'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, February 17, 2006

Only the Ball Was White: Robert W. Peterson, R. I. P. 

At lunch yesterday, I picked up a discarded section of the New York Times. Paging through it, an obituary grabbed me by the throat.

Robert W. Peterson, whose pioneering history of the Negro leagues, "Only the Ball Was White," recaptured a lost era in baseball history and a rich facet of black life in America, died Saturday at a hospital in Salisbury Township, Pa. Mr. Peterson, who lived in Lower Macungie Township, Pa., was 80 . . .When Mr. Peterson's account of black baseball was published by Prentice-Hall in 1970, little was known of the Negro leagues apart from the memories of black Americans who had been thrilled by players like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard. Black baseball had flourished in a segregated America but was largely ignored by the mainstream press and went out of business in the 1950's, soon after the major league color barrier had been smashed. . . When Mr. Peterson was growing up in Warren, Pa., he had seen some of the great Negro leaguers in barnstorming games. He later played baseball at Upsala College in East Orange, N.J., and worked as an editor for The World-Telegram and The Sun. When the paper closed in 1966, he turned to freelance writing and set out to learn the history of the Negro leagues by interviewing the star players and studying microfilm of black newspapers.

The publication of Peterson's book built upon Ted Williams' famous comment during his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966:

I hope some day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren't given the chance.

It sounds improbable now, after the romanticization of the Negro Leagues by people like documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, and a wealth of books published about the players and their experiences in recent decades, but the history so vividly documented by Peterson in 1970 exploded with the force of revelation. Especially so for someone like myself, a precocious 10 year old who had recently signed up for the Sports Illustrated book club. At first, I found myself involuntarily receiving Curt Flood's autobiography, describing his struggle to overcome baseball's infamous reserve clause, because I failed to return the postcard saying that I didn't want the book. Apparently, it's now out of print. But when Peterson's book was subsequently listed as a 'book of the month' selection, I received it enthusiastically. Enthralled with professional sports, and baseball specifically, I found the description of the book irresistable, as it conveyed an air of mystery, a sense of secret knowledge that only can only be shared with a select few. Upon reading, it did not disappoint.

The book is especially noteworthy for its portrayal of the early history of the Negro Leagues, powerfully enshrouding the participants of the pre-Ruth era in the aura of myth. Peterson rescued the experiences of players like John Henry Lloyd, Smoky Joe Williams and Rube Foster from obscurity. Foster is described as a protean figure: pitcher, manager, league president, major league in everything but name. About Lloyd, baseball giant, Pirates third baseman Honus Wagner said: I am honored to have John Lloyd called the Black Wagner. It is a privilege to have been compared to him.

Peterson's evocation of barnstorming, and the theatrics associated with it, as manifested in the phenomenon known as clowning are bittersweet, yet mesmerizing, with a keen sense of social insight. One example, Peterson quotes from his interview of Arthur W. Hardy, who toured with the Topeka Giants in 1906 and 1907:

On the Topeka Giants we did some clowning on the field, but it was done like this: As you know, some people might resent what they might consider you making fun of them, and so Topeka Jack Johnson would always talk to the local people. He'd say, "Now what about your folks here? Do you want us to put on some kind of funny act? Or do you think that they would resent it?"

Here was one of the stunts: The pitcher would throw the ball and maybe it would be a little low but the umpire would call it a strike; all right, you'd get down on your knees at the plate. Or some guy would hit the ball out of the park and run to third base and around the bases backward, that sort of thing.

Well now, unless the local people would approve, we would never do it. Johnson always insisted that we didn't want to humiliate anybody.

Not surprisingly, conditions were difficult for African American players as they traveled long distances in turn of the century vehicles and frequently had trouble obtaining lodging in many parts of the country. It did not have to be so. Peterson explains how African Americans and Latinos were driven from the late 19th Century professional leagues that ultimately became the major leagues we know today. Cap Anson played an especially odious role as one of the most notoriously bigoted players of his time. In this, he gave expression to prevailing sentiment.

Upon reflection, it is evident that Peterson persuaded me to look behind the curtain and seek to understand the often ignored, if not deliberately concealed, social experiences of people marginalized by conventional thought. As I age, I find myself reading more and more works that rely upon the oral histories of participants, with Black Workers Remember, Embracing the Infidel, and, of course, the inimitable Blood of Spain constituting compelling examples of the genre. Only the Ball Was White shall therefore always occupy a prominent, visible place on my bookshelf. It is obvious that the black players that inspired Peterson in his youth also touched a compassionate place in his heart, and that he acknowledged the debt by writing such a magical, yet brutally honest book about their lives.

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