Book Review: Color Blind:  The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line
Author: Tom Dunkel
Pages: 298
I review a lot of books for At Home Plate, so not surprisingly I’ve learned a fair bit about baseball history.  That’s why Tom Dunkel’s “Color Blind” totally took me totally by surprise. 

Oh, I knew about regional amateur and semi-pro baseball across the country, and I knew about the Negro leagues.  But for most of their history never the twain did meet, except in the occasional barnstorming game.  Or so I thought.

But it turns out that in one corner of the US, the two did meet.  In Bismarck, South Dakota, a manager of a local semi-pro team by the name of Neil Churchill decided he didn’t care if the players he could get were black or white, so long as they were the best ballplayers he could put on the field.   He broke the color barrier in baseball, at least in semi pro, more than a decade before it happened at the Major League level. 

His reasons weren't that complex.  He was a man who liked to win, he was a man who loved baseball, and it was something very important to the community which he lived in.

Life in the Dakotas was very hard at that time.  Drought, dust storms, bank failures and the boom and bust nature of farming, mining and other industries left far too many people struggling just to survive.   Baseball wasn’t just entertainment.  It was about pride, community and giving people a reason to keep their heads raised high.  In manger Neil Churchill the community had a civil leader who cared about winning, not just for himself but for the entire town.

So he put together what might well have been one of the most unique clubs in the history of the game during that time and spawned interracial baseball back in the 1930s, some three decades after organized baseball had barred black men from playing with white players.   But in Bismarck that didn’t matter -- once black ballplayers showed what they could do in defeating arch rival Jamestown.

Among the players were some of the greats of the Negro Leagues: Satchel Paige , Double Duty Radcliffe, Hilton Smith, Quincy Troupe, among others.  By itself this integration would have been impressive, but it didn’t just stop there.  In order to compete against this team, other local teams did the same.  At least for a while, integrating not just a team but a league for a while.

In terms of semi-pro baseball this team was a team of giants, despite fairly regular turnover for a number of years, almost all of the salaries paid for out of Churchill’s personal pockets.  The triumph came in 1935 when this team was invited to the National, the biggest semi-pro tournament that had perhaps had ever been had and which featured the best baseball teams from the independent leagues from coast to coast.

It was there that an integrated team, the only integrated team in the tournament, made their stand.  Behind Paige who shined under the biggest spotlight of his career and a cast of players both black and white, the Bismarck team made a name for themselves against opposition from the North, East, South and West, and against the racism and anger that came with some of those teams, fans and pro scouts who simply couldn’t scout the black players because of MLB’s lack of integration. 

Neil Churchill and his team didn’t change the world.  The color barrier didn’t officially fall in the game of baseball until Jackie Robinson took the field for the Dodgers for the first time.  But for a period of time you might argue that Bismarck, South Dakota, was the only place where real baseball, between men of all colors, was really played.

This book is the story of those men and it’s a great story.  One worthy of being read over and over by fans who truly love the game and understand what we all lost during the years baseball was segregated.   It’s a story not just about baseball, but about hard times, about prohibition, gambling, juke joints and the double standards of the day.  More than that, it’s a very good read.

Give this one a solid 3 balls and add it to the required reading list for any fan who can look beyond the majors and understand what baseball’s history really is. writes its book reviews with the following rating scale in mind:

Four Balls: An exceptional book that truly earns a walk straight to the local book store to get a copy.
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