When I proposed this book club to our fearless editor, Matt Lyons, I had Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert in mind. In fact, I had it on my bookshelf, the result of an impulse buy based on GoodReads recommendations. So when I got the greenlight for the book club and then the readers picked Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert as the first book, well, I was pretty happy.
Perhaps I had hyped the book up too much, though. I tend to do this with things. I heard about Chicago-area restaurant Portillo’s for years, building it to mythical status in my mind, and then I had it and...it was just a place that makes decent hot dogs and chocolate cake. It was nothing like what I expected. I don’t know that I expected Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert to be, but it was maybe a little less than I hoped. Overall, I found Timothy Gay’s recounting of these late barnstorming tours to be entertaining and interesting, but maybe somewhat less compelling than it could have been. But it was still a pretty good slice of baseball cake (to stretch a metaphor much farther than it should be stretched).
As someone who covered high school sports for a dirt-poor news organization in a previous life, I’m overly familiar with trying to construct a narrative based on box scores. Countless times, I tried to piece together a story based on a few lines in a scorebook when the money was not available to travel to an away game. Maybe my bias hurt my enjoyment in this regard, but I have a hard time enjoying recreations of unseen games. Gay put his best spin on these accounts, using colorful language for mundane things, like calling singles “safeties” or saying “kayoed” rather than struck out. But it seems t me his prose would have flowed better if an editor would have cleaned up some of the recreated game play, keeping the language more concise between the anecdotes and biographical information.
It was in those areas, the background information and historical data that Gay unearthed, that book really took off. I found myself not caring whether Satchel Paige struck out six batters one October afternoon and 11 the next night and instead reading these sections more lightly, eagerly looking for more of the behind the scenes machinations of the barnstorming tours and details of what life was like for ballplayers in the 1930s and ‘40s. Some of the most interesting content in the book were stories of Paige blowing off his teams to hit the barnstorming circuit in the Dakotas or California, Dean playing up his dumb cracker character to maximize his commercial appeal, or Feller rigging up a tour by plane and getting two games in one day in two cities.
Although the games were the ostensible reason the book was written, it was the details of things like Feller’s machinations to create a barnstorming tour that really resonated. As a result, I found the first half of the book to move much slower than the second. Could be my pro-Bob Feller bias, but it was more my familiarity with the names of those players from the Feller-era. Likewise, Feller as a character in this book is more fleshed out than his counterparts, which is surely due to the fact that Feller was alive and well when this book was being researched and even sat for interviews with the author. For all his antics, Dean, who passed away in 1974, did not come through as vividly in the retelling as the others in the title. His legend pales in comparison to Paige’s (as does nearly everyone in baseball lore), which makes the ageless hurler a colossus in any tale of his career. Seemingly, Dean was the kind of character that could stand up to Paige’s legend, but the injuries that cut short his career and the fact Feller was able to speak for himself likely made it more difficult for the author to imbue Dean’s spirit into the pages in the way he did Feller’s.
Writing compelling nonfiction is no easy task. There are few people who can tell a historically accurate story with the deftness of Laura Hillenbrand (author of Unbroken and Seabiscuit) or Erik Larson (author of Devil in the White City), and to fall short of that lofty standard is no slight to Gay. If Satch, Dizzy and Rapid Robert also falls short of baseball canon, that’s also not a slight. The book was generally well written and certainly an interesting look at an small part of baseball history, but that narrow window of history is precisely why Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert does not rank with Michael Lewis’s Moneyball or Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times.
Notwithstanding my high hopes for this book, Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert is a good read. It shines a light on a time in baseball rarely discussed. Could it be better, sure, but what couldn’t?
As a bonus for readers, below is an interview the author of the book, Timothy Gay. He was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions about his research and writing. Check out the interview (edited lightly for clarity) and share you thoughts on the book in the comments.
Chris Davies: In your author’s note, you mention that part of the reason you wanted to research this -- about how the game became integrated before Jackie Robinson -- was there any special motivation for you to want to learn about that topic?
Timothy Gay: A couple things: One is I happen to grow up Warren, Pennsylvania, not too far from Cleveland, about 60 miles south and east of Erie. My mother had a high school classmate name Robert Peterson, who wrote Only The Ball was White, the great history of the Negro Leagues that really sparked renewed interest in black baseball. So, I grew up knowing there was this distinguished baseball historian from my town and the truth is, until fairly late in life, I was not overly familiar with the Negro Leagues. One of the great joys of my life has been to discover this world that had been completely hidden away from me and from most baseball fans until fairly recently. To study the old Negro Leagues is to really study baseball and one of its really fun and pure forms.
CD: When you dug in to the barnstorming tours, obviously Satchel Paige was the big draw for most of the Negro League’s existence. Were Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller the two with similar draw or the two closest to integration that you found most interesting?
TG: What makes Dean fascinating is that, in the thick of Jim Crow, he was very visibly identified with Satchel Paige and these wonderful interracial games. A lot of southerners were nervous about that connection, Dean wasn’t. He recognized the commercial appeal of interracial ball and encouraged it and embraced black players at a time when almost no other established white star would. And he recognized early on that serious money could be made in interracial games if interest would be stirred up in them. He persuaded his brother and other members of the old Gashouse Gang Cardinals of the early to mid-30s to go out barnstorming with him and often they would attract stars from other National League teams. If you’ve read the book you’ll appreciate how upset this made Commissioner [Kennesaw Mountain] Landis, and the league presidents and club owners were driven to distraction by barnstorming because they felt it was taking money away from their coffers. Landis did not want to do anything that would encourage the integration of the game.
CD: You mention Dean’s financial savvy, but in the book that comes through more for Feller.
TG: Where Dizzy tended to squander his money, Feller was very, very savvy. At a young age, he was very conscious of his status as a moneymaker. He knew how much he was worth and wanted to be paid handsomely for it. In Bill Veeck he finally found an owner willing to pay him and his teammates something approaching what they were worth. [Dan] Topping and [Del] Webb, the guys who ran the Yankees, never paid their people anywhere close to what they were worth. But Veeck and Tom Yawkey in Boston at least paid their guys a liveable wage. The difference, of course, is Veeck was enlightened on race and Yawkey was an unreconstructed bigot.
CD: Barnstorming like in the book, couldn’t exist today. Whether Feller was right that integration killed it or it was just the TV and all that.
TG: Think about it, in the thirties and into the forties, there were only two franchises west of the Mississippi river and nothing west of St. Louis.
CD: Right. So, is there any form of barnstorming that could ever exist again or is this just a bygone era in baseball?
TG: I think it is essentially, bygone. The biggest issue, of course, is money. These guys don’t need to make the side money they needed to in the old days. There are also opportunities for Latino players and others to play in the Caribbean Winter Leagues, in conjunction with the wishes of their big league teams. If you look at the Arizona Fall League and Instruction League, baseball has almost become a 12-month proposition these days. Teams want their better prospects or guys who need to switch positions to work on a certain skill or attribute, so they’re sent out to Arizona. The Fall League All-Star Game was just on MLB Network -- think about that for a second. A national television network that is a few years old is now ubiquitous, almost every cable and satellite system in the country carries it. It’s on 12 months a year, 365 days, 24/7, and it’s showing minor league baseball all star games and other minor league games and events from the Caribbean and around the world. Baseball has become a global enterprise; it’s very popular in Japan and Korea and Taiwan, it’s even taken root in Australia and New Zealand and is doing okay in Italy and other places in Europe. It’s a global and year-round phenomenon in ways Dizzy and Satchel could never have dreamed.
CD: Coming up on nine years since publication and a decade since you finished compiling this book, what is one thing that still stands out in your mind?
TG: I think for Cleveland fans, what they should take great pride in is that the Indians organization and the city itself have never gotten their due in terms of what they meant to integration. Cleveland was fortunate because Veeck was running the show at a time when the Indians were very successful. Their last World Series championship in ‘48 would not have happened if Satchel Paige and Larry Doby were not a part of that club. What’s remarkable about the whole story — and if you read my first book, Tris Speaker, you’ll learn about his whole conflicted racial past — Speaker was brought out of retirement by Veeck to help Doby’s transition from infielder to outfielder. Doby played I think second base for the old [Newark] Eagles with double play partner Monte Irvin. There was no better guy to work with a young player trying to learn to play outfield than Tris Speaker, one of the greatest outfielders who ever lived. What’s fascinating is that Speaker had been black-balled. In 1926 Speaker and Ty Cobb were caught cheating, having cheated in a 1919 regular season game — just before the Black Sox did their dastardly deeds in the World Series — Cobb and Speaker had conspired to throw the last game of the regular season to Detroit. I think it meant Detroit would get third place money, which meant something to those guys back then, and a former teammate of both Speaker and Cobb’s ratted them out to Ban Johnson, then president of the American League. Johnson quietly arranged for Speaker and Cobb to retire within a few weeks of each other, which was amazing since both were player-managers of their respective clubs and both were not really of retirement age and had some good years left in them. It created a great scandal, especially when Landis and the baseball world found later they had been implicated in this betting scandal. Speaker was a brilliant manager, in 1920 he was the player-manager for the Indians World Champions, and was in his prime as a player and manager and would have been a terrific manager for other teams. But he was black balled, essentially...for 22 years Speaker was not part of the Indians organization, not putting on a uniform. Veeck brought him on in ‘47 as kind of a PR representative, and even for that he had to obtain permission from Judge Landis to do that. After Landis gave his okay, and without checking, Veeck made him a coach to work with Doby. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that Cleveland has had a long and rich history with integrated baseball. When you take Tris Speaker, who was an avowed member of the Ku Klux Klan, and put him into training of Larry Doby it gives you some sense of how deeply involved Cleveland was in all of this.
[Note: To learn more about Tris Speaker, listen to Gay talk about the Grey Eagle on NPR’s Only a Game or check out his book Tris Speaker: The Rough-And-Tumble Life Of A Baseball Legend.]
CD: Were you a Cleveland fan growing up or did the proximity to your hometown make you interested in Cleveland sports?
TG: It’s kind of a coincidence. Truth is, I’ve only been a mild Indians fan. I grew up liking the Red Sox because of 1967, the impossible dream year. Color TV was a new thing, at least in our household, and I took one look at Fenway Park and fell in love and I haven’t fallen out of love all those years later. I’ve always been fascinated by Cleveland baseball history, which is very rich, as I’ve been saying, and not fully appreciated even by folks in Cleveland. If you look at the 1890s and the old Cleveland Spiders in the NL and look at Cleveland’s role in creating an American League in 1901, it was essential for the rival league for Cleveland to be successful. Cleveland has been such an important of the American League since. Then you look at Veeck’s progressive attitude on race and the pioneering things he did with black players, it really is a great testament to the city that it has played such a great role in that.
CD: If there was one thing you hoped readers took from the book, what would that be?
TG: I think the courage it took for black players to go out and barnstorm in Jim Crow America. They put their lives on the line going to places where black people were not welcome and it really did put a dent in Jim Crow. It didn’t strike Jim Crow out or end racial discrimination, but it put a small dent into it. If you look at baseball and the role baseball played in accelerating integration in this country it’s really quite remarkable. Think of Jackie Robinson integrating the big leagues almost a full decade before Brown vs. Board of Ed. Think about that, it’s stunning. Integration had the unintended effect of hurting and eventually killing off these wonderful interracial tours that were part of the fabric of America in the 30s and 40s.
CD: You mentioned you got to speak to many negro league players and Feller as well. Was any individual particularly enjoyable to speak to and learn from?
TG: Well, Stanley Glen, who’s mentioned in the author’s note who told me the incredible story about the swimming pool, he was extraordinary and just a terrific man. He passed away a few years ago. Of course, I got to talk to Monte Irvin, who told me the great story about Oscar Charleston ripping off the hood of a Klansman, and I don’t know if that’s true, it’s certainly part of the Charleston story. Oscar was one of the five greatest baseball players who ever lived, there’s no question about that. That took immense courage to have excelled the way he did in the Negro Leagues and it wouldn’t be surprising if he did indeed rip off the hood of a Klansman. Monte was for many years a part of MLB’s exec leadership and an incredible guy…. Feller, I had the privilege of interviewing him a couple times, including a lengthy session when the Indians were training in Winter Haven. He happened to b hosting his 15-year-old grandson when I interviewed him and he had his grandson listen and Feller was very proud to be telling these stories of the old days, barnstorming, and, of course, my questions made Feller think of stuff he hadn’t thought of in years, so we were laughing and having a great time. Feller was not an easy guy to be around all the time, but he was very proud of the role he played in this and very proud of the money he made. In ‘45, he got back from the Pacific [theater] and barely pitched at all for Cleveland and then almost immediately went on the circuit and basically plotted for the big ‘46 tour, which transformed baseball. It opened up organized baseball’s eyes about the lucrative markets that existed west of the Mississippi and it made baseball appreciate how airplane travel was going to transform the game. It played no small part in Walter O’Malley looking at the southern California market as a place to move his Dodgers. That whole process began not the day before they moved in 56-57, but in the late 40s when they began looking at demographic trends and highway construction and all the rest.
CD: Is there anything else you’d like to mention to the readers?
TG: I saw Ball Four was a contender [for the book club], and Ball Four has some really cool stuff in it. Stuff I couldn’t possibly write about. Trust me, I’m really humbled that a book about interracial baseball could beat guys who were doing all kind of nasty stuff at the Shoreham Hotel in DC.