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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Black Stars Fell on Alabama
Book Review by Mikhail Horowitz

Joe Formichella. Here's to You, Jackie Robinson: The Legend of the Prichard Mohawks. San Francisco, Calif.: MacAdam/Cage, 2005, 310 pp., $23.50, cloth.

 

Twenty-three years after Jackie Robinson first trotted across the baseline at Ebbets Field and, in the process, decisively obliterated another line, the first serious attempt to narrate the history of the old black professional leagues—Only the Ball Was White, by Robert Peterson—was published by Oxford University Press. In retrospect, it now seems inevitable that Peterson's worthy treatment of his epic subject would have inaugurated a cottage industry of black baseball scholarship: the struggles and triumphs of the Civil Rights movement were still fresh, and many Americans, white and black alike, caught up in the utopian spirit of the times, were eager to reclaim their individual and collective stories, especially those that had long been ignored or whitewashed by the status quo. Today, with many similar studies jostling against Peterson's for shelf space—including oral histories, team chronicles, player biographies, and even encyclopedias—the history of black professional baseball at its highest levels is as scrupulously researched and documented as the history of the major leagues.

But baseball didn't earn its sobriquet of "America's national pastime" by limiting itself to the game played by the pros. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, it flourished in a thousand guises in as many locales, the better part of them rural. Kids played the game or its homemade variants in scruffy lots and scraggly pastures; young adults, depending upon their abilities or ambition, played it on semipro or barnstorming teams, or for their local mills, businesses, churches, fraternal brotherhoods, and any number of other organizations that were willing to sponsor a team and offer it a diamond in the rough. This was as true for the black community as it was for the white; but whereas the history of semi- or nonprofessional white baseball has been and continues to be well delved by writers, its black counterpart remains pretty much terra incognita, or at least terra indocumenta. To put it another way, while most readers of EFQ will be familiar with the names of "Cool Papa" Bell, "Cyclone" Williams, and Oscar Charleston, precious few (if any) will recognize the names of Lyonel Pugh, Ellis "Candyman" May, and Willie "Shoe" Lomax.

As recounted in Joe Formichella's book, Pugh, May, Lomax, and a fortunate host of others once played for the Prichard Mohawks in the precincts of Mobile, Alabama, a baseball incubator second only to San Pedro de Macoris (the roster of major leaguers whose careers kicked off in that city includes Henry Aaron, Billy Williams, Willie McCovey, Amos Otis, Frank Bolling, and Cleon Jones, for starters). From the late 1950s through the mid 1960s, the Mohawks, an amateur outfit originally consisting of young boys residing on or along Bullshead Avenue, were the pride of Mobile. During their heyday, the team took on and regularly "whooped" semipro teams at home and throughout the South—over one span, for instance, they reportedly went 65 and 7. By the time they won their first Gulf Coast Championship, in 1963, their home games were routinely attended by half a dozen pro scouts.

But wins and losses and pitching and batting stats are not the glory of the Mohawks, and not the story that Formichella tells. To be sure, there's a lot of baseball in Here's to You, Jackie Robinson—old players talking shop and swapping anecdotes; thrilling accounts of games in enemy territory (Mississippi, during the last throes of white supremacy); heartbreaking stories of tryouts for pro teams that were doomed to meet with failure no matter how talented the prospect was, thanks to quotas on how many blacks a team could sign. But the core story of the Mohawks is that of a remarkable man by the name of Jesse Norwood, who took a rudderless group of dirt-poor kids and, through the medium of baseball, initiated them not only into manhood, but also into an awareness of how they could make a difference, how they could make a positive change, in the world outside the baselines. And that story entails, in its turn, the saga written in those three primary fluids—blood, sweat, and tears—on the broader canvas of that age, in that place: the story of the struggle for civil rights.

Norwood was a laborer and an ex–Merchant Marine in his mid-thirties when he made it his business to do something for the boys in the neighborhood. Although his formal education did not extend beyond the sixth grade and he had no baseball experience to speak of, he had a questing intellect that was fueled by a love for reading and a gift for transmitting both book and life lessons to his charges. He realized early on that organization was crucial to the success of his project, and he proceeded to "revolutionize" sandlot baseball in the region by providing the Mohawks with uniforms, a manager, team meetings, yearly schedules, and other trappings of the pros, instilling the players with pride and earning them respect in their community. And, as Formichella writes, "He helped them groom their dreams. . . . He somehow knew that even if they couldn't all become major league baseball stars . . . they could work to make their own success and could then turn around and influence other lives the way he'd influenced theirs."

If you were black in the segregated South, however, even your dreams were circumscribed. Throughout his central narrative, Formichella deftly braids long accounts of the battles waged by Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, and other heroes of the Civil Rights movement into a blue fugue. It's to his credit that he's able to identify and illuminate so many of the correspondences between baseball and the greater sociopolitical sphere without sacrificing the smaller, but equally engrossing, story of Norwood and the Mohawks. He accomplishes this, in large part, by grounding things in the present at every juncture, through comments and testimonies by surviving members of the team on hand for the dedication of a recreational center in the early 1990s. Like a joshing combination of a Greek chorus and an amen chorus, the Mohawks weave their reminiscences in and out of the narrative, which sometimes travels well-worn roads (Robinson's rookie season with the Dodgers) and occasionally seems to wander far afield (a brief history of Robert's Rules of Order), always keeping the narrative on track. Whether recalling how Mr. Norwood politely but firmly faced down a blatantly biased redneck sheriff-cum-umpire who was applying a double standard to his calling of balls and strikes, or how a poultice of clay, clover, and water could work wonders on a sprained ankle, or how the team would smooth a patchy infield by means of a railroad cross-tie dragged from the back of a station wagon, the Mohawks' pride in, affection for, and loyalty to the game, each other, and their late patriarch is a rare thing, moving and inspirational.

A writer's sources are his bench strength. Formichella has a deep bench, and he knows how to deploy it; whenever he needs a good quote to advance the reader, he summons the likes of W. E. B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Bart Giamatti, Gunnar Myrdal, or Roger Kahn to the plate. Of his various and frequent digressions, he says, "I found myself tracing threads I never would have expected to be connected to baseball. And yet, if I followed those threads far enough, they always led me back to the game. Like tracking the threads on a baseball itself, there's no beginning, and no end: The stitches both hold it together and keep it in motion, the disparate threads of history and religion, civil rights and parliamentary procedure, always winding back to the game, the object, baseball."

A chronology of the Mohawks' brief but influential tenure would have been useful, especially one linked to a timeline of the era's most significant social events; but given the dearth of records and the fading memories of old men, the author can't be faulted for not providing one. No matter. As an oral history and an homage to an extraordinary group of ordinary people, Here's to You, Jackie Robinson is a welcome addition to the noble line that traces its beginning to Only the Ball Was White.

—EFQ

MIKHAIL HOROWITZ is the author of Big League Poets (City Lights, 1978). His baseball-related poems, collages, and articles have appeared in scads of anthologies, journals, newspapers, and magazines.

© 2006 Mikhail Horowitz

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