Every baseball fan knows about Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in Major League baseball in 1947, and whose jersey number, 42, was permanently retired for all of MLB. As important as that step was for baseball, for professional sports, and for racial equality, the history of black athletes playing professional baseball is much older and more varied than Robinson's putting on a Dodgers uniform. Tom Dunkel tells the story of a Bismarck, North Dakota semipro baseball team that rose to national prominence, including a national tournament championship, while fielding a team of both black and white players.
Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball's Color Line is a colorful, entertaining historical account of American life in the Roaring Twenties and into the Great Depression. In small towns like Bismarck as well as in big cities, baseball was a source of entertainment and civic pride. Amateur and semipro teams abounded, representing their cities and towns, companies and civic organizations, and touring the country. Since the Major League teams didn't permit black players, black teams and leagues formed. Many of the players on these teams had more than enough talent to compete in the Majors, had they been permitted. Imagine telling a player, as some scouts told black players in Color Blind, I would recruit you to the Majors if only you were white.
Satchel Paige was one of those black pitchers who could have dominated batters in the Majors. When Neil Churchill, a car dealer in Bismarck, needed a pitcher for his semipro team, he didn't care what color his skin was. He knew Paige was the best pitcher around, and Churchill convinced him to come to North Dakota. In fact, he pulled black players from all over, building a roster split between black and white players. This mixed team beat black and white teams to win the 1935 national semipro tournament.
As remarkable as the race mixing on the team was, it didn't seem all that remarkable to the teammates, at least in Dunkel's telling. These were athletes who saw the value in their teammates on the field and, in many cases, socialized off the field as well. Overall, the impression I got was that few people truly wanted racial segregation in life and in baseball, but few were fully prepared to buck the norms of the day. When Churchill's team arrived for the tournament in Wichita, the hotel, surprised to see that the team was not all white, refused to let the black players stay. This could have been a great moment of team solidarity, with the white players insisting that their black teammates stay with them, or agreeing to stay in lesser accommodations in the black part of town. Alas, they bid their black teammates adieu, settling into their rooms while their black teammates set out to find their own places to stay. That's just how it was in the 1930s.
The tournament organizers did, in fact, break new ground by inviting both black and white teams to play. A few conflicts broke out on the field amid the racial tension, but teams came to play, not to display racial grievance. (However, some felt the tournament organizer arranged the brackets not only by seeding, but also in order to keep white teams from the Deep South from playing black teams.)
Color Blind is not only a delight to read for baseball history buffs, but it's also a great ground-level history of popular culture in the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s. In the time before television, and before going to the movies was even very common, going out to a ballgame was a prime entertainment choice. When every town had a ball team, the players became local heroes, with the whole town behind them. After World War 2, and the many changes that came in the 1940s and 1950s, this part of our culture died out. Color Blind tells this story amid the story of changing racial attitudes before the Civil Rights movement.