures—has always been a double-edged sword. Wolff states that although black people could not enter into America's officially sanctioned form of baseball, "they could excel at it and transform it—and poke fun at it."

All this is undoubtedly true, but a few things further muddy this picture. For one, silly shenanigans were not entirely unknown to white baseball, and Al Schacht, Nick Altrock, Max Patkin, and other clowns provided, especially at minor league games, routines and stunts that were "unabashedly about entertainment." Then, too, the clowning of Tatum, King, et al, was problematic for some of the black athletes who felt it detracted from their skills on the field and perpetuated negative stereotypes. (In the caption to his portrait of a row of Indianapolis sluggers, Withers emphatically remarks: "They were top-notch ballplayers; there was no junk.") With the exception of the Clowns (whose owner, Abe Saperstein, also owned the Harlem Globetrotters), the Negro league teams generally confined the capers to pregame shows or between-innings features. Finally, it should be noted that in the period chronicled by these photographs—the postwar boom years of the late 1940s and early 1950s—the major leagues, at least in the person of maverick owner Bill Veeck, also began to court entertainment in earnest. At home games, Veeck's Indians, and later his Browns and White Sox, featured wacky door prizes, bizarre promotional events, and such spectacles as fireworks going off after homers and a midget stepping up to pinch hit. (Veeck, a long-time advocate of integration, on and off the field, signed both Larry Doby and an aging Satchel Paige to Cleveland Indians contracts.)

But I digress, which is exactly what a great collection of photographs and a fine accompanying essay should make one do. Negro League Baseball is a must for any serious student of (a) the game, (b) American history, (c) black American history, (d) the twentieth century, (e) photography, and (f) well-wrought objects. Besides, any book with an index that renders the full, glorious name of Saturnino Orestes Armas Arrieta "Minnie" Minoso is a book that has its priorities straight.

—EFQ

MIKHAIL HOROWITZ is the author of Big League Poets (City Lights, 1978). His song "The Surrealist World Series" will be included on Extra Innings, the next baseball- themed CD from Diamond Cuts.

© 2005 Mikhail Horowitz

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