Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor-League Baseball in the American South

by Bruce Adelson

University of Virginia Press, 275 pp.

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” Jacques Barzun, 1954

Fans of the Durham Bulls would probably rather forget 2006. Not only did the team limp to a 64-78 record, it was plagued by the embarrassingly public peccadilloes of the Bulls’ three biggest stars, Elijah Dukes, B. J. Upton and Delmon Young. Young threw his bat at an umpire who had called him out on strikes, for which he was suspended a whopping 50 games (the same number meted out for a first positive steroid test); Upton got a late-night DWI in Chapel Hill, and later complained to the media that he had outgrown Durham and should already have been promoted to the majors (he was, on August 1; Young followed on Aug. 29); and the troubled, often-suspended Dukes fought with teammates and coaches, and drew a strong rebuke from the Tampa Bay front office after a USA Today story quoted him carping that major league ballplayers “shower in Evian. Here, we use sewer water.” (Dukes claimed he was misquoted; the City of Durham’s Water Management Department has not commented.)

Dukes, Upton and Young, all of whom are black, might want to flip through Bruce Adelson’s new book, Brushing Back Jim Crow, an anecdotal history of minor league black baseball players in the South during the 1950s. Back then, the bleachers at the old Durham Athletic Park were segregated, and black players were lucky to get a shower at all, not to mention shelter and food. The great Dominican player (and later, manager) Felipe Alou began his career in the minors with the Lake Charles (La.) Giants. But a state law was passed keeping city parks segregated, effectively barring athletes of color from Louisiana sports, and Alou was cut from the team. He remembers:

When they told me I had to leave Louisiana, it took me three days on a Greyhound bus to travel from Lake Charles to Cocoa Beach, Florida. The bus stopped everywhere. When we stopped, I had to find the lines that said Colored People. By the time I found that line and got on the line, the bus was ready to depart. I never had a chance to eat. They used to have machines you could put ten cents in and you’d get some peanuts. That was my food for three days.

Brushing Back Jim Crow abounds with such stories. The book is built mostly on long transcriptions of interviews Adelson conducted with former ballplayers, and on accounts excerpted from newspaper reports of the times. The ample documentation supports Adelson’s thesis that black minor leaguers played a discreet but key role in integrating the South during the 1950s, the seminal decade of the civil rights movement.

Minor league integration was not a political maneuver. (Alou, for example, wound up in Lake Charles simply because visa trouble delayed his arrival at spring training in Florida; Lake Charles was the only team that hadn’t broken camp yet.) The game changed and effected change in step with the times and culture. Blacks had fought along with (but not alongside) whites in World War II, easing race relations; the American economy boomed in the 1950s, and social catholicity usually increases in proportion to affluence; television and air conditioning became mainstream comforts, keeping more fans at home and out of the bleachers. The struggling minor leagues saw latent revenue in black fans who were likelier to come to the park if some of their own were playing on the field.

The brushback pitch of Adelson’s title, of course, isn’t meant to hit the batter or even knock him down; it nudges him out of the powerful middle of the batter’s box, unnerving him and giving the pitcher a subsequent advantage. Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott were carefully premeditated and closely watched test cases. Supporting and supported by the fainter, looser, but just as persistent civil disobedience of minor league desegregation, the civil rights movement worked independently but with mutual benefitand, as is often the case in history’s progress, in stutter-step rather than forward march. Although Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier in 1947, some minor leagues folded in the 1950s rather than integrate; the Boston Red Sox didn’t put a player of color on their major league roster until 1959; and no Southern city had a big league team until the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1962.

In Adelson’s assiduous gathering of primary-source incidents and evidence (more than he needs in order to make his point), the Southern baseball diamond becomes a site where men of color could channel the rage provoked by insults, threats and indignities, and transform it into nonviolent but fierce retaliation: “We’d have great games just from being totally determined to hit the ball hard, get base hits, play hard to win, to not only beat that team, but beat that whole city,” says Don Buford, who was later an All-Star with the Baltimore Orioles. Although most black players quietly suffered the slurs and beanballs in order to widen the doorway Jackie Robinson opened, the decade of progress didn’t quite even the score. For Willie Tasby, who felt he was unjustly left to rot in the Southern minors by the Baltimore parent club, “baseball wasn’t nearly as good to me as I was to baseball.”

This summer, barring injury or subpoena in the steroid case mounting against him, Barry Bonds will break Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record. In 1974 Aaron, before eclipsing Babe Ruth’s previous mark, received hate mail and death threats from racist fans, so he stayed in a separate hotel from his teammates on the road. (Long before, in 1953, Aaron spent a trying, segregated year with the Jacksonville [Fla.] Tars; that season, he “led the league in everything except hotel accommodations,” quipped one sportswriter. Some things didn’t change very much.) When Bonds passed Ruth on his approach to Aaron last year, the clamoring media made it perhaps the most heralded ascension to second place in sports history. More than 70 years after he played, Ruth is still the slugger by whom all others are measuredand who never faced a black pitcher in his life. After Bonds retires as the home run king, his extraordinary records may come to be qualified by steroids-era asterisks and footnotes. But after reading Brushing Back Jim Crow, one is tempted to conclude that it’s Ruth’s achievements, not Bonds’, that warrant disclaimers.

On April 2, opening day, former Bulls Elijah Dukes, B.J. Upton and Delmon Young all started for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, combining for four hits, three runs and three RBI; Dukes hit his first major league home run. The Durham Bulls baseball season begins Thursday, April 5, with a 7 p.m. home game against the Syracuse Chiefs. On Sunday, April 15, the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first major league game will be recognized throughout professional baseball.