Satch, Dizzy, & Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson

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9781416547990: Satch, Dizzy, & Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson

“A new classic baseball book” (Library Journal): the story of how Satchel Paige, Dizzy Dean, and Bob Feller introduced integrated baseball to America.

Before Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball in 1947, black and white ballplayers had been playing against one another for decades—even, on rare occasions, playing with each other. Interracial contests took place during the off-season, when major leaguers and Negro Leaguers alike fattened their wallets by playing exhibitions in cities and towns across America. These barnstorming tours reached new heights, however, when Satchel Paige and other African-American stars took on white teams headlined by the irrepressible Dizzy Dean. Lippy and funny, a born showman, the native Arkansan saw no reason why he shouldn’t pitch against Negro Leaguers. Paige, who feared no one and chased a buck harder than any player alive, instantly recognized the box-office appeal of competing against Dizzy Dean’s “All-Stars.” Paige and Dean both featured soaring leg kicks and loved to mimic each other’s style to amuse fans. Skin color aside, the dirt-poor Southern pitchers had much in common.

Historian Timothy M. Gay has unearthed long-forgotten exhibitions where Paige and Dean dueled, and he tells the story of their pioneering escapades in this engaging book. Long before they ever heard of Robinson or Larry Doby, baseball fans from Brooklyn to Enid, Oklahoma, watched black and white players battle on the same diamond. With such Hall of Fame teammates as Josh Gibson, Turkey Stearnes, Mule Suttles, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, and Bullet Joe Rogan, Paige often had the upper hand against Diz. After arm troubles sidelined Dean, a new pitching phenom, Bob Feller—Rapid Robert—assembled his own teams to face Paige and other blackballers. By the time Paige became Feller’s teammate on the Cleveland Indians in 1948, a rookie at age forty-two, Satch and Feller had barnstormed against each other for more than a decade.

These often obscure contests helped hasten the end of Jim Crow baseball, paving the way for the game’s integration. Satchel Paige, Dizzy Dean, and Bob Feller never set out to make social history—but that’s precisely what happened. Tim Gay has brought this era to vivid and colorful life in a book that every baseball fan will embrace.

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About the Author:

Timothy M. Gay is the author of Tris Speaker: The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend. It was a finalist for two of the baseball history community’s most prestigious awards. His essays and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, USA Today, and many other publications. Tim is a graduate of Georgetown University and lives in northern Virginia with his wife and three children.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert ONE
Interracial Barnstorming Before Satch

Over the years, a rich store of baseball lore accumulated around barnstorming experiences. ...Such scenes were a measure of the depth
and spread of baseball’s roots.


Herman Wouk once wrote that the past of immigrant America is like a fog: “Clutch at it and it wisps through your fingers.”1 Much of interracial baseball’s saga before Paige, Dean, and Feller came along is similarly elusive. Yet games between all-black and all-white squads had long been a staple of barnstorming. Indeed, virtually all of early baseball’s demigods—from pitcher Walter Johnson and outfielder Ty Cobb to blackball ace Cyclone Joe Williams and peerless shortstop Pop Lloyd—played in interracial exhibitions.

These black-white games “revealed a fundamental irony about baseball in the Jim Crow era,” historian Jules Tygiel observed. “While organized baseball rigidly enforced its ban on black players within the major and minor leagues, opportunities abounded for black athletes to prove themselves against white competition along the unpoliced boundaries of the national pastime.”2

No baseball boundary was as unpoliced as barnstorming’s. The term is a vestige from a bygone age. Many nineteenth-century farm communities lacked halls or theaters, so itinerant entertainers—early vaudevillians, black-faced musical minstrels, even actors doing abridged versions of Shakespeare—would perform in barns, packing them to the rafters. As William Safire’s New Political Dictionary explains, politicians eager to cultivate the farm vote began “storming” barns, too.3

Later the phrase was adopted by stunt pilots, who charged fairgoers a few bucks for the thrill of buzzing barns in a biplane. The Oxford English Dictionary, as Thomas Barthel’s Baseball Barnstorming and Exhibition Games, 1901–1962 points out, defines barnstorming as being applied “deprecatively to a strolling player.”4

The reception to early baseball barnstorming, however, was anything but deprecatory. Fans turned out in droves. How else could folks in the hinterlands see their heroes up close? When a barnstorming team came barreling through, local leaders declared a holiday. Schools and businesses often closed early.5

Hitting the road helped black teams and white teams fill their coffers. It also provided entrepreneurial players with a chance to earn extra cash if their clubs didn’t do the organizing.

Until the 1940s, paychecks for white big-leaguers arrived only during the season. Barnstorming, then, became an important way to fatten money clips during the fall and winter. But for black players, barnstorming was a life preserver that kept them afloat since their “regular” pay was so meager. Kent State University historian Leslie Heaphy argues that the majority of games played by black teams during the course of a typical season were exhibitions of one kind or another—not “official” league contests.6 Barnstorming became such a profitable enterprise for white professionals that some autumns during the Roaring Twenties, a dozen or more squads were out on the circuit, many of them competing against black teams.7

America’s first recorded game between an all-black squad and an all-white team took place in 1869, four years after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Virginia. The contestants were the black Pythians of Philadelphia and a Caucasian nine comprised mainly of Philly newspapermen known as the City Items. Angered that the National Association of Base Ball Players had rejected their application for membership on racial grounds, the Pythians pummeled the Items, 27-17.8

This inauspicious meeting was the genesis of hundreds of interracial games over the next three-quarters of a century. Certain exhibitions were products of choreographed tours, where a white “all-star” team would take on a black unit (often an aggregation playing under the banner of the “Colored All-Stars” or the “Colored Elite Giants” or some other convenient label) several times over the course of a week or so.

Most black-white games, however, mirrored other postseason barnstorming. They tended to be hastily arranged affairs thrown together by players and promoters as the regular season was winding down. Interracial “barnstorming” covers the full swath of contests, from nationwide cavalcades to onetime exhibitions; from games in the Caribbean and other remote places to marquee matchups before massive crowds in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

The first known encounter between black and white “professional” teams took place in 1885 when the Cuban Giants, an outfit founded by black waiters at Long Island’s Argyle Hotel, met the New York Metropolitans of the American Association. Gotham’s original Mets triumphed, 11-3.9 The black players attempted to disguise their identities by jabbering in Spanglish, hoping to pass themselves off as real Cubans so they could join a white circuit. The ploy didn’t work, although it foreshadowed similar fakeries to come.10

At that time, blacks had not yet been barred from white professional leagues. In 1883, Moses Fleetwood Walker, an alumnus of Oberlin College and the University of Michigan Law School, was signed as a catcher for the Toledo Blue Sox of the Northwest League. When the Northwest loop transformed itself into the American Association, it became in the eyes of baseball officialdom a “major” league. Two years later, the Toledo franchise collapsed; Fleet Walker returned to the “minors” by joining Cleveland’s Western League club. It would be another six decades before someone of black African descent played in the big leagues.

The first black baseball association, the League of Colored Baseball Clubs, lasted all of two weeks before disintegrating in the spring of 1887. On July 14 that season, white baseball’s most forbidding figure threatened to boycott an exhibition against the Newark minor league club because it employed a black pitcher. Adrian “Cap” Anson was the revered player-manager of Albert Spalding’s Chicago White Stockings of the National League. Anson was also an unalloyed bigot who had long made noises about refusing to play against blacks.11

In all likelihood, Anson’s 1887 walkout was staged—probably in collusion with Spalding and other owners, who were convinced that blacks on the field meant poison at the box office. That same day, perhaps not coincidentally, International League owners adopted a prohibition against black players.

New York Giants manager John “Muggsy” McGraw enjoyed wintering in Cuba so much in the early 1900s that he opened a casino there. Muggsy’s Havana nightclub soon became an off-season hangout for his Runyonesque pals, including Damon Runyon himself.

White players loved the quick buck they could make in Cuba. Black players, for their part, felt welcomed in the racially tolerant Caribbean, which they weren’t in the States. Many black stars joined Cuban winter league teams in the early twentieth century, staying for weeks or months at a time. In other years, entire U.S. black teams would descend on the island to play a slate of games against local squads.

In 1910, American League president Ban Johnson, embarrassed that members of the world champion Philadelphia Athletics had been cuffed around by Cuban clubs, tried to decree the island off-limits to AL teams.12 A year later, McGraw brought his National League Giants—including Big Six himself, pitcher Christy Mathewson—to Cuba in late November. Although McGraw’s men won nine of twelve games against a team known as the Blues, there were some ragged moments in Havana. In her memoir The Real McGraw, Muggsy’s widow recalled that after the Giants lost two of their first three games, McGraw roared: “Take the next boat home! I didn’t come down here to let a lot of coffee-colored Cubans show me up!”13

In game four, Matty hooked up with José Méndez, a brilliant all-around Cuban player whose dark skin consigned him to blackball. Méndez gave up just five hits, but Matty allowed only three in a 4-0 Giants win. McGraw’s joint must have been jumping that night. Before the first pitch, the Giants scared up eight hundred bucks, found a pliant Havana bookie, and wagered the bundle on themselves.14

For years, Muggsy kept a diary of the black players he would sign if he lived long enough to see the fall of the big-league color barrier.15 He didn’t. Toward the end of his life, McGraw turned against integration, apparently believing that society would never accept it.16

One noteworthy black-white series took place the year after the Chicago Cubs won their last world championship. In October 1909, the second-place Cubbies, who’d won 104 times that season but lost the chance to defend their Series crown to Honus Wagner’s Pirates, played a three-gamer at Gunther Park against submarine screwballer Rube Foster and his Leland Giants, as they were then known. Some thirty thousand fans of both races packed Gunther for the series.17

The second game ended in a blaze of catcalls and recrimination. Foster, recovering from a broken leg suffered three months earlier, was protecting a 5-2 lead in the ninth when the Cubs rallied for three scores. With the winning run—in the person of Frank “Wildfire” Schulte—camped at third, Foster called time-out to discuss his team’s options with colleagues on the beach.

Columnist Ring Lardner, a devotee of blackball, was there to describe the bizarre goings-on. “As [Foster] left the field, the Cubs rushed onto the field protesting that Foster had no right to delay the game... Amid the arguing, Schulte suddenly dashed for home. Foster whirled and fired the ball to catcher Pete Booker, but the ump ruled Schulte safe on a very close play, whereupon the exuberant Cubs fans swarmed on the field. Foster was fit to be tied, but the ump ruled the Cubs winners.”18 Rube’s team also narrowly lost the other two games of the series.

The rotund Foster was not only among the best hurlers of his generation (Rogers Hornsby, never noted for effusive praise of blackballers, called Rube “the smoothest pitcher I’ve ever seen”19), but he would become the key figure in founding the Negro National League. As a field manager, Foster forged blackball’s pedal-to-the-metal style of play: stealing bases, slapping bunts, and hitting-and-running with abandon.20 Eventually known as the Chicago American Giants, Rube’s team became a template for other black franchises. Watching the American Giants take the field in their Old English–script “CAG” jerseys, the young Buck O’Neil remembered, was “like seeing the gods come down from heaven.”21

Foster and his CAGs would take on anyone, anywhere. In 1910, his squad integrated the California Winter League, establishing an interracial tradition in West Coast off-season ball that endured for four decades.22 In 1920, Foster realized his dream of organizing a black baseball association. Rube’s Negro National League—the first black baseball circuit truly professional in scope—lasted ten years before being snuffed out by the Depression.

Foster died young in 1930 after a crippling bout with mental illness. His body lay in state for three days. Three thousand mourners braved Chicago’s winter chill to pay their respects.23

Early interracial ball’s most unsettling episode took place in the fall of 1915. The Indianapolis ABCs, a black team led by flinty twenty-one-year-old center fielder Oscar Charleston, played at home against a makeshift squad that included a pair of Detroit Tigers, shortstop Donie Bush and outfielder Bobby Veach.24 The white team was leading 1-0 in the fourth inning when Bush was called safe on a disputed play at second. Second baseman Bingo DeMoss, who’d applied the tag, howled in protest. Charleston, a native of Indiana whose temper was almost as prodigious as his talent, charged in from center and punched the white ump in the jaw. “In an instant,” blackball historian John Holway writes, “players and fans were mixing it up on the field in what was called a ‘near race riot’ before police broke it up with billy clubs.”25

Charleston and DeMoss were carted off in a paddy wagon. After the ABCs’ owner put up bail, Charleston apologized and the two brawlers were released. They promptly lit out for winter ball in Cuba.

Dizzy Dean once said that Charleston “could hit that ball a mile—he didn’t have a weakness” at the plate.26 “The Hoosier Comet” also didn’t lack for toughness, having run away from home at age fourteen to join the army. He served in the Philippines, helping to quell a guerrilla uprising that turned savage on both sides. Monte Irvin relates in Few and Chosen: Defining Negro Leagues Greatness that Charleston once confronted a robed Klansman, ripped off his hood, commanded him to speak—and lived to tell the tale.27

Few social experiments in the early twentieth century were carried out with the panache of James Leslie Wilkinson’s All-Nations team. The All-Nations were inveterate barnstormers, precursors to the Kansas City Monarchs, and the only truly integrated club of its era.

J.L., the son of the president of Iowa’s Algona Normal College, became smitten with baseball as a youngster. To escape the wrath of a disapproving father, J.L. took to pitching under an assumed name.

In his teens, much like Rogers Hornsby and Joe Wood at comparable ages, J.L. signed on with one of the traveling Bloomer Girl baseball teams—typically, an actual girl or two surrounded by crudely disguised young men. After sporting a wig for a few weeks, Wilkinson was promoted to the group’s manager. He showed promotional savvy by adding a marching band and a professional wrestler.

Weary of baseball in drag, Wilkinson decided that a racially integrated club might draw even bigger crowds than his “girls.” His initial sponsor was a Des Moines sporting goods store. When one of the proprietors ran off with the team’s cashbox, J.L. took over as owner.28

The composition of his artfully branded “All-Nations” team was breathtaking for 1912: Wilkinson, who was white, employed African Americans, Native Americans, Cubans, Asians, Polynesians, Italian immigrants, even a woman he christened “Carrie Nation”—although she had no connection to the ax-wielding antisaloon zealot. Never beneath a little hucksterism, J.L. had his charges do plenty of clowning. Still, he insisted that his All-Nations travel first class; he acquired a $25,000 Pullman coach and transported portable bleachers and a canvas fence.29 Wherever his rail car was sidetracked, folks got their money’s worth: after games, he often staged wrestling matches and dances.30

In 1915, the year D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation was released, Wilkinson moved his All-Nations club to Kansas City to take advantage of the city’s superior rail connections and burgeoning black population.31 By then he had enlisted some first-rate African-American ballplayers, among them John Donaldson, a southpaw often compared to Rube Waddell; future Satchel Paige mentor and beanball artist William “Plunk” Drake; and infielder extraordinaire Newt Joseph.

The All-Nations barnstormed all over. In ’15 and again the following year, they thumped Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants, earning a favorable review in Sporting Life. Wilkinson had assembled “an outfit that baseball sharps claim is strong enough to give any major league club a nip-and-tuck battle, and prove that it is possible for blacks and whites to play on one team”32—rare prais...

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