Book Review: Brushing Back Jim Crow

Brushing Back Jim Crow
By Bruce Adelson (University of Virginia Press, $29.95)

Willie Tasby summed it up: “I was born in America. I should have been able to play anytime, go anyplace I was able to.”

But Tasby, an outfielder who endured nine years in the minors before getting his chance, was just one of hundreds of black ballplayers whose access to America’s Pastime was impeded by the prevailing, stubborn segregationist attitudes of the Deep South. In his thoroughly-researched Brushing Back Jim Crow, author Bruce Adelson details the hardships many of these athletes faced–often in their own words–as they pursued their dreams of playing in the big leagues during the 1950s and early ’60s.

Players like Hank Aaron, Felipe Alou, Ruben Amaro, Don Buford, Manny Mota and Billy Williams recount in vivid detail the foul treatment they endured as minor leaguers, from segregated hotels, restaurants and grandstands to taunting and sometimes demonstrative fans. Jackie Robinson’s influence is felt throughout the book, but having never played in the segregated southern leagues of the time, his plight is not discussed in great detail. (Robinson did, however, play in Dodgers’ exhibition games in the South.)

Adelson provides context for the baseball narrative by chronicling, year-by-year, the changing tide of American culture, singling out civil rights victories and the ways in which baseball often took a leading role in the struggle for integration. Minor league team owners, though, took a decidedly less-than-egalitarian approach toward integration. Black players meant more black patrons, which in turn meant higher profits.

Black fans caught on to this quickly, opting to boycott those hometown teams behind the integration curve, especially those in Louisiana and the non-Mobile cities of Alabama. More tellingly, a handful of the earliest southern leagues to integrate, including the Carolina, Texas and South Atlantic, survived, in sharp contrast to the defunct Southern Association, which refused integration to the bitter end and went under in 1963.

The re-configured and integrated Southern League began play in 1964 with four non-white players on longtime holdout Birmingham’s roster.

Brushing Back Jim Crow was originally published in 1999, but is only now receiving paperback treatment to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s big league debut.