What if the early black stars had been given their baseball seasons in the sun?

March 29, 2010

Bobz Book Reviews

The End of Baseball cover“The End of Baseball,”

by Peter Schilling Jr.

What if major league baseball hadn’t waited until 1947 to enjoy the athletic prowess of black ballplayers?

What if, in the midst of World War II, innovative Bill Veeck Jr. had purchased the Philadelphia Athletics and stocked the team with the stars of the Negro Leagues — Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Monte Irvin — during their prime?

During their heyday these players were the likes of Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Ernie Banks, and we know what just those three hall of famers brought to the big leagues.

Pete Schilling gives us a taste of how a season might have gone if baseball had been integrated before Branch Rickey took a gamble and put Jackie Robinson in a Brooklyn Dodger uniform. It’s a story filled with drama, with racism, with emotional moments on and off the field, with the wacky promotions that even the creative mind of Bill Veeck might never have tried.

And with baseball —  pure, unadulterated baseball.

Precursor to the exploding scoreboard?

Veeck — in real life the non-traditional owner at various times of the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago White Sox and the St. Louis Browns — brought fun and fans to the ballpark — and he’s the centerpiece of Schilling’s book, challenging the “gentleman’s agreement” among baseball owners to keep their sport lily white. (And the father of St. Paul Saints’ innovative owner Mike Veeck — he of the pig that brings new baseballs to the umpire!)

Tidbits of baseball history and lore are sprinkled throughout, signs that heroic research has been poured into the writing by Minnesota resident Schilling, who noted that he put seven years in at the St. Louis Park (MN) Home Depot to pay the mortgage while writing “The End of Baseball.”

In what may or may not be based in fact, Veeck fights off famed baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to break the major league’s color barrier. Veeck’s memoir claims that he tried to do this very thing in 1942 but Landis — who was both judge and jury when it came to baseball policy during his 24-year reign — stopped him, fearing letting blacks play would be “the end of baseball.” Whether the novel captures history accurately or not, the battle makes for a fictional morality play and great, tension-filled reading.

And the innovations the fictional Veeck tries in order to fill seats at Philadelphia’s old Shibe Park are just as kooky — and successful! — as any of the promotions the real Veeck pulled off as a major league owner, including the scoreboard that shot off fireworks every time those pennant-winning 1959 Go-Go White Sox homered, the movable outfield fence in Cleveland (moved in or out 15 feet depending on the power of the opponent) and his most famous stunt, having a midget bat for the St. Louis Browns in order to induce a base on balls.

Famed supporting cast

Veeck may be the protagonist, but this is a book with a cast of worthy characters including the ageless Satchel Paige, the “Black Babe Ruth” Gibson, and future National League MVP Roy Campanella, a star for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s.

The blatant racism fans, hotels and restaurants in many cities show to the novel’s all-black A’s isn’t unlike what Robinson encountered when he played for the Dodgers in the late 1940s and what major league players like Fergie Jenkins and Dick Allen encountered even in the 1960s. While racism still exists in America, the fact that today white fans can cheer the likes of Torii Hunter, Ryan Howard and Derek Jeter only makes the “what-if” of the storyline of  “The End of Baseball” a cause of sorrow and regret.

So read this excellent book, then go online and do a search for the names above — some of the greats of the Negro Leagues who never got to shine at the major league level. One excellent source, too, is http://www.mlb.com.

Plug “Black players” into the search box and you’ll find page after page of history worth knowing and stories worth remembering. — bz

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About Bob Zyskowski

Bob is the Client Products Manager for the Communications Office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A 42-year veteran of the Catholic Press, he is the former Associate Publisher of The Catholic Spirit. You can follow him on twitter or email him at zyskowskir@archspm.org.

View all posts by Bob Zyskowski