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Book Review: Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson by Timothy M. Gay

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For his new book Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert, Timothy Gay chose the following subtitle:  The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson.  The text, however, doesn't really support the promise of a "wild saga."  Instead, Gay's retrospective on mixed-race baseball games serves more as an amusing scrapbook of a bygone era.

Gay's subject is a series of exhibition games between all-black teams and all-white teams in segregated America.  This "barnstorming" was not officially sanctioned by Major League Baseball and was, in fact, often frowned upon.  But independent operators across the country found it very appealing to pit Negro League stars against Major League stars. This proved to be not just popular — but profitable.  Fans would pay good money to see Joe DiMaggio face Satchel Paige's "drop ball," or Josh Gibson unleash his mighty swing at Dizzy Dean's blazing fastball. 

Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert focuses, as the name implies, on a memorable series of exhibitions that pitted Negro League star Satchel Paige (and his team of black players) against a group of white major leaguers headed by star hurler Dizzy Dean and, later, wunderkind pitcher Bob Feller.  Feller didn't start barnstorming until the late 30's, but Dean and Paige set the standard with their memorable match-ups of 1933-34. 

"Satch" and "Dizzy" weren't just the two best pitchers in baseball — they were the two most famous. This wasn't just due to their baseball skill (which was elite); both men consciously cultivated their public image.  The free-spirited Dean, with the help of promoter-manager Ray Doan, made sure all of his kooky escapades were well-documented, making him one of the first sports stars to exploit the sports marketing possibilities that are now an inherent part of the game.  Paige, on the other hand, became legendary among African-Americans for the stunts he would pull on the field, such as calling in his outfielders to face an opposing team's best hitter.  Fittingly, the two men were just as good at promoting themselves and making money as they were at throwing a sharp curve.  And so it was that Dean decided to defy convention (as was his wont) and barnstorm across the country facing off against the ageless Satchel Paige.

Gay has done an admirable job of researching these storied match-ups, collecting a wealth of primary source information from many witnesses to this unique hybrid of sports and entertainment.  Stories of each man's comedic antics and pitching brilliance — exaggerated, to be sure, for the sake of the story — were big news on every stop of the tour, all the way from Los Angeles, California to Versailles, Kentucky.

As a collection of news clippings and anecdotes, Gay's book serves its purpose well.  The wealth of detail sometimes detracts from the larger story, but that alone makes it of great interest to baseball historians.

For the rest of his readers, though, Gay's book is rarely engaging.  This is mainly due to the recurring themes of  race and culture.  To Gay, these simple games of baseball represented a great step forward in the nation's journey toward racial equality. But this reader wasn't convinced that the games really meant that much in the grand scheme of things.

To be fair, Gay does address some of these misgivings.  For one thing, he is realistic about the cynical motives of those involved.  While Dizzy Dean did have some very enlightened racial attitudes, Gay admits that this may have been a secondary factor next to Dean's quest to get rich.  Bob Feller, too, was willing to make money with Negro League players, but when the time came for integration, he made the preposterous claim that none of the black players he saw were good enough to make it in the big leagues.

And this is, I think, what undermines Gay's quest to make this exhibitions mean more than they really did.  While any interaction between blacks and whites was significant — especially in Depression-era middle America — there's little to support Gay's claim that these efforts either improved the racial climate or sped up the process of integration on the major league level.

The lives of the black players involved in these tours didn't get much better as time went on.  They still had to stay in separate hotels, if they could find hotels at all.  They still had to eat in separate restaurants, unless they could convince a white restaurant to slip them some sandwiches out the back door.  And while many white players involved in the tours claim that these games changed their attitudes toward blacks, it still meant that blacks experienced great resentment when they finally did play on the same team.

If there was one significant change brought about by these exhibitions, it was to see black baseball players more than hold their own against their white counterparts.  Players unknown to white audiences — Mule Suttles, Turkey Stearnes, Bullet Joe Rogan — were able to face the best players in the white major leagues and excel — putting the lie to the claim by Feller (and many others) that black players just weren't good enough.

I admit that I can't entirely dispute Gay's claims of racial progress.  But it is difficult to accept since these games still took place within the rigid social order of American society.  There were some minor victories to be sure — some ballparks finally let blacks and white sit together in the stands, a few brave souls even tried integrating the teams themselves, with blacks and whites in the same lineup — but by and large, the racial attitudes of baseball remained largely unchanged by the pioneering efforts of Dean, Paige and Feller.  It would take bold action on the major league level — rather than on the peripheries of society — to change the minds of both baseball executives and racist Americans.

Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert is a worthwhile collection of anecdotes.  If you take the stories one by one, they form a sort of textual scrapbook, offering a number of curious reflections of the world of baseball in the 1930's and 1940's.  But the author's efforts to present these efforts as part of a larger racial struggle ultimately falls short. 

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