- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

Baseball fans who can remember when Washington last had a major league team 1971, in case you've lost track will cherish Brad Snyder's new book, "Beyond the Shadow of the Senators" ($24.95, McGraw-Hill, 300 pages, illus). But the real value of "Shadow" is that it should appeal just as much to nonfans because of the social issues it addresses.
Snyder, a 30-year-old District attorney and former sportswriter, discusses with great sensitivity the segregation that afflicted baseball and the United States in the 1930s and '40s. He does this by telling the story of the Homestead Grays, a marvelous Negro League team that played most of its home games at Washington's old Griffith Stadium before and immediately after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 as the first black man to play in the majors since 1884.
Lest we forget, or did not know, Washington before World War II was a distinctly Southern city in which segregation was an accepted condition. Oddly, however, many black fans preferred to watch the mediocre Senators rather than the marvelous Grays.
Of the 18 Negro Leaguers in the Baseball Hall of Fame, nine played for the Grays at some point; the most famous were slugging catcher Josh Gibson and first baseman Buck Leonard. Playing out of both Pittsburgh and Washington, the team won nine Negro National League titles from 1937 to 1945 and another in 1948 before the integration of what then was called Organized Baseball eventually spelled the doom of black leagues.
Snyder, whose book began as his senior honors thesis at Duke University, quotes liberally from noted black sportswriters like Sam Lacy of the Afro-American newspapers and Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, who found white papers closed to them during the days of segregation. And he criticizes Shirley Povich, the Washington Post's longtime sports columnist, for not lambasting baseball's racist practices because, Snyder suggests, Povich was a close friend of Senators owner Clark Griffith.
Griffith, a baseball pioneer, was no more liberal on racial matters than most other white people born in the 19th century. Pressed by Lacy and other writers, he said he would be happy to sign a black player if he could find a qualified one. But instead, he said, it was the duty of the major leagues to preserve the tradition of black baseball.
This sounded fine except the rent paid by the Grays to use Griffith Stadium often meant the difference between the shoestring Senators finishing in the black (no pun intended) or red. To many, Washington seemed the most logical place for a black player to break the major leagues' racial barrier because of the city's large black population and Griffith Stadium's location in a black neighborhood at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW. Actually, Griffith didn't "find" a black player until 1954, nine years after Branch Rickey had signed Robinson to a minor league contract with the Dodgers.
Griffith, regarded by white Washington as a benevolent father figure, demonstrated a contradictory attitude toward racial matters. Seating was segregated in his ballpark, and he refused to allow exhibition games between white and black teams. Yet he often opened the park for black functions free of charge and was regarded as a friend by the black community in direct contrast to George Preston Marshall, the Redskins' virulently racist owner.
"He is no friend," Lacy wrote of Griffith in the Afro-American. "No one who helps perpetuate segregation and discrimination is a friend of the Negro."
Smith, writing in the Courier, put the issue this way: "If Mr. Griffith had to go to distant fields to find a competent Negro player, it might be expecting too much of him. But he doesn't have to do that. The best Negro team in the world, loaded with players good enough to be with the Senators, plays right in Mr. Griffith's ball yard."
More than half a century later, when cultural diversity is usually cherished rather than opposed, it comes as a shock to recall just how divided we once were. Snyder's book serves as a valuable history lesson that even within the supposedly democratic confines of sports, Jim Crow was a leading figure.
"Classic Baseball: The Photographs of Walter Iooss Jr." ($35, Abrams, 210 pages, illus.) Most coffee table sports books built around pictures rate only one or two looks before being consigned to dust catcher duty. This one, however, stands out above most others because longtime Sports Illustrated photographer Iooss has a marvelous eye and shutter finger for capturing the moments that define our erstwhile national pastime.
He's also a fine writer whose preface easily matches the smooth text contributed by co-author Dave Anderson, the veteran New York Times sports columnist. Iooss, who grew up in Brooklyn as a Dodgers fan, calls baseball a "slow, enticing game … of sporadic bursts. Just when you think you're about to be lulled to sleep, something happens that's breathtaking. … I ask you to look at these photographs with memories of warm summer days and nights, when so many of its beautiful moments occur when nothing is occurring."
His photographs, covering 40 or so years, do not let us down. There is one of aging Mickey Mantle contorting his face and straining every muscle as he misses a pitch, another of a Little Leaguer in uniform gobbling a TV dinner while a ball and glove rest on the table, others of startlingly old Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Warren Spahn, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford in recent years and Ernie Banks looking astonishingly youthful.
There is poignancy, too, as Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and a young Pete Rose confront one another across facing pages, with no hint in their eyes of the bad times to come.
Gnarled Casey Stengel holds his head in dismay while watching the 120-loss, "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game" expansion Mets of 1962 misperform. And in a dismaying shot of sports at its worst, a helmeted cop and his police dog await potential lawbreakers at Veterans Stadium after the Philadelphia Phillies won the 1980 World Series.
If baseball's evocative nature is your thing, so is this book.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide