Our White Boy
By Jerry Craft, with Kathleen Sullivan
Texas Tech University Press, 2010
List Price: $29.95
When it comes to baseball’s racial pioneers, we think of men like Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and Roy Campanella. Going back even further, Moses Fleetwood Walker played with Toledo in the American Association in 1884. All were African American men who played in what had been exclusively white leagues.
Jerry Craft broke the color barrier moving in the opposite direction. The white, then college student was recruited to pitch for a club in the semi-professional West Texas Colored League in 1959. The Wichita Falls/Graham Stars had scouted all of the black pitchers in their area, but couldn’t find one who could take them to the top of the standings. So they expanded their search.
The team’s manager didn’t identify the league or the color of his teammates when he called to invite Craft to play. When all the players and fans turned out to be African American, the young hurler was certain he was at the wrong field. But the Stars skipper persuaded him to give them one game. After Craft pitched them to victory over a rival club he decided to give the unusual arrangement a try. His addition transformed the club from afterthought to league powerhouse overnight, and they went 31-1 in his first season.
Craft describes his experiences as the first white man to play in the league in “Our White Boy,” which he wrote with Kathleen Sullivan. It’s been 50 years since his two-season stint with the Stars ended, but the impact has lasted a lifetime. Now a successful rancher and former mayor of his hometown Jacksboro, Texas, Craft saw first-hand the discrimination his teammates faced daily. He frequently bought food or cold drinks for the team as the only one who could enter whites-only gas stations and diners. Out of solidarity, he slept in his car on a road trip when no motel would rent rooms to his black teammates. That meant enough to his fellow Stars that when a black restaurant owner refused to serve him, his hungry teammates walked out to show their support.
Unlike the integrations that took place in the big leagues over the previous decade, Craft’s drew little attention. Outside of his small town, where he was certain the neighbors were discussing his peculiar choice of teammates, no one took notice. There were no death threats or invectives screamed from the stands, where the crowds were instead strangely hospitable. In fact, they welcomed Craft to join them for food and drinks after each game, most of which were well-attended social affairs.
Baseball allowed Craft to share life experiences with men he would otherwise never have spoken with. They became his friends, though after he left the team in 1960, he lost touch with them all for decades, until a persistent local reporter dug up his story in 1993. Several years later he was honored at the African American History Month Family Day and Negro League Reunion in Dallas, where for the first time in his life he was asked to autograph a baseball.
“Our White Boy” provides a first-hand account of life in West Texas on the cusp of America’s integration. Craft’s hometown of Jacksboro was hardly the epicenter of the civil rights movement, though prejudice and segregation were a way of life that dated back generations. The only exception came on the sandlots, where black and white children played sports together until they were old enough to suit up for their high school teams, which never met on the field of battle.
Craft is not a professional writer, and even with Sullivan’s assistance the book could be much tighter. Many of the reconstructed conversations don’t sound authentic, though they capture the essence of what was said five decades ago well enough. Still, it’s an honest telling of a unique story, turning integration of both baseball and society 180 degrees.
Though Craft didn’t set out to be a pioneer, his experiences are still noteworthy 50 years later. There have been a number of thought-provoking books on baseball and race relations this year, including “Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert” and biographies on Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. “Our White Boy” provides another perspective to round out the picture of the integration of our national pastime.
James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.