The release of the feature film 42 has stimulated a renewed interest in the early years of African American ballplayers as they struggled for acceptance in organized baseball. While not all of them commanded the same attention as Jackie Robinson did, that does not make their stories any less interesting.
In SOUTHERN LEAGUE, Larry Colton, a former Major Leaguer who appeared in one game for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1968 (although you won’t find that in his author’s bio), weaves an intricate story of the 1964 Birmingham Barons, a minor league affiliate of the then-Kansas City Athletics and the first professional integrated team in the Deep South.
If there was one city that represented the evils of Jim Crow, it was Birmingham, Alabama. Governor George Wallace and Bull Connor, the city’s commissioner of public safety, sought to maintain total control over African Americans, contrary to public opinion and federal law. So it seems almost corny that the institution that helped break that social construct was the national pastime.
"SOUTHERN LEAGUE deserves to be considered one of the eye-opening books of its type and will serve as a teaching tool for those who believe that sports --- and life --- in America was always as it is today."
Charles O. Finley, the larger-than-life owner of the parent club As, populated the Birmingham roster with players of color, including power-hitting outfielder Tommy Reynolds; teenage pitching ace Johnny Lee Odom, better known as “Blue Moon”; and future all-star shortstop Bert Campaneris, a refugee from Cuba, as well as other black and Latin American players who did not progress beyond the minor league level. But it is not just the stories of fear and loathing heaped on these virtual sacrificial lambs (Reynolds, in particular, was the target of police harassment and jeers from the “fans”), it is also the acceptance by their white associates, mainly the Southern-born manager Haywood Sullivan and teammates Paul Lindblad and Weldon “Hoss” Bowlin, a scrappy infielder and cancer survivor.
Each chapter rotates between one of these Barons (including Barons owner Albert Belcher) over the course of the season as the team comes together, despite initial uncertainty. For some of these young men, who came from the east and west coasts, the regional mores were shocking, but they did not see themselves as social and political activists; they were just there to play ball and hopefully advance to the next level. This was true even for the black players, who did not want to “rock the boat”; they would let their athletic skills do their talking. In fact, SOUTHERN LEAGUE is just as much about the struggles of the white athletes in general as the black players’ experiences.
Just as meaningful to the Barons, if not more so, was the interference from Finley, who promoted the best amongst them to the A's, who were mired in last place, rather than allow them to stay in Birmingham where they had an excellent chance to win the league championship.
The constant use of subtitles in each chapter is at once dramatic and distracting. Employing such a device on occasion is fine, but if the author seeks to make everything important, then nothing is important. Colton frequently seems to put his characters on the verge of social consciousness, but aside from a couple of the white players inviting their black colleagues over for dinner or clucking over having to live and take meals separately while on the road, there’s little indication of what they thought of the inequities of their situation.
Despite some of these minor flaws, SOUTHERN LEAGUE deserves to be considered one of the eye-opening books of its type and will serve as a teaching tool for those who believe that sports --- and life --- in America was always as it is today.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on May 31, 2013