A look at how the black leagues played ball and the big leagues made war

August 02, 1992|By James H. Bready

THE NEGRO BASEBALL LEAGUES: A PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORY.

Phil Dixon with Patrick J. Hannigan. Amereon House. 364 pages. $34.95

JULY 2, 1903: THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF HALL-OF-FAMER

BIG ED DELAHANTY.

Mike Sowell. Macmillan.

326 pages. $20. In publishing tradition, new baseball books appear as a new pennant race begins. However, a book about Ed Delahanty, who drowned in the Niagara River in mid-season, can logically come out on that mournful anniversary; as for the best picture book on pre-Jackie Robinson black players, it is welcome whatever the season.

By now, many books have recounted color-bar baseball: from guilt, that those gifted athletes were excluded from the big time for the sleaziest of reasons; from desire for the testimony of the dwindling group of former players and owners. Phil Dixon and Patrick J. Hannigan undertake to outdo the earlier narratives by embracing everything, from the Babylon (L.I.) Athletics of 1885, the first known salaried black team, to the Indianapolis Clowns, who closed things out in the 1970s. This text, well indexed, serves as exhibit wall for more than 500 photos.

Under many a face the sad caption is "Unknown." When did blacks begin playing baseball among themselves? Unknown. Oberlin College first took up the game in 1867, with Simpson Younger on its team. Bud Fowler, in 1872 the first black in interracial pro ball, had grown up in Cooperstown, N.Y. In 1884, the brothers Fleet and Welday Walker played in the majors, for Toledo; soon 30 or so blacks were scattered among the minors. But by 1900 Adrian Anson of the Chicago Nationals and other bigots cracked down.

One of the best stories in "The Negro Leagues" has to do with Frank Grant, Buffalo's second baseman. In the 1880s, sliding was mostly done headfirst (to reach for the base with your hand). But the racists came in feet first, to hit Grant with their sharpened cleats. The boards he stuffed inside his stockings were the precursor of shinguards.

Barnstorming followed (or "Triple A" ball -- playing any team, anywhere, any time); as many as four games a day; via train, then chartered bus. It was a serious loss to small-town America, the end of barnstorming. The original Negro National League, organized by Rube Foster, who was black, began play in 1920; in 1923 came the Eastern Colored League, with its Baltimore Black Sox. ECL gave way in the 1930s to the Negro American League, with its Baltimore Elite Giants. In 1929 (Satchel Paige helping), 1939 (Roy Campanella) and 1949 (Joe Black), Baltimore won championships.

This is not the book for lineup detail on Baltimore or any one city. The best account of Black Sox and Elites remains that by Robert V. Leffler Jr., in a 1974 Morgan State master's thesis (the latter half is published in the current issue of Maryland Historical Magazine). Also, nothing is said about Baltimore Orioles policy, following the epochal appearance of Jackie Robinson in the 1946 lineup of the Montreal team in the International League. Down through 1953, International League Baltimore never did have a black player.

Above all, "The Negro Leagues" makes plain that these 14- to 17-man teams attracted crowds, in general made money and, be it remembered, played first-class baseball. The proper white reaction is not just guilt but also regret, at not having been there.

Mike Sowell's journey into the past is very different. He highlights the oldest of the majors' five Delahanty brothers, from Cleveland --Ed, who was put off a train by night for misbehavior, who started across a bridge and whose body went over Niagara Falls. Suicide? Misstep? Mr. Sowell has no revelations.

But his real theme is violence. As the century began, each league -- brand-new American League and angry, divided National League -- was eager to smash the other. On the diamond, attitudes were similar. Vividly reliving those forgotten seasons, almost game by game, Mr. Sowell expatiates on fistfight and grandstand crash, drinking and gambling, contract-jumping and process-serving.

Oddly, there is solace here for Baltimoreans. After the 1902 season, this city was stripped of its American League franchise -- given to New York instead. Devastating as Baltimore's fall into the minors was, it can here be seen as one more episode in a circle of dishonor and cruelty (and growth). The Orioles' ownership had collapsed in mid-season; the league took over the franchise. This ignominy was not unique. A year later, Washington's ownership collapsed and its franchise, too, was taken over -- but not taken away.

Back then, Organized Baseball thought it more important to keep on having a team in Washington than in Baltimore.

Mr. Bready is the author of "The Home Team," a chronicle of baseball in Baltimore.

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