'Color Blind' tells story of an early integrated ballclub

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The cover of the book "Color Blind."

BUD FOWLER was first. Not Moses Fleetwood Walker, a catcher with Toledo in 1884. Not Jackie Robinson, who signed with the Dodgers in 1947.

Bud Fowler was first. A black man pitching for the Lynn (Mass.) Live Oaks, of the International Association, in 1878. Trailblazer.

Blazed a rugged, jagged, thorn-scratching trail through 10 seasons.

Pitcher, catcher, second baseman.

Hit .308. Hit a dead end, playing for the Binghamton (N.Y.) Bingos in 1887. When they cut him, he was hitting .350 and had stolen 30 bases in 30 games. This was shortly after his white teammates threatened to strike, rather than play alongside a black man.

What followed was the gentleman's agreement (how's that for an outrageously outdated phrase) that kept the major leagues as white as a brand-new, rock-hard baseball. Until Rickey signed Robinson.

They recently named a street in Cooperstown, Bud Fowler Way.

Cooperstown, isn't that where the myth-makers say baseball was invented? We know better. But that's where Fowler grew up, as John W. Jackson.

Nobody knows when or why he changed his name.

He died broke 100 years ago. Was buried in an unmarked grave. Left behind no letters, no essays, no written history of what he had endured.

Historians found two photographs of him with his teammates. In one, with the Keokuk team, he's standing in the back row. The other guys have their arms folded aggressively at the waist. Fowler's arms are at his sides, a passive posture.

He might have invented shin guards, because there are stories about him playing second base with wood slats inside his socks. Stiff wooden slats to protect against basestealers slashing at his legs with their spikes.

Fowler's mystifying story is one fascinating spinoff in the afterglow of "42," the movie about Robinson breaking the color barrier. Another is a terrific book by Tom Dunkel called "Color Blind."

It tells the dazzling story of the Bismarck, N.D., semi-pro team, half-black, half-white, half-crazy that won a championship 12 years before Robinson wore a Dodgers uniform.

It is funny, it is sad, it is spellbinding, required reading for anyone who loves baseball, who loves a vivid story well-told. It is sprinkled with colorful characters, starting with Neil Churchill, the lumpy car salesman who organized the town team.

He was a rambling, gambling man, glib, determined. Persuasive enough to lure Negro Leagues stars to his dusty hometown, including the best pitcher on the planet, Leroy Satchel Paige.

Churchill would prowl the aisles when Paige pitched, offering proposition bets on how many hits Paige would surrender, even when Satch summoned his outfielders and told them to sit in the dugout shade.

Some remember Paige for his one-liners ("Don't look back, something may be gaining on you.") Some remember Paige dropped his comic façade to confess that the Dodgers' tapping Robinson to shatter the color line, "hurt me down deep." This was before Paige finally got a sniff of the big leagues at age 42.

"I'd been the one," he explained, "who'd opened up the major league parks to the colored teams. I'd been the one who the white boys wanted to go barnstorming against."

Records are fuzzy, but Paige may have been 117-77 in Negro Leagues games. He followed his trademark zigzag path to Bismarck and he pitched that team to the first ever National Semi-Pro Championship in Wichita, Kan.

Paige won four games in the tournament, striking out 66 in 39 innings, walking only five, giving up only five earned runs. Big-league scouts signed 14 players out of that tourney, all of them white.

Dunkel writes about the Philadelphia A's signing pitcher Earl "Pie" Huckleberry, off the Shawnee team. Fast-tracked him to the majors and started him on Sept. 13, 1935. Got banged around for seven runs in seven innings, but the A's mashed the White Sox, 19-7, and Huckleberry got the win, his only win. Also his only game.

That Bismarck team included the legendary "Double Duty" Radcliffe, who caught on the days he didn't pitch. The roster also featured Quincy Troupe and Hilton Smith.

They played against a prison team, against a team of brothers, against bearded guys representing the House of David. They played in a rocky aftermath of the Great Depression and they played through the parched summers that ruined crops.

Dunkel includes the saga of Moose Johnson, a Scandinavian outfielder who looked for answers in the bottom of a whiskey glass.

"All in all," Dunkel writes, "he flopped around the minors for 11 seasons and 911 games with some 20 teams from D to A level, hitting .311 in 3,368 at-bats despite serial hangovers. Through those ups and downs, he had his first marriage annulled, married his second wife, Lizzy; divorced Lizzy, remarried her, and found what for Moose constituted a kind of impure bliss. He never stopped drinking to extremes. Never stopped gambling to excess. Never wore the straitjacket of a 9-to-5 routine after leaving baseball. He put down his bat in 1944 and picked up an ax. From early spring to late fall he'd swing at trees in the quiet, uncomplicated forests of Yellowstone, Montana. The laughing lumberjack."

"Color Blind" is crammed with characters like Moose Johnson, laced with joy, rocked by sadness, framed by the civil rights struggle. Maybe that Jacques Barzun fellow was right, that if you want to understand America, you have to understand baseball.


Email: stanrhoch@comcast.net.