Review of Black Ball and the Boardwalk and The Negro Southern League

Overmyer, James E. Black Ball and the Boardwalk: The Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City, 1916-1929. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014. 30 Photos, Appendices, Notes, Bibliography, Index. Pp. 284. $39.95 softback.

Plott, William J. The Negro Southern League: A Baseball History, 1920-1951. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2015. 30 Photos, Appendices, Notes, Bibliography, Index. Pp. 276. $39.95 softback.

Reviewed by Cat Ariail

In 2013, ESPN.com, frustrated by the Baseball Hall of Fame’s PED gridlock, established the Hall of 100 effort in order to determine “the greatest players in MLB history. Period.” In response, ESPN.com contributor Jim Caple advocated for the need to recognize Negro Leaguers players as well. Caple asserted, “It wasn’t their fault they didn’t get a chance in the majors; it was the racism of others. And while we do not have major league statistics for reference, the available Negro Leagues stats, eyewitness accounts and common sense tell us that baseball’s greatest players must include those who never had a chance to produce big league numbers.” Caple then listed eleven Negro Leagues players he considered most deserving of inclusion in the Hall of 100, names familiar to most avid baseball fans and sport historians. However, Caple’s list perpetuates a static historical understanding of the Negro Leagues, where black baseball is defined by its most prominent players rather than the complexity, challenges, and contradictions that actually characterized black baseball during its nearly half-century of existence.

James E. Overmyer’s Black Ball and the Boardwalk: The Bacharach City Giants of Atlantic City, 1916-1929 and William J. Plott’s The Negro Southern League: A Baseball History, 1920-1951 testify the dynamism of the Negro Leagues. Together, the authors provide thoroughly researched accounts of two aspects of black baseball. Both authors primarily rely on black presses that covered the teams and leagues they study, in addition to a small secondary bibliography. Overmyer and Plott admirably reconstruct games and seasons seemingly lost to history, along with introducing readers to previously unknown players. Unfortunately, neither author expands his research beyond such compensatory efforts. The stories of the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City and Negro Southern League present interesting opportunities for analysis that could illuminate how the history of black baseball interacts with U.S. history more broadly. Their studies’ could position black baseball as an integral episode of U.S history by critically examining it in concert with urban politics, African American life, African American sport, or white baseball.

978-0-7864-7237-6

McFarland & Company, 2014.

Overmyer’s book begins with this promise, as he establishes the historical setting in which the Bacharach Giants emerged. He introduces us to the eight original Bacharach Giants who left the Duvall Giants of segregated Jacksonville, Florida, to join Atlantic City’s newest black ball club. Relying on the work of Jacksonville’s James Weldon Johnson, Overmyer provides a perspective of the conditions experienced and emotions felt by these original Giants.He then describes 1910s Atlantic City, recounting the prominence of political machines in the entertainment driven city. Overmyer notes that machine politics advantaged Atlantic City’s large African American population, not only requiring politicians to curry favor with the black community but also presenting African Americans with the opportunity to participate in politics. This circumstance led to the Bacharach Giants.

In 1916, Henry Tucker and Thomas Jackson, two African American men involved in Republican Party politics, named their new Atlantic Colored League team after Harry Bacharach, the mayor of Atlantic City who was running for re-election. The honorific name advertised Bacharach to Atlantic City’s African American community, while also benefiting Giants players. Overmyer quotes original Giant Nap Cummings who remembered, “We were only here a few days until we got registered to vote,” (p. 14). Bacharach, who was re-elected, also ensured his namesake team had a free place to play. The right to vote and the right to occupy public space represented significant attainments for African Americans in this era, revealing how commercial sport could contribute to civic possibilities. Conversely, Overmyer quotes an Atlantic City maxim that stated, “the primary object of organizing the [Atlantic City Colored] League was to keep the colored element off the Boardwalk during the afternoon by providing ball games for them” (p. 15). Yet, he frequently references the difficulty the Giants had drawing fans.

These contradictions could contribute to an insightful consideration of black baseball, urban politics, and the black community. In the remainder of his work, Overmyer instead chooses to focus intently on the Bacharachs’ baseball experiences. He meticulously tracks their performances against the diversity of teams they competed against in order to assert their legitimacy in the historiography black baseball team. For instance, in 1917 the Bacharachs played nine games against Alex Pompez’s eastern Cuban Stars, with the Stars prevailing five to four in their series. Overmyer also emphasizes that the Bacharachs often played former and future white major leaguers. In fact, in 1919 the Bacharach’s played the New York Giants during their postseason exhibition tour, losing to the major league squad 7-5. In addition to competing against white players, the Bacharachs also filled vacancies with semi-pro white players. According to Overmyer, financial shortages during World War I prevented the team from paying black players, which resulted in the team turning to semi-pro white players for one or two game stints. One such player was Henry “Whitey” Gruhler, who Overmyer notes later would become the sports editor of the Atlantic City Daily Press and an advocate for the integration of baseball. Overmyer’s book is dotted with other intriguing historical nuggets, such as that a fifteen year-old Roy Campanella began his baseball career as a Bacharach Giant in 1931 or that renowned dancer Savion Glover is the grandson of original Bacharach Dick Bundy.

The Bacharachs’ seasons as members of the Eastern Colored League, especially their two championship seasons of 1926 and 1927, best support Overmyer’s effort to claim the Bacharach’s historical importance. Although they lost to Rube Foster’s National Negro League American Giants in both of their Negro Leagues World Series appearances, the Bacharach’s did attract the attention of white major league baseball. Earle Mack, son of Connie Mack, gathered a team of white American League all-stars to play a five-game series against the Bacharachs in the fall of 1927. Overmyer claims, “The series might have gone down in baseball history as one of the most important matchups of pre-integration black and white big leagues” if not for the excessively rainy weather that led to all but one game, won by the white AL all-stars, being cancelled (p. 169). While Overmyer misses the opportunity to advance critical sport history with his chronicle of the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants, he does succeed in asserting the importance of the team, with his careful reconstructions revealing that the team represented a key force in black baseball from 1916-1929.

978-0-7864-7544-5

McFarland & Company, 2015.

Like Overmyer, Plott aims to grant his topic its deserved historical legitimacy. Although the Negro Southern League (NSL) only attained “major league status” during the 1932 season, he insists its importance to major league black baseball extends beyond the fact that Satchel Paige and Willie Mays began their careers in the NSL. In twenty chronological chapters, Plott primarily presents straightforward factual accounts of the key teams, games, players, and administrative decisions that characterized each of the NSL’s twenty-four active seasons. He also notes when the Birmingham Black Barons or other NSL teams temporarily joined the National Negro League. His chronology successfully demonstrates that the NSL represented a crucial component of the black baseball landscape. More interestingly, he also captures the tenuousness and resilience of the league. Ever threatened by suspended seasons, folding teams, and other financial tribulations, the NSL somehow prevailed. But, appreciating the perseverance of players, managers, owners, and league officials requires historical context, which Plott fails to provide. While Plott aims to assert the importance of the NSL in the context of black baseball history, his subject could provide insight into how baseball sustained, or even constrained, black communities in the South during the Jim Crow era.

In his introduction, Plott seems to propose other analytical possibilities for his book, asserting that the NSL “broke both gender and disability barriers” (p. 1). In 1949, Toni Stone joined the NSL’s New Orleans Creoles, beginning her career as Negro League ballplayer that would culminate with membership on the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953. However, Plott recognizes that Georgia Mae Williams became the first woman to play Negro League ball when she suited up for the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1945. In 1948, Fabiola Williams and Gloria Dymond preceded Stone in New Orleans, serving as reserve outfielders for the Creoles. Likewise, Plott also corrects misconceptions about disabled players in the NSL, noting that Forest “One Wing” Maddox pitched for a decade in the league before World War II player shortages created opportunities for players with physical limitations to pursue a baseball career. Unfortunately, this enticing information does not lead to female and/or disabled players featuring prominently in his text. By engaging with gender and/or disability analysis, Plott could have introduced a fresh perspective of black baseball, while also intriguingly pushing the boundaries of sport history.

Despite these shortcomings, Plott’s book, like Overmyer’s, enriches the historiography of black baseball, as well as that of baseball more broadly. The assumptions of ESPN’s Hall of 100 reveal that popular conceptions of baseball history remain confined to the white major leagues. Overmyer and Plott contest this assumption by illuminating the triumphant, tumultuous, and trailblazing histories of the Bacharach Giants and Negro Southern League. Both authors ambitiously tackled subjects that required diligent and tedious archival research. The detailed accounts they provide not only validate the scholarly seriousness with which they approached their studies, but their passionate commitment to recovering black baseball and ensuring it receives rightful historical appreciation.

 

Cat Ariail is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Miami. She researches women’s sport through the lenses of gender, race, and nationalism in the late-twentieth century Americas. You can contact her at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.

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