When baseball swept America in the years after the Civil War, independent, semipro, and municipal leagues sprouted up everywhere. With civic pride on the line, rivalries were fierce and teams often signed ringers to play alongside the town dentist, insurance salesman, and teen prodigy. In drought-stricken Bismarck, North Dakota during the Great Depression, one of the most improbable teams in the history of baseball was assembled by one of the sport’s most unlikely champions. A decade before Jackie Robinson broke into the Major Leagues, car dealer Neil Churchill signed the best players he could find, regardless of race, and fielded an integrated squad that took on all comers in spectacular fashion.
Color Blind immerses the reader in the wild and wonderful world of early independent baseball, with its tough competition and its novelty. Dunkel traces the rise of the Bismarck squad, focusing on the 1935 season and the first National Semipro Tournament. This is an entertaining, must-read for anyone interested in the history of baseball.
“A tale as fantastic as it is true.”Boston Globe
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Prairieland of Opportunity
The theme of the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago was "A Century of Progress" and during its extended run 48 million people poured through the turnstiles. So much to see: that odd rear-engine automobile, pink-cheeked babies snoozing in incubators, a Televisor contraption that — Honey, can you believe this? — displayed moving pictures beamed from remote locations. So much to do: walk through a facsimile Belgian village, take a spin in the Sky Ride cable cars, sample Miracle Whip dressing dispensed by Kraft Food's newly patented "emulsifying machine." The World's Fair offered the masses a glimpse of a bright future personified by Westinghouse Electric's Willie the Robot. Bark a command into the telephone receiver by Willie's side and he would obediently shake your hand, stand up, sit down, even smoke a cigarette.
Unfortunately, when the gates closed at day's end too many fairgoers had to leave behind the wondrous, glass-walled "House of Tomorrow" and return home to the wearisome reality of the Great Depression: leftovers again for supper and unpaid bills piling high. One in four Americans had no job in 1933. Large swaths of the country were backsliding from industrial-age splendor into crippled-economy squalor. An editor at the Chicago Tribune decided his fellow citizens could use a pick-me-up diversion. He proposed a special sporting event held in conjunction with the Century of Progress, a midsummer exhibition in which the best baseball players from the American and National leagues would square off and do battle. On July 6, Chicago's Comiskey Park hosted a one-time-only "All-Star Game" and 47,595 people purchased tickets. The American League prevailed, 4–2, thanks in part to a two-run homer swatted by the New York Yankees' irrepressible Babe Ruth. Having surpassed the rosiest of expectations, the All-Star Game became an annual affair. (That home-run ball Ruth deposited in the right field bleachers at Comiskey sold at auction in 2006 for $805,000.)
Three weeks after the All-Star festivities, twenty-year-old Quincy Troupe boarded a Lockheed Orion single-engine airplane at Chicago Municipal Airport. The Orion was a puddle jumper, holding just six passengers plus sacks of mail. Troupe had a man's body, with 210 pounds of muscle drawn tight on his six-foot-three-inch frame, but the lingering boy in him was betrayed by a cherubic baby face. He had never been on a plane before. A friend recommended "a stiff highball" as a cure for his jitters. Troupe had never taken a drink of alcohol before. Anxiety trumped his Christian upbringing and he sipped a preflight cocktail. Around midnight the tiny plane taxied down the runway and angled skyward, bound for a stopover in Minneapolis, then a quick hop to Bismarck, North Dakota. Troupe carried with him a small leather case. It contained his ukulele. His first spare moment in Bismarck he intended to buy sheet music for a new song he'd heard, a melancholy ballad called "Moonglow" that Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington would eventually grab hold of and turn into dueling hit records:
It must have been moonglow, way up in the blue It must have been moonglow that led me straight to you.
Quincy Troupe wasn't a traveling musician. He was a professional baseball player: a black professional baseball player, which meant he wasn't going to be appearing in an All-Star Game anytime soon. There were gaping holes in the "Century of Progress" when it came to race relations. To be black in America was to be a second-class citizen at best and, in some corners, viewed as less human than Willie the Robot. Baseball contorted itself like the rest of society, functioning as an agent of unspoken apartheid. The major and minor leagues had been purely white enterprises for nearly fifty years. Up until that morning, Troupe was a switch-hitting backup catcher for the Chicago American Giants of the Negro National League. The book on him was that he had a good head for the game, plus a bazooka arm and lively bat. Raw meat, but grade A. On top of that — sportswriters, beware — he was a Golden Gloves boxer.
In June the Chicago American Giants had gone on the road to face the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Giants' second baseman was hurt, so Troupe filled in for him and got the nod to play both ends of a Saturday doubleheader. The bad news was that the Crawfords' starting pitcher for game two that afternoon happened to be Satchel Paige. There arguably was no one better in all of baseball, black or white. Paige had a whooping crane's physique and an unorthodox high-kick delivery, but he threw with supernatural ferocity. A teammate once remarked that trying to catch his fastball "was like catching a bullet."
Satchel Paige was roughly in his mid-twenties, part of the Paige mystique being a missing birth certificate and his uncertain age. Already hailed as king of the Negro Leagues, he was still a legend in the making. Paige brought to the mound a jazz musician's flair for improvisation and showmanship: Louis Armstrong in spikes. He drew upon a dizzying array of pitches, mostly variations on a head-of-the-class fastball and a good-enough-to-get-by curve. He gave them nicknames as if they were old friends, which they were: Be Ball, Jump Ball, Trouble Ball, Nothin' Ball, Wobbly Ball, Hurry-Up Ball, Bat Dodger, and Two-Hoop Blooper, not to mention his signature Hesitation Pitch, in which Paige's body would momentarily freeze mid-motion, confounding hitters. Nearly every batter dreaded having to stand in against "Ol' Satch." Quincy Troupe showed no fear in Pittsburgh. He made an out his first at bat, but the second time up pulverized a knee-high fastball. It cleared the right field fence as if shot from a cannon, ricocheting off the side of Memorial Hospital, more than 400 feet from home plate.
Paige stared in disbelief as the boy catcher circled the bases. Legends are seldom stunned into silence.
That night Troupe dined at the Crawford Grill, a restaurant owned by Gus Greenlee, Pittsburgh's high-profile rogue and highest-profile black man. The Grill was more than a restaurant. It was an all-purpose pleasure palace with a busy bar, a live-entertainment nightclub, and upstairs rooms where love could be discreetly bought and sold. Greenlee also managed a stable of boxers (notably light-heavyweight champion John Henry Lewis) and presided over a thriving numbers racket, all of which had provided him the disposable income to buy the Crawfords baseball team. A big man who puffed big cigars, Gus Greenlee was something of a Robin Hood figure in Pittsburgh's Hill District. A shady character to be sure, but one who employed hundreds of people, ran soup lines, and gave generously to hospitals and the NAACP. Black athletes and fans flocked to his Grill after games. No surprise, then, when Satchel Paige also stopped by for a bite to eat that evening. He broke into a grin upon spotting the youngster who'd cracked the wall-banger home run off him.
"What's your name?" Paige inquired, not that he'd remember. He had total command of his pitches, but people's names flummoxed him. He solved that problem by calling almost everybody Bo'.
"Quincy Troupe," Troupe answered softly, nerves jangling.
"I shouldn't ever forget that name after what happened today!" Paige bellowed, playing to the cluster of teammates and hangers-on who, as usual, were cruising in his wake. He cackled, then lowered his voice, turning uncharacteristically avuncular.
"I've got a tip for you, Quincy," said Paige. "You can go a long way in this game if you just listen to what the other players tell you. Don't be a know-it-all, take it easy with the girls, and lay off the liquor."
This was odd counsel coming from Satch, a man with a hard-earned reputation for living large and bending every rule that ever got in his way. He was no stranger to a stiff highball. Troupe, on the other hand, had the demeanor of a lifelong Eagle Scout: diligent, modest, and polite almost to a fault. "I'm more than grateful and thankful for the advice," Troupe replied, swooning inside. The great Satchel Paige had gone out of his way to impart wisdom to a kid opponent. To him! Troupe immediately placed the lanky pitcher upon a pedestal from which he would never tumble.
That home run in Pittsburgh proved to be the highlight of Troupe's tenure with the Chicago American Giants. In truth, there weren't many big moments from which to choose. He was glued to the bench, a callow understudy to an older, established catcher who would sit out a game every week or so to rest his achy legs. Limited playing time wasn't Troupe's only frustration. Like a lot of Negro League teams, the Giants had financial difficulties. These were hard times. A couple of Troupe's paychecks had been delayed. As a result, his ears pricked up shortly after that Pittsburgh road trip when someone told him about a baseball opportunity worth investigating. In Nowhere, North Dakota.
Quincy Troupe — the youngest of ten children — was unique in his own way, just as Satchel Paige and Babe Ruth were in theirs. The closest he came to cussing was "doggone," and he wrote letters home to his mother in Saint Louis on a steady basis — almost saintly behavior for a pro ballplayer. Although city bred, there was a touch of hayseed in him and a lot of mama's boy. He'd begun baseball life playing for his hometown heroes, the Negro League's St. Louis Stars. That team also had money troubles. In the waning days of the 1931 season Troupe's teammates on the Stars sent him to inquire about the possibility of getting paid their overdue wages, partly just to see if the rookie would be gullible enough to actually do it. Dick Kent had risen from shoeshine boy to co-owner of the Stars. He also was the sole owner of several cab companies and a black newspaper, the St. Louis American. He didn't get that far on personality.
Troupe tapped on Kent's office door. The boss opened up and glared at him. "What you want, boy?"
"Sir, the fellows asked me to come for the balance you owe us," Troupe meekly responded.
Kent calmly walked over to his desk, slid open a drawer, and pulled out a gun. "You young bastard," he growled, waving the pistol for effect. "I'll whip your head flat if you say another word about money!" End of conversation. Also the end of the St. Louis Stars. Within a few days the players walked away and the team ceased operations.
It was now two years later and Quincy Troupe, marginally wiser in the ways of the world, sat gazing out the window of a pipsqueak airplane. Down below the twinkle of Chicago faded to black; stockyards, the Loop, and a whole city of big shoulders were swallowed by the night. He had signed on with a semipro team in Bismarck, in the process swapping office towers for grain silos, trading the glare of neon for the glimmer of a million stars. Team manager Neil Churchill was an automobile dealer with a runaway passion for baseball. And baseball, Troupe would soon learn, provided a welcome outlet for community pride in Depression-battered North Dakota. It was the weapon of choice for grudge matches between rival towns, such an integral part of civic life that Troupe didn't have to pay for his plane ticket. Northwest Airways provided complimentary transportation as a goodwill gesture to Bismarck baseball fans. Keep the faith. Help was on the way.
It's impossible to be half pregnant, but to play semiprofessional baseball was another matter, though almost as oxymoronic. Up until about World War II, the pro-amateur dividing line could be nonsensically blurry. Churchill had visions of building a powerhouse lineup capable of holding its own against the best minor league teams, and maybe a few in the Major Leagues. That kind of quality building material didn't exist in North Dakota. Finding premium ballplayers would require thinking outside the box, outside the state. Outside the northern European, family-farm gene pool. To that end, he'd begun cherry-picking players from the struggling Negro Leagues. This was Neil Churchill's emulsifying machine, if you will: an efficacious blending of black and white, Miracle Whip baseball. God knows what cash cow he was milking. Churchill didn't pinch pennies. He offered Troupe $175 a month, $35 above what he made with the Chicago American Giants. What's more, he guaranteed Troupe the starting catcher's position. Churchill told a Bismarck Tribune reporter he'd landed "the black Babe Ruth." That was the car salesman in him talking: no-money-down, zero-percent-financing hyperbole. Troupe knew it, even if Tribune readers did not. He had yet to prove himself on a ball field day in, day out. This would be his chance.
The money was good. Yet money alone couldn't lure a twenty-year-old black man to one of the whitest, poorest states in America. It took something more visceral and magnetic: true love. No woman crooked a finger and gave Quincy Troupe that sly, come-hither stare. He was flying west, through the darkness and into the dawn, primarily for the joy of playing baseball, that notorious heartbreaker of a game.
It must have been moonglow, way up in the blue It must have been moonglow that led me straight to you I still hear you sayin', "Dear one, hold me fast." And I keep on prayin', "Oh, Lord, please make this last."CHAPTER 2
Grasshoppers and Hickory Sticks
Bismarck clings to the eastern bank of the Missouri River, positioned just below the midsection of North Dakota, about where a belly button would be if the state had one. It's the capital and, according to the 1930 census, had 11,090 residents: huge by Great Plains standards, but not enough bodies to fill Chicago's Comiskey Park to a quarter of capacity. Mandan sits on the western side of the Missouri, directly across from Bismarck and less than half the size: its blue-collar, tomboy sister city. When John Steinbeck drove across the country in 1960, gathering material for the book that would become Travels with Charley, this run of the Missouri River bowled him over. "Here is where the map should fold. Here is the boundary between east and west," he wrote. "On the Bismarck side it is eastern landscape, eastern grass, with the look and smell of eastern America. Across the Missouri on the Mandan side, it is pure west, with brown grass and water scorings and small outcrops. The two sides of the river might well be a thousand miles apart."
Geography played a key role in selection of the government seat. In addition to being centrally located, Bismarck had river and rail access. Geography also played a role in perception. People farther east — residents of Jamestown, Grand Forks, Fargo, and Valley City — felt a kinship with Minneapolis–Saint Paul. They fancied themselves urbane, envisioning the map of North Dakota almost as stages in the evolution of man. The smaller, unrefined burgs sprinkled along the Missouri Slope that ran west of Bismarck — Minot, Dickinson, Williston, Glen Ullin, and other incorporated miseries — figuratively scurried on all fours. Bismarck was a knuckle-dragging hybrid, the gateway to the frontier. Towns nearest Minnesota, so the logic went, walked blessedly upright.
North Dakota entered the union in 1889 as a dry state, an issue that split along the lines of dominant ethnic groups. Those of dour Norwegian ancestry generally favored Prohibition. Those of German or Russian extraction enjoyed lifting the occasional glass. The "dries" were led by Elizabeth Preston Anderson, a whirlwind scold who became a Woman's Christian Temperance Union activist in the 1880s and would stalk the halls of the state legislature for almost fifty years. Mrs. Anderson didn't confine her crusading to demon rum. She successfully lobbied for laws that criminalized prostitution, gambling, and Sunday baseball. Her more liberal side advocated on behalf of child labor laws and women's suffrage. Thus the tightly corseted heart of Elizabeth Preston Anderson harbored some of the dichotomy that animated North Dakota, where progressive prairie populism tried to peacefully coexist with Bible-based conservatism. Praise Jesus! But let us also give thanks for the grain co-op.
The temperance lobby wielded a heavy hammer in North Dakota even after Prohibition ended in December 1933 with passage of the Twenty-First Amendment. Beer made an immediate comeback in the state (though judiciously watered down to the level of 3.2 percent alcohol), but it would take another three years for hard liquor sales to become legal. Some counties stayed dry until 1947, and a few towns lasted into the 1980s. That's not to say drinkers stood idly by, abstaining. Moonshine had a long tradition of flowing as wild and as free as the mighty Missouri. Millions of gallons with syndicate connections seeped out of Minnesota or poured across the Canadian border. Minot, a straight highway shoot from Saskatchewan, got dubbed "Little Chicago." In 1910 an illicit gin mill got busted in Mandan. It was being run by the police commissioner. Do-it-yourselfers everywhere stoked basement and backyard stills. When Fargo authorities raided one such loaded home, the local paper poetically remarked it was equipped to "turn out 30 gallons of bliss and forgetfulness each 24 hours." North Dakota had enough moonshine action that federal agents set up shop inside the Bismarck post office.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Color Blind"
Copyright © 2013 Tom Dunkel.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Preface: Before 42,
Part One: Coming Together,
1 Prairieland of Opportunity,
2 Grasshoppers and Hickory Sticks,
3 Birth of a Salesman,
4 Worlds Apart,
5 Over the Color Line,
6 Throwing Fire,
8 Nameless Dread,
Part Two: Playing Together,
9 Come and Gone,
10 Feeling the Heat,
11 Marriages and Separations,
12 Cat and Moose,
13 Long Rifle Rides Again,
14 "A Riotous Opera of Extra-Base Hits ...",
Part Three: Tested Together,
15 Little Man, Big Idea,
16 Gunfight at the Cowtown Corral,
17 Big Gun,
18 The Erle of Oklahoma,
19 Last Team Standing,
20 "Plenty of Barn Room",
22 Deep Smoke Winding,
A Note on Sources,