The best books on Black baseball leagues before Jackie Robinson

The Books I Picked & Why

Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams

By Robert Peterson

Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams

Why this book?

Peterson was a magazine writer in the 1960s who became curious about those Black baseball teams he saw play in the Pennsylvania town where he grew up. He set out with his tape recorder to track down and interview many Negro League figures, and dove into library newspaper collections to find the facts to back up their reminiscences. First published in 1970 and still in print, this is the first comprehensive history of Black professional baseball, the history of which was in serious danger of being lost to modern memory when the Negro Leagues were put out of business in the 1950s following Major League integration. Many of us who write about Black ball read this book first.


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If You Were Only White: The Life of Leroy Satchel Paige

By Donald Spivey

If You Were Only White: The Life of Leroy Satchel Paige

Why this book?

Don Spivey’s book about the great Satchel Paige is a biography the way it should be written. It treats Paige not only as the legendary ballplayer he was, but also as a fascinating person: a disadvantaged youth who learned to pitch in reform school and a daring individualist in a team game who showcased his superior talents by, for example, calling in his outfielders, then striking out the side. Spivey believes Satchel’s outrageous record of constantly switching teams in search of better pay was not irresponsible – he grew up poor and decided as a man he would not live that way again. Spivey makes another assertion that few other Paige biographers have: Satch’s easy-going manner hid a man whose bosom was “constantly burning and smoldering because of racism in America.”


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Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy

By Jules Tygiel

Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy

Why this book?

The story of the Negro Leagues is not complete without the telling of the story of where their existence led. Shunned by a segregationist “gentlemen’s agreement” among white Major League executives, Black players in the first half of the 20th century competed among themselves, producing individual star players, powerhouse teams, and memorable on-field moments. The signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946 signaled that the color barrier was finally coming down. Integration today seems so obvious but getting Blacks into the majors was a complex business, fraught with potential pitfalls. Tygiel’s book is the best single telling of this important American story. 


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Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball's Greatest Forgotten Player

By Jeremy Beer

Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball's Greatest Forgotten Player

Why this book?

Charleston is one of the very best to ever play in the Negro Leagues. He entered Black baseball even before the first Negro League was started and played 27 seasons up to World War II. He managed in the Negro Leagues for 15 seasons, his gigs including the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the early 1930s, one of the best professional teams of all time. Beer’s award-winning book tells the whole life of this Hall of Famer and straightens out historical misconceptions, for example showing that his reputation for dirty play and a terrible temper is ill-founded (“While he was happy to join fights in progress, he did not usually start them”).


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Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution

By Neil Lanctot

Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution

Why this book?

The Negro Leagues, like all organized sports leagues, were showcases for the stars of the game – Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and the like. But, like all the other leagues, they were businesses, too. Sports entrepreneurs, most of them African American, invested in all-Black teams that formed a “shadow” alternative to Major League Baseball where the players, and most of the owners, too, were not welcome due to segregation. Lanctot, a history professor comfortable with deep and extensive research, chronicles the successes and failures of the Black leagues, which were almost always existing on a financial knife’s edge, until the integration of pro ball in 1946 spelled their death.


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