Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution

September Swoon: Richie Allen, the '64 Phillies, and Racial Integration

Jackie Robinson's breaking of baseball's color line has long been seen as a singular, unrepeatable moment in American cultural history -- especially because baseball really was the national pastime in 1947. But two new books demonstrate that for race in baseball, as for race in America, Robinson's moment was neither a simple culmination nor a clean slate.


Neil Lanctot's Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution is notable for treating its storied subject primarily as a business enterprise. There are few anecdotes about outsized characters such as Satchel Paige, the barnstorming life or even on-field action. But Lanctot's approach lets him tell the story without making integration -- and the apotheosis of Robinson -- the be-all and end-all. He makes you understand thoroughly why Negro League ball -- like black banks, hotels and hospitals -- stood up stoutly in the face of segregation, but couldn't long survive its fall.


Black baseball began in the 1880s, following the odious "gentleman's agreement" among major-league owners effectively barring blacks. Lanctot chronicles the Negro Leagues from 1933 and their nadir during the Great Depression through their apex of popularity, during World War II. It's a story, of course, with important Pittsburgh innings: Not only were the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays two of the leagues' most enduring franchises, but their respective owners, Gus Greenlee and Cumberland Posey, were among the institution's prime movers and shakers.


Lanctot, a University of Delaware history instructor, offers a scholarly work, and while his writing is dry as a sandlot in mid-August, the book is a treasure trove -- a minutely detailed look at not only the ins and outs of running a sports enterprise at mid-century, but also at the complex cultural webbing in which a not-so-simple game was caught.


Hamstrung by a chronic lack of capital, teams full of talent had to rely on white money to survive, playing exhibitions against white teams, in white-owned stadiums, sometimes even with white owners. But while few cities had enough blacks to sustain a pro sport, other problems were internal. The Negro Leagues were so poorly organized that even adhering to a set schedule seemed impossible. And the rise of blacks in other white-dominated sports, including that of boxer Joe Louis, inevitably drew fan attention from blacks-only ball, "race pride" notwithstanding.


Integration proved painful all around: Thanks to big-league owners who were racist themselves, feared a backlash from fans or players, or hesitated to surrender stadium revenue from Negro League rentals, it came too slow; it was 1953 before even half the clubs had integrated. But for the Negro Leagues, quickly bled of their fan base and top players, it arrived too fast. Lanctot makes integration look no more a climax than a death knell, and leaves you ambivalently lamenting the quietus of an institution that never should have needed to exist in the first place.


Seventeen years after Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers debut, the Negro Leagues had all but vanished. But the story of Richie Allen shows that baseball's integration was complete in name only. Allen, a native of Wampum, Pa. (30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh), was the first black superstar on the notoriously racist Philadelphia Phillies -- the National League's last to integrate.


In September Swoon: Richie Allen, the '64 Phillies, and Racial Integration, William C. Kashatus weaves the story of Allen's personal rise and near-ruin with that of the collapse of his infamous rookie-year club, which booted a pennant by losing 10 of its final 12 games.


The power-hitting infielder's journey from Rookie of the Year to team scapegoat had less to do with his on-field performance than with the team management and fans in a city where, after all, race riots surrounded Connie Mack Stadium in the midst of that pennant drive. The Phils' vicious verbal attacks on Robinson in his own rookie year, and their slowness to integrate, permanently alienated the town's black fans; the club's mishandling of Allen, meanwhile, began when it gave the naïve 20-year-old a minor-league assignment in segregated Little Rock, where he endured frightening abuse as the first black ballplayer in Arkansas history.


While Kashatus is a workmanlike writer, his efforts to weave Allen's story with the Phils' nosedive and that of racial integration in an era of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Act often feel strained, and are further slowed by lengthy recaps of unremarkable 40-year-old ballgames. On the other hand, the book's most interesting chapter, about the racially charged conflict between Allen and white player Frank Thomas that in 1966 indirectly turned Allen into a target for hate-mailers and boo-birds, gives a vivid sense of baseball's unresolved racial tensions in one racially divided city.


Baseball is no longer our crucible for race relations; indeed, the percentage of African Americans on major-league rosters has rapidly dropped to its lowest point since before Allen broke in. But baseball's past reminds us that change never comes easily.

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