The book: “Joe Black: More Than a Dodger”
The author: Martha Jo Black and Chuck Schoffner
The vital statistics: Academy Chicago Publishers, 376 pages, $27.95
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Barnesandnoble.com, at Powells.com
The pitch: At a time when racial integration in baseball was still fresh, you’re not going to forget a name like Joe Black.
His major-league baseball career lasted a modest six seasons, with 30 career wins as a pitcher. But the reality is that it was just one outstanding year that marked his arrival as a player.
A year after the Dodgers purchased him and Jim Gilliam from the Baltimore Negro American League in 1951, Black made the Dodgers’ roster and, as a 28-year-old, won the National League Rookie of the Year after posting a 15-4 record with a 2.15 ERA and 15 saves. Almost all of his 56 games were in relief, as he had a league-best 41 games finished. But because of injuries that October, he was put in a starting role and became the first black pitcher to win a World Series contest – Don Newcombe and Satchel Paige had tried earlier and didn’t do it. Black went the distance in winning Game 1. He lost Game 4 only because the Yankees’ Allie Reynolds threw a four-hit shutout. In Game 7 back at Ebbetts Field, Black was even with Reynolds at 2-2 through five innings but gave up a home run to Mickey Mantle in the sixth, and eventually was tagged with the loss in a 4-2 decision.
Considered to be the Dodgers’ “next Newcombe,” but one who credited much of his success based on how Roy Campanella called the game from behind the plate, Black pitched in the 1953 World Series for the Dodgers as well, and was on the roster for the start of the 1955 season but he only lasted until June when they traded him to Cincinnati. He missed Brooklyn’s only World Series victory celebration.
A torn muscle in his right shoulder started his injury decline and ended his last comeback try in 1957 with the Washington Senators. It meant that Black needed a life after baseball. He found one as a father and businessman.
To put his life story into some context, his youngest daughter, Martha Jo, decided she would be the one to provide it, with the encouragement of Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and a forward written by former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley.
Black, an executive with Greyhound and living in Phoenix, and five-year-old Martha Jo were at a turning point in both their lives in 1972, put in the middle of a bitter divorce case. Martha Jo told the judge she wanted to live with her father “because my dad played with me all the time. He talked to me. He joked around with me. It didn’t have anything to do with what he could buy me. He just spent so much time with me … So when the judge asked me who I wanted to live with, the answer was easy.”
Joe Black married seven times, for the record. All ended in divorce.
Using Black’s 1983 self-published autobiography “Ain’t Nobody Better Than You,” and an unfinished manuscript from 2001 that Martha Jo held onto that was titled “Memoirs of Joe Black: Beneficiary of Baseball Striking Out ‘Jim Crow,’” it’s really Schoffner, a longtime writer and editor for the Associated Press, who puts the framework together for this book.
Despite the billing, Schoffner actually writes the majority of it, updating his research with some 20-plus interviews done in 2008-09. All of them came after Black, who was close friends of comedian Bill Cosby and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, died of prostate cancer in 2002.
One of the gems unearthed about Black was that, while he was back the Dodgers’ Montreal farm team trying to rebuild his career, Pittsburgh Pirates coach Clyde Sukeforth was sent by team GM Branch Rickey to scout Black and see if he could help their team. Instead, Sukeforth saw a young star that the Dodgers were trying to hide in their farm system named Roberto Clemente.
“Sukeforth … was immediately impressed by what he saw in the youngster and forgot all about Joe,” Schoffner writes, and adds a a quote from Black: “I have wondered if the Dodgers had ever wished they had assigned me to St. Paul rather than to Montreal.”
Another Black quote about his career stands out on page 339: “Some guys will say to me, hey man, you weren’t that good. And I said, right. I admit it. I was an average player. But you forget one thing. I had a friend. You don’t ever see me say I got in the big leagues because I threw 10 no-hitters. I got there because Jim Gilliam needed a roommate, Newcombe went into the Korean War and bang, there’s another guy from New Jersey. I got the shot and it paid off. That’s it. If Gilliam didn’t need a roommate, I’d be like the rest of you. I wouldn’t have had the chance. Like they say, the world works in mysterious ways.”
Martha Jo’s contributions are inserted somewhat haphazard and sporadically in italicized blocks of type that add to the biography narrative in a way that put a very personal touch on things but can disrupt the flow.
Martha Jo, part of the Chicago White Sox’s marketing department as a “coordinator of White Sox Experiences” at U.S. Cellular Field, starts the book by calling her dad “an excellent example of a hero.”
She also has the final paragraphs to herself as she writes: “It wasn’t cool in the early ‘70s to be a black man in Arizona and raise a daughter all by yourself. And he was 51 years old at that point. You just don’t think about doing something at that age, but he did. I hope my father can be an example to all people, to inspire them to say, if he could do it, so can I.”
More to know:
== Quick review by RonKaplanBaseballBookshelf.com with a “B-” grade: Fairly standard bio, somewhat improved by the character of the subject. Points off for “misrepresenting” authorship, though. A longer version, which can agree with, posted here.
== Martha Jo Black discusses the book with WGN-TV in Chicago
== In 2010, Steven Selzer wrote his book, “Meet the Real Joe Black: An Inspiring Life — Baseball, Teaching, Business, Giving”