Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson
By Timothy M. Gay
Simon & Schuster, 2010
List Price: $26.00
Nearly two decades before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, another African American legend was facing off against major leaguers in front of full houses, packed with both black and white fans.
Satchel Paige claimed his first big league strikeout victim, Hall of Famer Hack Wilson, in 1930. It would be another 18 years until Paige recorded an official whiff in the major leagues, but there were hundreds of games against white players to come before then. In the ’30s Satch paired up with Cardinals ace Dizzy Dean on barnstorming tours of the United States in the fall, after the big league season ended. Paige’s team included other great black players like Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston, while Dean’s squad featured professional white players, including his brother Paul.
Later in the decade, after years of abuse burned out Dean’s arm, Satch found a new foil in young Bob Feller, then emerging as one of the game’s greats. Both before and after World War II, Feller toured with Paige, drawing huge crowds of both races.
These often lucrative barnstorming tours and the stories of the colorful figures who participated are detailed in Timothy Gay’s “Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson.” And, yes, there are enough of them to fill a book.
As Gay notes, Paige was hardly the first black ballplayer to face white opponents. Interracial matchups occurred irregularly throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, much to the chagrin of men like Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who did all he could to snuff out postseason barnstorming. Even the best-paid players of the day, however, were glad to pad their income by playing in October exhibition games. And once black-white games proved to be a money maker, there was no stopping them.
Dean and Paige both grew up dirt poor. Neither was blessed with book smarts, but they sure made up for it with a baseball in their hand. Unlike most white Southerners, who clung to Jim Crow laws which separated the races, Dean saw no reason not to share a field with black players. At each stop of their tour, he would drum up interest by telling stories and hamming for cameras. Though most white newspapers overlooked the Negro Leaguers in their pregame stories, there was no ignoring Paige when he started mowing down batters.
By the time Feller joined the fun he was one of the biggest names in the game. His barnstorming, like his work for the Indians, was interrupted for nearly four years by World War II. When Feller returned in 1945, he claimed the war had cost him a quarter of a million dollars. He spent the rest of his career making up the difference—and then some. Following the 1946 big league season he and Paige embarked on an ambitious barnstorming tour, with the players flying from town to town in DC-3s. Feller organized the entire itinerary and invested $50,000 of his own money in the tour. The shrewd businessman turned a $75,000 profit after drawing more than 250,000 paying customers. On the field he wasn’t bad either, as his squad went 17-5 against Negro Leaguers.
California was especially fertile turf for such tours, and the ’46 swing drew a whopping 22,577 to Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field for a game won by Feller’s squad 4-3. West Coast fans were accustomed to interracial baseball. The California Winter League welcomed players of all races, and black teams there had a chance to compete on equal footing with white clubs, which typically included big leaguers and stars from the Pacific Coast League. The CWL recognized that attendance was better when black teams were involved, and it soared when Paige took the hill. He spent five winters pitching in California in the 1930s, teaming up with the likes of Cool Papa Bell, Mule Suttles, and Willie Wells.
Gay emphasizes several times that these baseball legends never set out to make social history with their interracial games. They were chasing a buck. But their willingness to cross boundaries that others wouldn’t did indeed make history. They sped up the much too slow timeline of integration by demonstrating that black players could excel against some of the best white players in baseball. They also helped pave the way for westward expansion by showing the rest of the nation how willing Californians were to buy tickets to watch big league ballplayers.
Gay provides the right balance of biographical background and barnstorming action. Each of the three central figures has been the subject of multiple biographies, which have been mined for relevant bits. Feller, of course, is still around to help flesh things out. He was among a handful of old barnstormers who shared their memories with Gay. Others include Monte Irvin, Ralph Kiner and Mickey Vernon. Gay also developed quite a network of researchers in towns all across the country, bringing records of long-forgotten matchups to light after decades of moldering in libraries and archives.
If you think baseball’s integration began with Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, you owe it to yourself to learn more about the decades leading up to 1947. Here Gay unlocks a chapter in the game’s history that most fans didn’t realize existed. “Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert” is both informative and entertaining. How could it not be with bigger-than-life characters like Paige and Dean at its core?
James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].