Sunday, August 18, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Neil Lanctot

Title: Negro League Baseball
Author: Neil Lanctot
via Baseballisms

Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution is the result of an ambitious project to provide an honest, nuanced history of African American baseball, specifically that of the teams in the Negro National League (NNL) from the early 1930s onward.  When told from the 21st century perspective, the story of the Negro leagues is that of six decades of exclusion from white professional baseball, generations of athletes denied the opportunity to exhibit their skills on the grandest stage.  While such portrayal is certainly historically accurate, it only tells part of the story.

There aren't a lot of balls and strikes in Lanctot's book.  In depth profiles of such star players as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and even Jackie Robinson should be sought elsewhere.  Instead, the author focuses more on the business of baseball.  Before televisions invaded nearly every home in America, independent professional and semi-pro baseball teams - both black and white - were ubiquitous.  Baseball teams, like many other black-owned and operated institutions, were culturally essential to African American communities throughout the United States during segregation.  Such teams were symbolically important to those cultural leaders who supported the idea of self-sustaining black institutions.  Black baseball was not an industry in a vacuum either.  It suffered through the Great Depression, boomed during the war years, then suffered a slow, inevitable decline once the Major Leagues started to integrate in the late 1940s.  Lanctot's tome covers all of it evenhandedly, celebrating the successes but also critical of the mismanagement which contributed to the industry's demise.

I learned plenty I didn't know before.  Most intriguing, though also the most troubling depending on your perspective, were the Indianapolis Clowns, a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters.  Many saw clowning sports teams as detrimental to integration efforts, compromising the image of African Americans in the broader culture.  The Clowns, to be fair, took the act quite a bit further than the basketball squad, posing for team photos in war paint and grass skirts, for example.  Both the eastern-based NNL and western/southern Negro American League (NAL) banned their member teams from scheduling exhibitions with the Clowns for many years.  However, the Clowns were ultimately admitted into the NAL in 1943 and were the only affiliated team to remain profitable into the 1950s.  The Clowns didn't even officially disband until 1988.  Despite their controversial history, the Clowns do lay one undeniable claim to baseball legacy: they were the first team to sign Hank Aaron to a professional contract.

The book is a bit academic for my tastes, certainly informative but dry for light summer reading.  I need pure escape in August with a return to the mines imminent.  On the other hand, I might not even have finished reading it if I'd tried during the school year.  I certainly feel better-informed and will likely refer back to the book from time to time.


  1. Academic, huh? It's interesting that "academic" isn't good for some genres (romance? lol).

    1. The subject is worthy of serious study. I'm not knocking the effort. Lanctot's a professor at University of Delaware - academic was the intention. Just not so great for light summer reading.