Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line

  • Tom Dunkel
  • Atlantic Monthly Press
  • 368 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jay Price
  • May 15, 2013

A decade before Jackie Robinson wore a Dodgers’ uniform, a coach in Bismarck, N.D., fielded an integrated “semi-pro” team that included Satchel Paige.

One subtle detail jumps out from the cover photo of Color Blind, an otherwise standard posed portrait of a group of baseball players in Depression-era uniforms, surrounding a civilian in an open-collared shirt.

Six of the men in their baseball flannels are black, five are white, a curious combination in an era when blacks and whites weren’t allowed to share a baseball diamond. Not, at least, in what was known as “organized” baseball, meaning the 16 major-league clubs and their farm systems.

But what’s more striking is the posture of one of the white players, who we later come to know as Moose Johnson, a hard-hitting outfielder with a drinking problem. In a gesture of — what, camaraderie? solidarity? affection? — Johnson has rested his hand on the shoulder of the black man to his right, who turns out to be Satchel Paige, the Hall of Fame pitcher forced to spend his most productive seasons in the Negro Leagues.

In its simplicity, Johnson’s gesture is every bit as powerful as the one famously shared by Brooklyn Dodger captain Pee Wee Reese and his black teammate Jackie Robinson, a show of support meant to silence the racist heckling of Robinson, most recently memorialized — or exaggerated — in the movie “42.” Plus, the incident involving Johnson and Paige has the added credibility of having been documented in a photograph.

As for the ambitious claim of the book’s subtitle, The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line, well, not so much.

It’s true that Neil Churchill, the man in the open-collared shirt, assembled an integrated “semi-pro” team in Bismarck, N.D., a decade before the Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey put Robinson in a Brooklyn uniform. But Bismarck’s black players didn’t actually break baseball’s color line — which, after all, was an unwritten agreement among big-league owners — so much as they stepped around it on a day when the line, like a chalk baseline on a dusty diamond washed out by a rainstorm, was so faint nobody knew exactly where it was in the first place.

They did it in the catch-as-catch-can world of semi-pro ball, where the only rules — save for Darwin’s law of survival of the fittest — were the ones made to be broken.

In that world of shameless hype and broken contracts, a mixed team was one more variation amid a hodge-podge of all-white and all-black teams, barnstorming teams of brothers, the bearded House of David and a prison team that only scheduled — wait for it — home games. And by trolling for talent in the Negro Leagues, where the best ballplayers not already in the big leagues were working, Churchill was copying what the folks over in Jamestown, Bismarck’s rival 100 miles down the road, were doing. 

As Tom Dunkel makes clear in his painstakingly researched book, Churchill, a Bismarck car dealer, wasn’t motivated by a desire to confront racial barriers in a frontier town that listed only 46 “negroes” among the population. Churchill’s only agenda was winning baseball games, and, as Dunkel suggests, the occasional side bet. The ballplayers, in turn, were there because they wanted to play ball and needed to make a living, and with one notable exception had either worn out their welcome or had limited options elsewhere.

The exception, of course, was Paige, the flamboyantly talented pitcher whose deliveries were almost as baffling as his lack of commitment to any one club. Paige’s on-again, off-again presence in Bismarck gives Churchill a leg up on the competition, and gives Color Blind its connection to baseball immortality.

There’s a lot of baseball here; too much, perhaps, for a team that isn’t playing for much of anything but the next month’s paycheck, much less trying to change the world. And Dunkel occasionally falls into language that makes him sound like he’s covering games for the 1936 Bismarck Tribune, a likely byproduct of all that research.

But here, too, is Paige in all his maddening glory, striking out 18 batters in his first game on the Plains, and Moose Johnson fighting his losing battle with drink as the Bismarck nine travel to Wichita, Kan., for the first National Baseball Congress semi-pro tournament. All of it is played out against a sepia backdrop of drought, dust storms and swarms of grasshoppers at the depth of the Depression, when half the state of North Dakota is on relief.

And if Churchill’s mercenaries don’t exactly crack hardened racial attitudes in America — or even between the foul lines — they have their memories, some of which actually happened. And now, so do we.

Sixty years after Joe Desiderato played third base for Bismarck, a wake is being held for him at a funeral home on Chicago’s North Side when his onetime teammate Ted “Double Duty” Ratcliffe appears and, without waiting to be asked, tells the assembled mourners, “Joe was my friend. When they was callin’ us ‘niggers,’ he stood by me. And I want you to know he could play. Otherwise, he wouldn’ta been with us.”

And for men who only wanted an opportunity to show they belonged, what else is there?

Jay Price, a longtime columnist for the Staten Island Advance, is the author of Thanksgiving 1959. He lives in Manasquan, N.J., and is currently working on a book about Manasquan’s experience in the days after Hurricane Sandy.

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