THEY PLAYED FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME: UNTOLD STORIES OF BLACK BASEBALL IN MINNESOTA
By Frank M. White
Reviewed by Todd Peterson
The Inside Game: SABR Newsletter
While not a major Negro Leagues hotbed, the state of Minnesota was home to several significant black baseball teams and athletes from the late-nineteenth century until the early 1970s. Frank White’s new book, They Played for the Love of the Game, tells the story of legendary African American squads such as the St. Paul Gophers and Minneapolis Keystones, and homegrown players such as Walter Ball, College Football Fall-of Fame inductee Bobby Marshall, female pioneer Toni Stone, and National Baseball Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield. In addition, White recounts the part the region played in the integration of Organized Baseball, providing a launching pad for the careers of future Hall-of-Famers Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, and Lou Brock.
White, a longtime Gopher state coach, umpire, and sports administrator, grew up watching his father, Louis “Pud” White play baseball and fast-pitch softball onTwin Cities diamonds during the 1950s. He first channeled his familial relationship with blackball into a 2009 exhibit with the Ramsey County Historical Society, which ultimately provided the genesis for this book. What sets They Played for the Love of the Game apart from earlier volumes on the subject such as Steven Hoffbeck’s insightful Swinging for the Fences (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005) or my own Early Black Baseball in Minnesota (McFarland, 2010) is the personal connection the author brings to the plate. By tagging along with his dad, White met or heard first-hand the stories of almost every significant blackball player or coach in Minnesota history.
Readers are thus made privy to the inside story of Jackie Robinson’s infamous first game in Philadelphia as related by White’s high school coach Howie Schultz, who played first base for the Phillies that day. The author also reveals how Twin Cities blackball manager George White (no relation) ran a gambling den out of his basement to finance his squads, and how his father’s teams dealt with racism while barnstorming in nearby Wisconsin. White is not just a raconteur of hot stove yarns, however. He devotes several pages to his childhood growing up in St. Paul’s Rondo area, and his elegiac narrative of the destruction of the African American neighborhood in order to make room for a freeway is especially moving.
The former ballplayer flashes some serious research chops as well, coming up with a few significant finds, including reproducing the 1903 letter that Baltimore owner Ned Hanlon of the then-minor league Orioles wrote to Billy Williams offering the black first baseman a spot on his squad. Hanlon, though, required that White pass as Native-American, while asking him to name “his lowest terms.” White describes how the St. Paul slugger wrestled with his choice between trying to make it in Organized Baseball and accepting an important post as an aide to Minnesota’s governor. The author also documents the recreational shift from hardball to fast-pitch softball and the dominance of the latter sport by Twin Cities African American clubs, while providing real insight into the decline of baseball in the black community during the 1960s. White demonstrates through many first-person accounts how institutional racism derailed the baseball careers of many aspiring black athletes of that time, including Dave Winfield’s older brother Steve.
In the course of his research, White conducted over fifty interviews with former players and coaches that, along with his own reminisces, lends an air of authenticity to the project. He also reproduces the scoresheets of seven games that local blackball squads played in the 1920s against a club from Oxboro Heath, later home of Metropolitan Stadium and the Mall of America. In addition, the author has included team rosters for the region’s significant black teams from 1920 up to the time of integration, as well of a list of African American and Latino players who graced the lineups of Minnesota’s minor league clubs.
White’s prose is precise and economical and his narrative unfolds in an easy-to-follow, chronological fashion. He includes as well several sidebars that provide addi- tional information about players and squads not covered in the main text. The book is beautifully designed and illustrated with over seventy- five images, including several never before seen photographs from the author’s personal collection. Clocking in at a modest 194 pages, Frank White’s They Played for the Love of the Game is a loving, informative look at a significant, if obscure, slice of baseball history and would be a welcome addition to any sports fan’s library.
Todd Peterson is a Kansas City-based baseball historian, visual artist, and educator. He is a past recipient of a Yoseloff-SABR Baseball Research Grant, and has twice won the Normal “Tweed” Webb Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding research.
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Reviewed by Dave Kenney
Minnesota Historical Society Press
Like many amateur historians, Frank M. White arrived at his cho sen eld of expertise through a family connection. As a young boy growing up in St. Paul during the 1950s, he be came aware that his father, Lou “Pud” White, was a gifted baseball player. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that he learned just how accomplished an athlete his fa ther really was. At an exhibit on black baseball at the Minnesota Historical Society, a family friend casually men tioned that Lou White had occasionally played with some of the great Negro League teams that barnstormed Minne sota in the 1930s and ’40s. Frank White was abbergasted. He knew his father had played with a semipro team called the Twin City Colored Giants during the 1940s and with some top-tier fast-pitch softball teams during the 1950s, but he had no idea that he had once played Negro League ball. When he asked his father why he had never mentioned it, Lou White offered a response famil iar to anyone who’s tried to coax per sonal recollections from someone who lived through the Great Depression and World War II.
“It wasn’t important,” he said.
Frank White smiled at his father’s reticence but refused to accept his con clusion. He suspected that the experi ences of Lou White and other African American ballplayers were, in fact, very important. In the years that fol lowed, the younger White spoke with dozens of his father’s contemporaries and perused countless newspaper sports sections, gathering fading memories of black baseball in Minnesota. In 2009 and 2010, he worked with the Ramsey County Historical Society to create an exhibit incorporating much of what he had learned. That experience led to the publication of White’s new book, They Played for the Love of the Game: Untold Stories of Black Baseball in Minnesota.
Unlike many facets of African American history in Minnesota, the state’s black baseball past has received plenty of attention in recent years. Not only have the Minnesota Historical Society and the Ramsey County His torical Society hosted exhibits on the subject, but two previous books— Steven R. Hoffbeck’s Swinging for the Fences and Todd Peterson’s Early Black Baseball in Minnesota—have ensured that future generations will appreciate African Americans’ contributions to the development of the sport in this state. So why yet another book about black base ball in Minnesota? To Frank White, the answer is largely personal. As he points out in his preface, Hoffbeck’s Swinging for the Fences mentions “only one local player that I remember hearing about from the early years of black baseball,” and the stories that Peterson tells in his book conclude with the racial integration of the major leagues in the late 1940s. “As someone who saw many games be tween the Twin City Colored Giants and others,” White writes, “I was looking for some recognition of the many men who played for local teams, including my father.” They Played for the Love of the Game is White’s corrective.
Arranged chronologically by decade, They Played for the Love of the Game, takes its time getting to the part of the story—amateur baseball and softball in the postJackie Robinson era—that White seems most determined to tell. Early chapters on black ballplayers of the 1800s, the founding in 1907 and 1908 of the St. Paul Colored Gophers and the Minneapolis Keystones, and the exploits of visiting Negro League teams during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s cover much of the same ground that Hoffbeck’s and Peterson’s books de scribe more thoroughly. The last half of the book focuses on the previously unexplored periods that are closest to White’s heart. This is where White intro duces us to ballplayers who lacked the skill or the desire or the luck to make it to the big leagues (or, for that matter, to minor league teams like the Minneapolis Millers or the St. Paul Saints), but who dominated the sport from the semi-pro level on down. Among the brightest stars of this era was White’s father, Lou, who played at St. Paul’s Mechanic Arts High School and with many other teams including the Twin City Colored Giants. He even caught the attention of scouts from the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs and the American League’s New York Yankees.
Racism and discrimination poisoned “America’s pastime” from its begin ning, and White is not about to let read ers forget it. Each of his chronologi cally arranged chapters begins with a summary of race relations in the United States and Minnesota. The introduc tion to the chapter about the 1920s, for example, includes a news item from the Appeal, a blackowned newspaper in St. Paul, condemning the city’s plan to build a segregated playground for African American children. “The de cent self-respecting people of Saint Paul must ght the nefarious scheme to the nish,” the Appeal’s reporter concludes. “If you are a good American you should oppose it. IT MUST NOT BE!”
Yet through it all—even during times when some people thought it might be a good idea to build separate playgrounds for black children and white children— young African Americans continued to gather on baseball diamonds through out the Twin Cities and beyond to play the game they loved. Most of them were ordinary athletes who simply liked to swing at balls and run the bases, but a few of them were special. They could throw curveballs tighter and smash fast balls farther than nearly anyone else on the planet. But they played at a time when the color of their skin determined whether they would be allowed to chase baseball glory at the highest levels.
These days, as Frank White ac knowledges, young black athletes tend to gravitate toward basketball and foot ball, not baseball. The struggles of ear lier generations of ballplayers are fad ing from memory. Lou White may have believed that his experiences in black baseball were unimportant, but, as his author son knows, the act of remember ing them may now be more important than ever.
Dave Kenney is a freelance writer spe- cializing in Minnesota history. His most recent general interest title, Minnesota in the ’70s (co-authored with Thomas Saylor) was published by Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2013.
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