Books on black baseball players are hits


February 27, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

The juxtaposition of Black History Month and the start of spring training is a natural for young fans who can recite Frank Robinson's triple crown stats for the 1966 Orioles but can't recall when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

More than any other sport, baseball is about history. Its past is stored like a worn fielder's glove on the closet shelf, ready to be taken out and stroked at a moment's notice.

And the history of African-Americans in baseball teaches us the country's past. Two new books about Negro League baseball illuminate a time that is often glossed over in textbooks, when the nation was torn by segregation.

* "Playing America's Game: The Story of Negro League Baseball," by Michael L. Cooper (Lodestar, $15.99, ages 9-12), is a photo essay that serves as a fine introduction.

For example, Jackie Robinson wasn't the first black to play big-time baseball with whites. In the 1880s, several blacks starred in the International League, until it banned them in 1887. Mr. Cooper writes that the last known black man to play in the majors from then until 1947 was Charlie Grant, who masqueraded as an American Indian named Chief Tokohama. He played second base for the Baltimore Orioles of the International League until an opposing team did a background check, and then he was kicked out of the league.

Mr. Cooper does a nice job searching in limited archives to chronicle the early years of the Negro leagues. He devotes a chapter to Rube Foster, a great pitcher who founded the Negro National League in 1920. Another chapter includes details about life on the road for barnstorming black players, who often slept on buses because hotel rooms were white-only.

By contrast, the Negro League players were treated as heroes in Cuba, where fans would reward a star with "a case of beer, a box of cigars, a shirt and tie, money, and a barbecued pig," Mr. Cooper writes.

The book includes a bibliography and additional sources of information on the Negro leagues, a good index and, for some reason, a useless 14-entry glossary -- one of the few strikeouts in an otherwise solid work.

* The Negro leagues provide the plot for "Finding Buck McHenry," by Alfred Slote (Harper-Trophy paperback, $3.95, ages 8-12). The narrator is Jason Ross, an 11-year-old white boy who collects baseball cards. The story opens the day he gets cut from his youth league baseball team.

He has never heard of the Negro leagues before, but when he discovers a new set of cards honoring the black stars, he is convinced that Mack Henry, a janitor at the elementary school, is actually Buck McHenry, a legendary pitcher with the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

This is a fast-moving novel that will appeal to Little Leaguers as well as card-collecting couch potatoes. It tries too hard to be politically correct -- Jason's new best friends are a black pitcher and a female outfielder -- and Jason is incredibly naive about racism. But there's enough suspense to make it popular.

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