The book: “Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson”
The author: Timothy M. Gay
The vital stats: Simon and Schuster, 349 pages, $26
Find it: On Amazon.com (linked here).
The pitch: Discovery of how these barnstorming games took place in the ’30s and ’40s, and then kind of lost their steam in the years after the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, is necessary information for a baseball fan’s internal database.
But the local connections to all this had us even more fascinated and curious. The index, strangely, is where we ended up turning first, to these references:
Wrigley Field, Los Angeles, 105, 131, 134, 136, 140, 147, 168, 205, 216-17, 242, 254, 255, 258-59, 272.
California Winter League (CWL), 24, 32, 67, 79, 106-7, 134, 135-50, 178-80, 183, 206-8, 251.
Because the Pacific Coast League banned black players, the California Winter League was formed by a promoter named Joe Pirrone. That eventually allowed Negro League players like Satchel Paige to make off-season money barnstorming at places like the old Wrigley Field in L.A., just East of the Coliseum. The games even included Robinson.
So when you look at how race played a role in baseball’s formation, you have to include this as an important part of the time line. As much as how we enjoyed this book focusing on the fun and frolic that Paige, Bob Feller and Dizzy Dean had in these black teams-vs.-white teams, it documents how much fans were accepting of it and, eventally, how major league baseball could no longer deny it, no matter how much Commissioner Landis tried.
“Think how Bill Cosby and Robert Culp stirred the cultural zeitgeist in television’s ‘I Spy’ — and that was after the passage of the 1960s civil and voting rights acts,” Gay writes in his author’s intro. “Paige, Dean and Feller were out on baseball’s bustings before Cosby was born — and long before bigotry became a societal epithet.”
Drawing much of the information from the newspapers of the time — with the L.A. Times referring to Paige as “the lanky Negro ace” — we try to go back in time, like to a game in 1945 when Paige and Feller attracted nearly 60,000 at L.A.’s Wrigley Field, just months before the Dodgers signed Robinson.
And the game in 1934, when Dean and Paige reportedly pitched 13 innings against each other at Wrigley. Dean struck out 15 and give up a run; Paige struck out 17 and pitched a shutout.
Gay interviewed nearly 40 people for this project, including Feller, Paige’s son Robert, and former players like Monte Irvin and Mickey Vernon.
How it goes down in the scorebook: We wish were old enough to have been able to attend a Satchel Paige Night at Wrigley Field — Oct. 24, 1948 was the last one, with a great story (page 272) about how Cool Papa Bell scored from first base on a sacrifice bunt by Paige.
One more review: From Wil Haygood in The Washington Post, via Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf site (linked here): “Gay has written a workmanlike book. It has limitations, some of which are not really the author’s fault. The records of these games, even when they can be tracked down, are not always dependable. The games seem to have been not so much “wild,” as Gay implies in his subtitle, as slapstick. And some of the stories here sound apocryphal: Negro leaguers taking on the Klan and living to tell about it? Gay’s repeated use of “according to legend” doesn’t help, either. Another drawback is that these were exhibition games, played in a relaxed environment. Pride was doubtless at stake, but not the kind of feverish athletic fervor that might have been displayed in a Negro leagues championship game.”
Also, find William McNeil’s 2002 book, “The California Winter League.”
Also: Any kind of review about this without at least mentioning “Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend” by Larry Tye (linked here) would be unfair. The book came out in late 2009, has been on the shelf for sometime and this was a perfect opportunity to contrast and compare it to this Satch-related book.
Tye helped Gay with material for his book, and then offered a review of it for the back cover.
And then, in the larger-than-live “Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress” by Harry Katz, Frank Ceresi, Phil Michel, Wilson McBee and Susan Reyburn (linked here), one of the “treasures” advertised on the back page is “a rare color portrait taken in 1952” of Paige, when he was with Cleveland Indians. It is something to stare at a while indeed.