Only the Ball Was White
by Robert Peterson
Oxford University Press, 1970 (Reprinted in 1992)

Baseball's Negro Leagues had been out of business--and largely out of the public consciousness--for more than 10 years when Robert Peterson published Only the Ball Was White in 1970.  In the intervening 30 years, the subject of the Negro Leagues became so popular among the baseball public that by 1991 Peterson would write, "Today there is probably greater awareness of Negro baseball than there was when it flourished during the first half of this century."

Indeed, Major League Baseball sells officially licensed Negro League replica caps and jerseys.  A Negro League Hall of Fame operates in Kansas City, Mo. Dozens of web sites are devoted the topic, and former Negro Leaguers such as Buck O'Neil and Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe are popular speakers at sports memorabilia conventions.

All this must have been inconceivable to Peterson when he wrote Only the Ball Was White, a pioneering work in every sense. Peterson's was the first modern book in what is now a voluminous body of work on the Negro Leagues.

Only the Ball Was White is an extremely well-researched book that is at its most valuable when laying down the basic facts of the African-American experience in professional baseball up to 1947. The author relies on interviews with former players and on years of newspaper accounts from the African-American press and from publications like the Sporting News to establish that:

  • Several African-Americans--notably Bud Fowler, Frank Grant and Moses Fleetwood Walker--played in organized baseball before the turn of the century;
  • The Cuban Giants, formed in Long Island in 1885, were probably not the first black professional team, "but dominated black baseball in its infancy"
  • The eight-team League of Colored Base Ball Clubs actually was recognized by organized baseball as a legitimate minor league in 1887, but fell apart in its first season.

Peterson takes the reader through the formation of hundreds of all-black
teams in the early 20th Century and documents the history of the various
Negro Leagues that operated from the 1920s to the 1950s:  the Negro National League, the Eastern Colored League and the Negro American League foremost among them.  All these leagues suffered from financial difficulties, scheduling irregularities, high club turnover and rampant player contract jumping. Often, the leagues did not finish out their seasons or failed to have postseason games to determine a championship.

The Leagues staged a Negro World Series only 11 times (1924-1927, 1941-1946) and those series usually did not generate much interest amongst fans.  Peterson explains:

Overshadowing the World Series, and, in fact, every other Negro sports event, was the East-West Game, which brought together the greatest stars in Negro baseball.  It was a production worthy of the major leagues and never attracted less than 20,000 fans; in 1943, the East-West Games drew 51,723, the biggest crowd ever to attend a Negro sports event up to that time.  It was played each year at Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox.

In the book's appendix, Peterson publishes box scores from all the East-West Games.  The box scores are very interesting, as they include the names not just of Negro League legends like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige but also of future Major Leaguers like Roy Campanella, Larry Doby and Luke Easter.

Peterson devotes chapters to four important figures from the history of the Negro Leagues: Rube Foster, John Henry Lloyd, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.  In another chapter, through the use of player interviews, he paints an interesting picture of what life was like for the barnstorming teams of the era.

More than a third of a book is the appendix, which features such things as league standings from 1920 to 1950, World Series line scores, East-West Game box scores and an all-time register of players and officials from 1884-1950.  The book also includes brief profiles of about 60 of the greatest players in Negro League history.

The book's epilogue is interesting from an historical perspective. It is a plea from Peterson for the Baseball Hall of Fame to admit some of the great Negro Leaguers as full members.  Just a year after the book was published, Satchel Paige was elected to the Hall, and others soon followed.  With the 1999 election of Smokey Joe Williams, the Hall of Fame now has 16 members from the Negro Leagues, a number that exceeds even Peterson's most optimistic projections; he suggested that eight should be inducted.

To his credit, Peterson is more interested in facts than in perpetuating legends.  For instance, he disputes the claim that an African-American player invented shin guards and he casts doubt on the notion that the legendary Cap Anson was by himself responsible for enacting the color barrier.  "Anson's animus toward Negroes was strong and obvious," Peterson writes. "But that he had the power and popularity to force Negroes out of organized baseball almost single-handedly is to credit him with more influence than he had, or for that matter, than he needed.  For it seems clear that a majority of professional baseball players in 1887, both Northerners and Southerners, opposed integration in the game."

The biggest weakness of the book is Peterson's writing.  The author sometimes indulges in cliches ("They were saints and sinners") and the book comes off at times as a dry recitation of facts rather than as a dramatic and fascinating story.  This approach is probably somewhat intentional--Peterson after all is the first serious researcher of a subject that at the time was not taken seriously--but it nonetheless can be irritating for the reader.

Another problem is that Peterson doesn't spend enough time discussing the kind of baseball these men played.  One gets the impression that the Negro Leagues featured dead-ball era style playing with lots of bunting, stolen bases and aggressive base running.  But the point is never made quite explicit, and the reader comes away not quite sure.

Despite these reservations, I can recommend Only the Ball Was White as a good, concise introduction to the history of the NegroLeagues.  The reader interested in exploring the topic further has many options now (I especially recommend Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and his Legacy by Jules Tygiel.)  The very fact that so many Negro League books are available is a testament to the continuing influence of Peterson's pioneering work.

Only the Ball Was White may be available for purchase on the net at one of these sites.

--Justin, March 25, 1999