Cardboard Books: Black DiamondsJune 25, 2008
In the 1989 oral history Black Diamonds, author John Holway leads a gritty, fascinating tour through the too often neglected world of the Negro Leagues. Among the many players interviewed are a slugger nearly without peer (Hall of Famer Willard Brown); a forerunner of Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn in the highest level of batting wizardry (Gene Benson); a pint-sized flamethrower that some say was every bit as fearsome as Satchel Paige (Dave Barnhill); and one of the greatest competitors the game has ever seen (Chet Brewer, pictured here). As in the oral baseball histories of Donald Honig and Lawrence Ritter, the greatest pleasure in Holway’s book is getting a sense of the distinct shape and character (and characters) of the game as it was actually played. It was a whole different world in the Negro Leagues, with shorter rosters and longer, more perilous road trips forcing the players involved to not only be more well-rounded, worldly, and tenacious than their white contemporaries, but also making them, in general, more passionate and innovative in their study of the game. It’s foolish to generalize about any group as varied as the collection of men who played Negro League baseball, but the impression I get from reading Black Diamonds is that no group ever loved baseball more.
A lot of this is all new to me. When I was a baseball-hungry kid I learned next to nothing about the subject. Sometimes Topps included cards that celebrated the more distant reaches of the history of the game, but there was never anything about the Negro Leagues; the baseball encyclopedia I pored over made little or no mention of the Negro Leagues;* and the baseball books from the nearby college library only included enough information to make me think of the Negro Leagues as a shadowy, somewhat backward wilderness, a place to try to flee. About all I knew about the Negro Leagues was that Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron had escaped (the latter’s escape one and the same, in my mind, with leaving behind the seemingly laughable habit of batting cross-handed).
*(Hey, my first Posnansterisk!) I no longer have this encyclopedia, which disintegrated, and the names of the authors—which were never that important to my stat-greedy kid mind—escape me now, but it was one of the greatest books of my life; I prefer it to others because its focus was not so much on individual players but on highlighting teams and the year-by-year narrative procession of the game (at least the white version of the game), giving each year a title (“The Year It All Became Official”; “Greenberg’s Grand Return”) and offering entire rosters and stats for each team. Does anybody know what book I’m talking about? Does it still exist? And how have I been able to get by without it?)
The only exception to this early general misperception of the quality of play in the Negro Leagues was the idea I got somehow, I’m not sure from where, about Josh Gibson. I was first drawn to him because he was the only professional athlete I’d ever heard of that shared my first name, but what made him more than a curiosity was the number associated with his name. I don’t know where I read it, but somewhere I got the idea that Josh Gibson had hit 800 home runs, a number I believed in immediately because my belief in the truth of all baseball numbers was total; conversely, my inability to grasp a general admiration of Negro League players had almost everything to do with the fact that they didn’t have numbers attached to them, or not enough numbers to make them seem substantial. Nothing like 800 home runs. And since Josh Gibson was the only Negro Leaguer with a number like that attached to his name, he was for many years the only African American from the pre-Robinson years to gain entry into the baseball sanctuary in my mind.
With his book, John Holway has helped expand my conceptions about this rich expanse of baseball history. (Bill James has dubbed Holway’s work “the most indispensable original research [on the Negro Leagues]”; my thanks to Baseball Toaster commenter Eric Enders for providing a heads-up about Holway in an earlier discussion about baseball books.) I plan to keep reading more about the legends of the Negro Leagues, and would love to hear suggestions for further study. I want to read more oral histories, but I also want to get a sense of the wider arc of the Negro League story. I’m talking partly about the people who shaped the leagues, but I’m also talking about the defining contests. It seems to me a great book could be written detailing the ten best (or fifteen best or whatever) games in the history of the Negro Leagues. Because of the more chaotic nature of the Negro Leagues (players constantly on the move, teams and even whole leagues folding overnight), it’s a little harder to get a strong hold on the whole of that history than it is with the major leagues; I think a book looking in detail at a few definitive games (the players, the stakes, the context, the goats, the heroes) would be a way to help provide some landmarks for someone new to the territory. Anyone versed in this history know of any suggestions for that list? The one that comes first to my mind is the 12-inning duel in 1930 between Chet Brewer and Smokey Joe Williams. Brewer recalls the game in Black Diamonds, bemoaning the bad hop that led to the only run of the game in a way that speaks to his own competitive fire and his deep respect for his counterpart, a man he said “could throw the ball harder than any I played against.”
“If that ball had just bounced around the infield,” Brewer says, “we would probably be playing yet.”