What Myles Straw did in New York on Saturday was awesome. Anyone who didn’t grow up admiring the Bronx Bombers probably feels the same way, because speaking up against jerks and bullies is the right thing to do — unless you’re the bully, of course.
But speaking out when opposing fans are heckling your potentially injured teammate isn’t really rebellious in the way that makes baseball history. While we’ll all remember Straw’s courage in that moment for a long time, the truly timeless rebels in baseball history had courage that set them apart for a lifetime. Those individuals are the subject of the new book Baseball Rebels by Peter Dreier and Robert Elias, which is a great collection of stories of those who made the choice to break from the norm and make a difference in baseball history.
Thanks to Major League Baseball’s self-congratulatory celebrations of Jackie Robinson each year, there’s hardly a person alive still unaware of his contributions to baseball and the broader world. But how many have their understanding start and end with his ability to turn the other cheek? Where Baseball Rebels succeeds is in the telling of the whole story, how Robinson was an activist and a baseball player and how he broke baseball’s color barrier and helped dismantle prejudices beyond the ballpark.
But this isn’t a Jackie Robinson biography, and while he deservedly gets his space in the book, the vast majority of Baseball Rebels is interested in lesser-known individuals who played a significant role in progressing the game. The civil rights section of the book is the largest, but it does not focus narrowly on the band of time around Robinson’s debut. Instead, the authors go all the way back to the beginning of organized baseball and share the stories of great men like Octavius Catto, who organized Black baseball teams in Philadelphia for more than just recreation but also to create civic institutions and create activists for equality.
Baseball Rebels provides so many stories like Catto’s; important historical stories that often get lost in the mythology of baseball. For every Bill Veeck profiled in the book, there are three Catto’s: people like Wendell Smith, a Black journalist who used his writing to agitate for desegregation; Bill White, who debuted five years after Robinson and went on to be the first Black broadcaster in MLB history; or Jim Grant, who was one of the first great Black pitchers.
Of course, rebels in baseball have done far more than just help break the game’s racial divides, and Baseball Rebels does a great job sharing stories of women and gay men in baseball. These stories come from farther afield, obviously, as no woman has ever played in MLB and there have been no openly gay men on an MLB roster. But even though these stories don’t feature MVPs or Cooperstown heroes, they are still fascinating and important, and the authors do a great job giving the individuals who are making a difference — no matter the size — ample space in the book.
If you’ve made it this far in the review, the following disclaimer is probably obvious, but this book is not for everyone. If you think CRT is a legitimate issue in our grade schools or have tried to apply the term “Marxist” to anyone recently, Baseball Rebels is not for you. It’s not a sterilized version of baseball history, it does not make the reader comfortable.
Baseball Rebels has no issues pointing out the failures of the sport and of the United States in the past. However, it also does not hold the reader accountable or place the blame for years of racism, sexism, and homophobia in baseball at the feet of today’s fan. Where Baseball Rebels succeeds is in presenting a somewhat chronological narrative that shows how the sport has progressed and what that progress means to fans not in the majority.
One criticism that could be lodged about Baseball Rebels is that it provides too many stories of individuals who helped improve the game. At times, the sections are so densely packed with stories of individuals striving to push the game forward that it is hard to keep straight who did what. But the narrative arc of baseball becoming more equal and open is undeniable, and the book is better for the inclusion of so many of these stories.
The last chapter is a call to arms and a fantastic one at that. The authors implore the reader to keep working and holding baseball accountable in order to make the game more just, but also to make society more just and humane. It’s the kind of thing people in baseball should read, because for all the progress that has been made, we’re still waiting for greater minority representation in front offices, for women to be part of the game, and for LGBTQ+ individuals to feel unashamed of who they are within the context of the game. Baseball Rebels makes you feel like it’s only a matter of time before that’s a reality, though, and that’s a really good thing.
Baseball Rebels is out now via University of Nebraska Press. You can order a copy via your local independent bookstore here.