March 4, 2003

March 4, 2003

The following review of Brad Snyder's book, Beyond the Shadow of the Senators originally appeared Mar. 04, 2003, The Philadelphia Daily News. Reprinted with Stan Hochman’s permission.

Click here to visit Brad Snyders (book author) web site.

Stan Hochman | The great baseball team that played in D.C.

The Homestead Grays won eight championships in one 9-year stretch.

Those 18 African-American ballplayers admitted belatedly, reluctantly, into baseball's Hall of Fame? Nine of them played at one time for the Grays.

Uh-huh. Josh Gibson, he caught for the Grays. Cool Papa Bell played the outfield, swift enough to turn out the hotel-room light and be back in bed before the room got dark.

Sound familiar?

The Grays won the last seven of those championships playing their home games at Griffith Stadium. Griffith Stadium, that was where the woeful Senators played. You remember the line, "Washington, first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League."

In the '40s the Grays were terrific, the Senators were terrible. World War II, a desperate Clark Griffith signed a New York sanitation worker named Ed Boland. The next year, he signed a one-legged pitcher named Bert Shepard.

African-Americans, in uniform, off fighting fascism, and back home, major league baseball was white as snow and just as cold. A garbage collector and a one-legged pitcher! How do you think the Grays felt? How do you think the black fans of the Senators felt? What kept Griffith from integrating his wretched Washington team? Was it racism? Or was it greed, fearful of losing the revenue he snared from renting his ballpark to the Grays on weekends
when the Senators were out of town?

You'll find the answers in a thoroughly researched book by Brad Snyder called "Beyond the Shadow of the Senators." It is a long-overdue study of the jagged issues surrounding big-league baseball's whites-only policy, finally shattered by Branch Rickey's Dodgers when they signed Jackie Robinson in 1946.

Homestead, wasn't that a gritty steel town across the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh? The black steelworkers formed their own sandlot team because they weren't allowed to play with the white steelworkers.

Starting in 1920, Cum Posey owned and managed the team. Stayed apart from two loosely organized leagues, content to barnstorm against white semipro teams up and down the Allegheny Mountains. Won 43 in a row in 1926, finished 106-6-6.

The depression put a huge dent in Negro baseball. And then the Pittsburgh Crawfords got good and wealthy, backed by the kingpin of numbers writers, Gus Greenlee. Pretty soon, they swiped some of Homestead's best players.

The Grays traveled in a ramshackle bus without a back door. Played semipro teams in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, sometimes on the same day they had a scheduled game against the Philadelphia Stars at Shibe Park.

Eddie Gottlieb, the man behind the Warriors, booked the Negro League games in Philadelphia and Yankee Stadium. Abe Saperstein, who owned the Globetrotters, had a piece of the Indianapolis Clowns and the Birmingham Black Barons.

And Griffith, what was he thinking? Is it possible he wanted the Negro Leagues to survive because he wanted to keep profiting off them? "He wouldn't think of taking black ballplayers from the Grays," said Ric Roberts, of the Pittsburgh Courier. "I don't call that prejudice. He just had a yen for making money."

Sam Lacy, one of the sportswriting heroes in the fight to integrate big-league baseball, was less kind. He wouldn't call Griffith a racist, but he said, he "acted the part of a racist."

Judge for yourself. In a 1952 interview, 5 years after Robinson first appeared in a Brooklyn uniform, Griffith said: "I will not sign a Negro for the Washington club merely to satisfy subversive persons. I would welcome a Negro on the Senators if he rated the distinction, if he belonged among major league players."

The economics had changed. The Grays weren't drawing huge crowds, Griffith's percentage of the gate receipts didn't amount to much, and the appearances of Paige and Larry Doby, now in the American League, drew black fans to his ballpark. If he had added one or two black players, he could have reaped the benefits of churning turnstiles.

Snyder says it was more than dollars and cents. He links Griffith to Connie Mack, describes them as leaders of baseball's traditionalist old guard, suggests he feared offending his Southern clientele.

Think about the moral undercurrents. If big-league baseball signed the star players of the Negro Leagues without compensation, the teams would suffer, the league would suffer, and a basic part of the black culture would shrivel and die.

And on the other hand, if players like Robinson and Doby and Roy Campanella got the chance to compete and played well and handled the pressure with grace and dignity, other doors would open, in entertainment, in business, in politics, the social order would change, America would become a richer, more democratic place.

The Grays, stymied by bigotry, their love for the game overlooked, their skills underappreciated, were a vital force in changing baseball and America. Snyder, at last, gives them the credit they deserve.