THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

SOUTHERN LEAGUE:A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South's Most Compelling Pennant Race by Larry Colton

People of a certain age will remember Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. On the nightly news, viewers watched as the city's police force under the leadership of the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, beat Civil Rights marchers with clubs, attacked them with dogs, and sprayed them with high-pressure water hoses. So how could they forget? In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," written after his arrest in April for marching in the city's streets without a permit, Martin Luther King wrote, "Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States." President Kennedy would later state that Bull Connor did more for racial integration than anyone since Abraham Lincoln.

In late August of that year, King made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Seventeen days later the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed on a Sunday morning and four little black girls died and twenty other people were injured. The bombing became a touchstone of the Civil Rights Movement, but it wasn't the only bombing of a black church in Birmingham. No, in fact it was the seventeenth in seven years. As a result, the city earned the dubious nickname, "Bombingham."

Birmingham had a long history of fielding professional baseball teams -- both black and white. However, they were segregated teams. The Birmingham Barons played in the all-white Double-A Southern League and the Birmingham Black Barons played in the Negro League. Few white fans ever attended the Black Barons games while the black fans who attended the Barons games were restricted to an area in the right field corner stands. A chicken-wire fence was used as the boundary that separated the two races. (In St. Louis, there was no fence separating the races, but black fans up through the 1950's were restricted to the right field bleachers in Sportsman's Park in what was called "the pavilion." Moreover, this was in the major leagues.)

At the end of the 1961 season, Major League Baseball mandated that all minor league teams be integrated. The KKK pressured Barons owner Albert Belcher to disband his team. He gave in and the whole Southern League collapsed. However, Belcher was able to get Charlie O. Finley, the colorful and often outrageous owner of the Kansas City (later Oakland) A's, to become the parent organization of a resurrected Barons team. Finley, a Birmingham native, agreed and the Southern League was reborn in 1964.

Just one year after the terrible events of 1963, the 1964 edition of the Birmingham Barons became the first integrated team -- in any sport -- in Alabama's history. The team had two black players and three Hispanics on the roster when the season began. One other black player, John "Blue Moon" Odom, was added when he graduated from high school after the season began. Adding further uncertainly was the fact that the seating in the stadium would also be integrated, creating a distinct possibility that there would be conflict in the stands and the clubhouse.

The manager was Haywood Sullivan, a native of Dothan, Alabama who was in his thirties and had just retired as a player after spending seven years as a catcher with the Red Sox and A's. There was much speculation about how this rookie manager, a native of the Deep South, would deal with what could very well be a volatile situation. He had attended an all-white high school, an all-white university, and was signed to a large bonus by the Red Sox, the last major league team to have a black player on its roster; twelve years after Jackie Robinson integrated the sport.

Larry Colton's book concentrates on Sullivan and four players. The players are Tommie Reynolds, Blue Moon Odom, Hoss Nowlin, and Paul Lindblad. In addition, Campy Campaneris would have gotten more ink, but the A's called him up during mid-season. The reader also learns about the contentious relationship that developed between Belcher and Finley. Of course, any relationship involving Finley had to be contentious. He was never involved in any other kind.

Larry Colton does a good job of covering the racial divide that plagued Birmingham during this era, but it is baseball that he knows best and it is about the game that he is the most insightful. As a former professional player himself, he has an intimate knowledge of the game and is able to transmit that knowledge to the reader. He also knows from personal experience something about the Southern League, since he pitched in that league in 1966.

In a discussion of the book on C-Span, Colton joked that he had a higher strikeout ratio than either Nolan Ryan or Sandy Koufax -- which is true. He pitched in only one major league game. He faced nine batters and struck out two. That means that he struck out almost one-fourth of all the batters he faced. He was traded from the Phillies to the Cubs but never played in the majors again. He was the infamous "player to be named later" in that deal.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is the epilogue which details what happened in the lives of the players and the other principals in the years after 1964. I haven't given any details about what happened during that season or later because I don't want to ruin it for anyone who hasn't read the book. I'll leave that to people who don't mind doing that sort of thing. But I certainly encourage you to read it -- even if you are not a baseball fan.

Larry Colton, spring training, 1968

I own over a hundred baseball books -- fiction and nonfiction -- and have no idea how many I have read. However, this one goes near the top of my list of favorites.

I see Colton's book as a companion to one of my other favorites: "October 1964" by David Halberstam. Both books deal with baseball in the same year, but at a different level. And race relations are at the forefront of both. In 1964, the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series. They could not have won without their four young black stars -- Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Lou Brock, and Bill White. They defeated the New York Yankees, a great dynasty, but one of the last major league teams to integrate. The Cardinals would win two other pennants and one World Series in the 1960's, while the Yankees would have to wait more than a decade to play in their next World Series. It is not coincidental that by that time the team was thoroughly integrated.

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