Shades of Glory edited by Lawrence D. Hogan (National Geographic, 2006), 424 pages
Much has been written about the seminal moment, and following seasons, when Jackie Robinson ‘broke the color line’ in 1947. The story of baseball paving the way for greater integration in America is an immensely important one to know, but the preceding period of segregated baseball deserves equal attention. While whites played in the Major Leagues, African Americans had to compete on their own teams in their own leagues: the Negro Leagues.
The Negro Leagues are a complicated topic to come to terms with. Their existence starkly revealed the ingrained racial prejudice that dominated America from the late 1800s on past the middle of the twentieth century; their ultimate obsolescence sounded a clarion call that equality and freedom should prevail. Yet to depict the Negro Leagues as nothing more than a horrid aberration risks eliminating an important, often joyful and brilliant part of baseball and social history. Shades of Glory provides a detailed and highly readable account of African-American baseball, recognising the inherent injustice of the Negro Leagues while also celebrating all that was good about them as well.
Shades of Glory brings together a series of essays written by a group of Negro League experts as part of a research project commissioned by the Baseball Hall of Fame. Each essay focuses on a different period in African-American baseball history, combining to cover the period from the 1870s to the end of the Negro Leagues in the 1960s accompanied by plenty of great photographs and a statistics section that shows the performances (as far as the records allow) of some of the best players to grace the leagues. The separate chapters, as well as the information boxes and player profiles that break up the main text, allow you to dip in and out of the book; however, it also works well as a single piece of work to read from cover to cover. That is not always the case with a book written by different authors, but there is a consistent style and tone throughout that helps to make it even more than the sum of its considerable parts.
The story of African-American baseball and the Negro Leagues is one of fluctuating fortunes, reflecting and responding to the political, economic, social and cultural changes of the time. A certain amount of integration was possible in the 1870s and 1880s, leading to Moses and Welday Walker breaking the “big-league color line” in 1884. However, the onset of the so-called Jim Crow laws hardened the line in the 1890s and left African-Americans with no choice but to form their own teams and ultimately their own leagues. A period of migration to the north helped with the development of leagues in the 1920s, while the Great Depression in the 1930s hit the Negro Leagues hard.
The Negro Leagues as a whole could rarely be described as a successful business venture or a professional operation. The story of the Leagues contains many of the tell-tales signs of sporting competitions that fail to obtain long-term success. Teams would form, burn brightly for a few years and then fall by the wayside. Any lasting success depended on the dedication and support of an individual (most notably Rube Foster) or owner, but infighting and the promotion of self-interests constantly hampered efforts to put in place firm foundations for future success. Facilities were generally poor for both players and spectators. Teams rarely had their own ballparks, renting those used by white teams instead, and when they did they were often in a state of disrepair. Many scheduled games were not played as teams focused on more lucrative barnstorming games against white teams instead, making some question the worth of forming leagues at all. It all resulted in fans becoming disillusioned with the lack of organization.
But the disorganization couldn’t obscure the talent of the players. The likes of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were heroes for many African-Americans and are now recognised as being the equal of the very best that that Majors has ever produced. Many more, from Buck Leonard to Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston to Judy Johnson, Smokey Joe Williams to Bill Foster, deserve to be known just as well as the top players from the Majors during the first half of the twentieth century. Shades of Glory captures the captivating stories of these players and many more, as well as the legendary teams such as the Cuban Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays that are worth remembering.
Those players and teams made sure that the Negro Leagues, for all its faults, retained its importance. Major League Baseball always claimed at the time that black players were not banned from their competition. Shades of Glory shows that so long as the Negro Leagues gave African-American ballplayers a platform to play on, particularly in big games such as the East-West All-Star Game played in Major League ballparks like Comiskey Park and Yankee Stadium, the lie that the players were simply ‘not good enough’ could be exposed for what it was.
The importance of the Negro Leagues to many black communities also cannot be underestimated. As Monte Irvin, one of the Negro Leaguers who went on to star in the Majors, stated: “we had provided a form of entertainment for a group of people who were downtrodden, who had no hope, who didn’t get much encouragement”. As well as a form of escapism, the Leagues had created jobs for other African-Americans, jobs that were lost when the Negro Leagues disappeared. This included ballplayers who found that the ‘breaking of the color line’ hardly created a rush for their services among Major League teams, many of whom moved slowly towards integration and operated an unofficial quota of black players for years after Jackie Robinson took to the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The transition to a more integrated sport and society therefore was not without its problems, but the demise of the Leagues was celebrated. The late Jules Tygiel, who wrote the seminal book ‘Baseball’s Great Experiment’, puts it best in his excellent Foreword to Shades of Glory:
“In recalling the Negro Leagues and the broader domain of black baseball, we honor the resiliency and creativity of an oppressed people. Yet we also celebrate the desmise of that world and its replacement by a national pastime more fully characterized by equality of opportunity and dramatically inclusive of not just African Americans, but players from Latin America and Asia as well”.
Shades of Glory brings the Negro Leagues to life and in doing so allows baseball fans to immerse themselves in the exploits of the great African American players, while gaining an understanding of the changing social and political climate in which the Negro Leagues were formed, developed and then disbanded. It is an excellent choice for someone who wants one strong book on the Negro Leagues to add to their baseball library, but no doubt it will inspire you to add more to your collection.
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