Minorities' impact on the game documented
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In sports, and maybe in life, too, winning trumps everything, even racism and hate. These two vastly different books document how a void in baseball was filled with the acceptance of minorities into the national pastime.
These days, African-Americans are bypassing baseball for other sports, and the talent gap is being filled by Latin Americans. On opening day 2007, 20 percent of the players on major league rosters were Hispanic; African-Americans comprised less than 10 percent of the rosters.
One-sixth of all the 400-plus players from the Dominican Republic who made it to the majors are from San Pedro de Marcoris. Mark Kurlansky's book examines why the city, in the eastern region of the island (hence the title, Eastern Stars), became a baseball factory.
The answer wasn't found on the ball fields, he writes, but the sugar cane fields, where so many families worked. Mr. Kurlansky reports on the racism and stereotyping Dominicans and Latins endured as they entered the major leagues. But for the most part, the book proceeds as a social-cultural-political history of the Dominican Republican.
One title in the book's bibliography is "Watching Baseball Smarter: A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners, Semi-experts and Deeply Serious Geeks." I think Mr. Kurlansky falls into the beginner category. I got the feeling he had never seen a baseball game until he started this book (which grew out of a Parade Magazine story).
"Eastern Stars" reads like a Fodor's Guide when it deviates from baseball -- which is often. This is not to say it isn't interesting at times; but it suffers from a cacophony of too many voices tying to be heard.
In one section of his new book, Timothy M. Gay recounts how the city of Jamestown, N.D., wanted to defeat its rival, Bismarck, in a baseball contest so much that a black man was hired to be player-manager for a team of professional players that was racially mixed. This was in 1933, 14 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major league baseball.
For decades before Mr. Robinson's debut, all-white and all-black squads squared off against each other after the World Series. Barnstorming was a way for ballplayers, black and white, to supplement their incomes, no small consideration during the Depression.
A Hall of Fame pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, Dizzy Dean had no qualms playing against blacks (the great fear, Mr. Gay writes, was to suffer the humiliation of losing to a nonwhite team).
The pitcher, who was a scruffier version of his good friend comedian Will Rodgers, said it was a shame they weren't allowed in the major leagues, quite a remark from an Arkansas native. While Mr. Gay examines the savage poverty Mr. Dean experienced until he made the majors, his attitudes about integrated play aren't fully explored; perhaps it was because he knew deprivation that made him open-minded about black ballplayers.
After Mr. Dean, a key player on barnstorming was Bob Feller, a Hall of Fame pitcher with the Cleveland Indians. Some have questioned Mr. Feller's motives for biracial barnstorming: If it wasn't for noble reasons, it was certainly good for business. Mr. Feller organized tours and, with the help of airplanes, sometimes pitched in three barnstorming games a day.
The only living witnesses Mr. Gay could interview were Mr. Feller and one Negro League player, so he had to rely on newspaper accounts and biographies. Reconstructing the action this way can be tricky, but for the most part he succeeds.
The three protagonists -- the two white pitchers and Satchel Paige -- were colorful, exciting players who were always good copy, even if they "stretched" the truth.
There will certainly be more books on barnstorming, and Mr. Gay has given readers an excellent glimpse into this venue, which for many Americans was the only way they got to see baseball players in action.
First Published May 3, 2010 12:00 am