The author: Tom Dunkel
The vital stats: Atlantic Monthly Press, 345 pages, $25
The pitch: Did you know that at the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn, along with George Custer, one of the 268 fatalities was Private Williams Davis — third baseman for the Fort Lincoln baseball team?
Who knew Bismark, North Dakota and his place for independent baseball in the 1930s could be the hot spot on the baseball radar in 2013.
In a year when the Jackie Robinson story is told (again) on the big screen (it hits theaters next Friday), a fan’s thirst for “firsts” should be even more whet when he finds out that interracial squads in this otherwise obscure part of the country — and why not make a movie about this as well? It’d have Satchel Paige, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe and Quincy Troupe as the star attractions.The joy of pouring through an extremely well-researched book about a subject that most no one has heard about, plus having it compiled with sentences and paragraphs as well written as by someone who makes a living free-lancing for Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post makes “Color Blind” one of the most important baseball books to seek out this season.
Dunkel writes that he did more than 200 interviews, and a lot of myth-busting, in his research that took him through volumes of the Bismark Tribune as well as the Wichita Eagle to find out more about the first national semipro baseball tournament played in that city in 1935.
His notes alone fill almost the last 50 pages of the book — a tribute to his diligence as well as his attention to detail. In the acknowledgements, he calls the book more of “a dredging operation” about a group of “unknown men from a team few alive remember, in a league that has faded into oblivion.” And from those who did see or recall what happened, Dunkel had to do more cross-checking and distilling to make sure the most accurate version of what happened was put on paper.
The story Dunkel focuses most on, aside from the other semi-pro teams that also had interracial rosters, is that o auto dealer and team manager Neil Churchill, who had a “runaway passion for baseball.” He was more about thinking not just outside the box, but outside the state in finding the best players — black or white — to come to play for his teams no matter what the local Ku Klux Klan warned him. His goal back during the Great Depression was to form the greatest team he could find.
“These were time travelers of a sort,” Dunkel writes, “ambassadors from the multiracial future. It might have made more sense for them to have arrived by rocket ship from another planet.”
Dunkel puts this team in context of “The Great Experiment” that wouldn’t come for another decade in Brooklyn, and gives it a dimension that is as colorful as can be.
Maybe the best review comes from the MLB official historian John Thorne: “‘Color Blind’ is an amazing story of black and white that should be read all over.”