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Major League Baseball spotlighted the historic Negro Leagues by finally recognizing them as “major leagues,” moving their statistics alongside MLB players in history. Now, more people are fascinated by the history of leagues that slowly disappeared once Jackie Robinson broke the color line and integrated baseball. Here we offer some help to get engaged: Our look at the best books on negro league baseball.
Most fans of the old American and National negro leagues will probably point to “Only the Ball Was White” from 1970 as tops of their list. However, many volumes over the years could qualify, depending on what the reader is interested in the most.
Reasons for fan interest in the Negro Leagues vary, but usually it falls into one of these categories:
- Quality of play
- Statistics (especially compared with MLB players)
- History of the times
- Old-time (long gone) stadiums
- Hardship of making a living under trying conditions
True Negro League fanatics appreciate text on the quality of the ballplaying, and classic black-and-white images of the players, stadiums, and the true characters that contributed to a lasting American legacy.
We considered books for readers who knows nothing about the Negro Leagues. These books should offer the historical context of African-Americans and baseball dating back to the Civil War, as well as the impacts of integration going forward.
Second, we looked for history, both regarding the MLB as well as American society in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and even into the 50s, and turbulent 60s.
Finally, we had an interest in volumes providing details of life in those leagues, including the constant draw of barnstorming, and, of course, the racism and prejudice encountered. The results:
5. “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America” (2008) by Joe Posnanski
A wonderful tome, “The Soul of Baseball”
by sports columnist, Posnanski is a poignant account of baseball and the growth of one man’s love for it.
It’s as if B.B. King and Eric Clapton went on a nationwide road trip to explore and discuss the blues. That’s how “The Soul of Baseball” is staged: Posnanski asking O’Neil why he loves baseball, followed by a trek through both the country and O’Neil’s memory.
It’s a nice tour through simpler yet often troublesome times. Aside from the ball playing, the pair touch upon the social and economic challenges involved with playing professional baseball in the 1930s and 40s as a black man.
O’Neil’s playing career was above average ~ he claimed 2 batting titles and was on a championship team ~ plus he became the first African-Amnerican coach in the MLB. All told, it’s those life experiences, and the way he tells them, that makes Buck O’Neil someone unique to America.
4. “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever” (1963) by LeRoy “Satchel” Paige
Reading “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever” makes us wish he could have pitched for eternity. In this oft-candid autobiography, Paige carefully explains his upbringing, and years through negro league and barnstorming teams, all the way to the majors.
Written in a down-to-earth, country tone, Paige inserts quite a bit of humor into what could be sensitive topics. Though not quite as detailed with the statistics and historical notes compared with other negro leagues books ~ everything is based on Paige’s memory and storytelling, after all ~ this book provides a real-life feel for playing negro league baseball in the 1930s and 1940s. Even the segments of his years in the MLB are quite entertaining.
An important thing to remember is “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever” is among the earliest books describing black players, stadiums, and circumstances in professional baseball pre-Robinson.
3. “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy” (1983) by Jules Tygiel
Many books have been published chronicling Jackie Robinson and his role in the history of desegregation in our country, but Tygiel seems to capture the matter in a broader context, weaving social and cultural impacts seamlessly. It’s an exceptional read.
While “Baseball’s Great Experiment” certainly touches upon Robinson’s success in the negro, minor, and major leagues, it also ensures the reader is clear about the impact on America in the 1940s and 50s.
Tygiel also pays plenty of tribute to our other heroes like Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Roy Campanella ~ certain to thrill dedicated Negro League fanatics. He uses a considerable number of interviews to explain how they started a process to transform baseball as an organization into a fully integrated game.
Sure, Robinson gets his name in the title. But this book really is a broad look at how baseball changed beginning at that point, how it slowly righted the aircraft carrier so to speak, and the impact it all had on the game and society.
2. “Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-Americans Baseball” (2006) by Lawrence D. Hogan
At the time of its release, more than one book review claimed “Shades of Glory” as the single must-read book for students of baseball. This comprehensive book on black baseball not only outlines the leagues and teams but also their impact on American society and history.
That it adds insight into economic and cultural conditions is a bonus. But the meat of “Shades of Glory” is in the characters: Martin Dihigo, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and many more come to life off the pages. Statistics newly discovered at the time opened eyes to the performances of the negro leagues’ top stars.
From a fan’s perspective, they will love the historic photos, and the storyline is well supplemented by biographical essays and just general stories of how life was in the negro leagues. That Satchel Paige’s own daughter, Linda Paige Shelby, called it “An outstanding tribute” speaks volumes.
1. “Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams” (1970) by Robert W. Peterson
“Only the Ball Was White” was critically acclaimed from the onset of its release in 1970, and brought enough attention to the negro leagues that even the commissioner of Major League Baseball said helped lead to the admission of black players into the MLB’s Hall of Fame.
The vividly written accounts of baseball playing and life in the negro leagues is astounding. That this book includes a significant amount of information, such as annual Negro League standings, and a thorough register of players and officials, raises “Only the Ball Was White” above all others in this literary category.
Before its publication, there was considerable ignorance of the rich history, both in terms of the play as well as culturally and socially, of these leagues. That the stars continued to play despite the unofficial boundary of a color line is tell-tale to their character. Here, you get a peek at real life in the negro leagues of the 1920s through the 40s.
Until this book, for the most part, the stories of these ballplayers ~ many of them baseball superstars ~ were nearly forgotten. That it helped ignite a real interest in the Negro Leagues makes it a most worthwhile read.
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