Welcome to Ben's Bookshelf, a recurring offseason column that highlights Minor League books of note. Interested in submitting a book for review or providing your opinion on recent Minor League-themed releases? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet @bensbiz.
Every day this month, we at MiLB.com are running articles from our archives that commemorate Black History Month in the Minor Leagues. The individuals profiled in these articles are a diverse bunch, from indefatigable 19th century trailblazers (Bud Fowler and Moses Fleetwood Walker) to little-known Jackie Robinson cohorts (Roy Wright and John Partlow) to integration-era Minor League superstars (Sam Jethroe, Butch McCord) and beyond.
When I began writing for MiLB.com in 2005, my own knowledge of this aspect of baseball history was spotty at best, but the opportunity to research and write about it led to a much greater appreciation of (and interest in) what these athletes went through. Their stories, taken together, serve as a societal mirror that reflects America's ever-evolving attitude toward race relations.
This edition of Ben's Bookshelf, then, is dedicated to some of the many books that help to illuminate the experiences of black professional baseball players. Further recommendations and feedback are always appreciated -- feel free to leave them in the comments section, via email or on Twitter.
Baseball's Great Experiment by Jules Tygiel
Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers was an epochal event, to be sure, and deserving of the near-mythological standing it has attained in American culture (which will only increase with the upcoming release of the Robinson biopic 42). But these heroics did not happen in a vacuum, and we should be wary of reducing the complex story of baseball's integration to the happy tale of Robinson and Branch Rickey. This is where Tygiel (a much-respected history professor who died in 2008 at the age of 59) comes in.
Baseball's Great Experiment is an impeccably researched tome that covers the events that happened in parallel with Robinson's exploits as well as after them. An in-depth account of Robinson's 1946 season with the Montreal Royals is a particular highlight, and Tygiel goes on to write masterfully about icons of the era such as Bill Veeck, Satchel Paige and Larry Doby. The end result is an indispensable account of a painfully protracted but ultimately triumphant period of baseball history. The "great experiment" had succeeded.
Brushing Back Jim Crow by Bruce Adelson
Brushing Back Jim Crow stands as a strong companion piece to Baseball's Great Experiment in that it also documents baseball's long and painful march toward full integration. As the title would indicate, Adelson's focus is on leagues, teams and players in the south (where segregation was explicitly codified via Jim Crow laws). First-person accounts from the players involved are plentiful, and Adelson is adept at interweaving these personal narratives with the larger legal struggles going on in society at the time. Racial integration was a fraught process no matter where in the country it took place, but the South clung to the old ways with a particular ferocity. Brushing Back Jim Crow compellingly documents just what a struggle it was.
Only the Ball Was White by Robert Peterson
Whereas the first two books focused primarily on the process of integrating professional baseball, Only the Ball Was White takes readers through the rich and often chaotic history of black professional barnstorming and Negro League teams in the years before integration. A Wild West atmosphere often prevailed, as financial insolvency and wanton movement from league to league and team to team was the norm. Peterson does a yeoman's job at fashioning these seemingly disparate ends into a coherent whole. Also of note is the book's concluding "Of Those Who've Gone Before" section, a position-by-position breakdown of elite black players who never received the prominence their talents should have earned them.
Satchel by Larry Tye
Maybe I'll Pitch Forever by Satchel Paige
Few, if any, pitchers enjoyed a career as sprawling and relentlessly peripatetic as Satchel Paige's. Paige barnstormed, traveled internationally and suited up for dozens of Negro, Minor and Major League teams, a lone wolf who seemingly was always in control of his own destiny.
Thanks to his formidable researching abilities, Tye was able to cut through the myths and half-truths that surrounded Ol' Satch to present him as the person he truly was. Satchel stands as the definitive biography of a fascinating character.
Paige himself was one of the greatest perpetuators of his own myth and his autobiography, Maybe I'll Pitch Forever, is a folksy and compulsively readable (if not entirely accurate) account of a life well-lived. These two books, taken together, are must-reads for those even remotely interested in a towering American icon.
Fleet Walker's Divided Heart by David W. Zang
Zang's biography of 19th century star Moses Fleetwood Walker is subtitled "The Life of Baseball's First Black Major Leaguer." And, indeed, Walker earned this distinction after suiting up for the American Association's Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884. But Walker's life is fascinating far above and beyond his fleeting assimilation into the world of white baseball. As I wrote in 2008, "Walker was a well-educated and restless Renaissance man who logged time as an inventor, entrepreneur, lecturer and newspaper publisher (among many other professional and leisurely diversions)." In short, Walker lived a fascinating (albeit challenging) life, and Zang did a great service by finally giving Walker the full-length biography he deserved.
20 Years Too Soon by Quincy Trouppe
Quincy Trouppe's name might not ring a bell for most baseball fans and this is most likely because, yes, he was born "20 Years Too Soon." Trouppe was a talented catcher who, due to the color barrier, didn't appear in the Major Leagues until the age of 39. That 1952 cup of coffee marked the end of his playing days but came on the heels of two colorful decades in which he caught Satchel Paige, roomed with Monte Irvin and managed Jackie Robinson (among many other adventures). His autobiography (reissued by the Missouri Historical Society after falling into obscurity) is a breezily written account of a life devoted to baseball, no matter how trying the circumstances.