Saturday, April 2, 2005


By Brad Snyder

McGraw-Hill, $14.95, 432 pages


Once Washington had a championship team, not the Senators or the Nationals as they were sometimes called, but the Grays, the premier team in the Negro Leagues. One wag concluded of the Senators that “Washington was first in war, first in peace, and last in the League.” But the Grays were a fine team that also played at Griffin Stadium. In fact, the owner of the Stadium, Clark Griffin, posed as a supporter of black aspirations, but with Connie Mack and Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis he continually stopped black players from coming into Major League Baseball.

Brad Snyder in his book gives a fairly traditional history of the Negro League teams and their stars. Some of those names are well know to baseball fans now—Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and of course the great Satchel Page. But Mr. Snyder, who is from Washington, D.C., really becomes a social historian explaining the changes of the black middle class in the 20th century and the persistence of segregation in the nation’s capital.

Mr. Snyder argues persuasively that the persistence of the color bar was due both to white racism and to the fears of black team owners that integration would mean the end of black organized baseball and destroy their investments. The Negro League had some extraordinary players, but the level of play especially among pitchers was a cut below the Major Leagues.

Clark Griffin, who made a tidy sum from renting his Stadium to the Washington Grays, had a vested interested in the status quo. As for the Senators, when they played in town, blacks were relegated to the right field bleachers—which Griffin insisted was at their own request. Mr. Snyder goes on to explain the importance of black sports writers, especially the irascible Sam Lacy, who finally lost patience with Griffin’s reassurances that he supported black aspirations, and eventually became a travel companion of Jackie Robinson.

Griffin and other owners had of course used black players in their recruitment efforts, but they were designated as “Cubans”, and therefore not covered by the American color bar. Mr. Snyder described in detail the Washington “Harlem” of U Street, the development of the black middle class, the pre-eminence of Howard University at the time. Some of the black leadership retained a real affection for Babe Ruth who was castigated by benchjockies for his supposedly “Negro blood.” But they still relished the enormous homers of Josh Gibson who with Ruth and later Mickey Mantle set records for distance. Ironically it was the prickly Ted Williams, who on being voted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, sharply remarked about the absence of great Negro League players in the museum. Years later that oversight was corrected.

The turning point of course was the introduction of Jackie Robinson who in 1947 first played for Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson was not the best black player around, but he was very good and also was a college graduate, an articulate spokesman, and a person able to put up with racist taunts. He did for baseball what Joe Louis did for boxing earlier. Black interest shifted to Robinson, and soon a host of great black baseball players who had served an apprenticeship, which Jackie did not, in the Negro Leagues emerged. They included Roy Campanella, Larry Dobby, Henry Aaron, Monte Irvin, Ernie Banks, and the great Willie Mays. And the Negro Leagues in a few years simply vanished.

Unfortunately, Robinson had a sharp side to him, and he insisted on criticizing the old Negro Leagues for their poor pay, bad facilities, and haphazard administration. He took on publicly left-leaning Paul Robeson, and eventually supported Richard Nixon in 1960 until John F. Kennedy used his influence to help free a jailed Dr. Martin Luther King. There was a feeling among some black stars that Robinson had little respect for those who had gone before and who did not have a Mr. Rickey in their corner.

What is disturbing is that Clark Griffin was succeeded by his nephew Calvin who eventually moved the Washington major league team because the family felt that Griffin Stadium was located in an increasingly black neighborhood. So they went to Minneapolis, and D.C. got a poor expansion team. The movement to integrate baseball once again (it was integrated after the Civil War until Jim Crow became nationalized) was of course part of the same dynamics that led to the integration of the armed forces by President Harry Truman and then the Supreme Court’s decision on public schools in 1954 in the case of Brown v. Board of Education.

The ironic fact is that baseball and the military remain telling examples of the end of the race bar, while the schools especially in the North and in this city have become more segregated by race than they were before the Brown decision. Sadly almost none of us have seen Gibson or Leonard play. And only a few of us remember the very ending days of Page’s remarkable longevity. As Satchel said in a very different vein—in life, go light on the vices.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the “Odes of DiMaggio” and “Ty Cobb and the Great American Pastime”

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