In the spring of 1964 Robert Belcher was attempting to bring baseball back to Birmingham, Alabama after a three year absence. The flamboyant and legendary Charlie Finley, owner of the then Kansas City Athletics (A’s) and a native of Birmingham, agreed to sponsored the Barons as the Kansas City AA farm team and allow Belcher to field a team. But not just any team. The team that Belcher fielded was a team that made history as Birmingham’s first integrated sports team.
Larry Colton has captured, through the stories of the players and spouses, ex-spouses, and widows, that historic and challenging season in his book Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race published by Grand Central Publishing.
Colton, a former ball player in the Southern League two years after the historic 1964 season, describes the larger landscape of Birmingham, ripped by racial strife and tension the year before alongside the newly integrated Barons. He tells his story primarily through the eyes and memories of two black players, John “Blue Moon” Odom (born and raised in Georgia) and Tommie Reynolds (born in Louisiana and raised in California) and two white players, Hoss Bowlin (born and raised in Arkansas) and Paul Lindblad (born and raised in Kansas) and their manager, Haywood Sullivan (born in Georgia and raised in Alabama.)
With alternating chapters Colton introduces us to each of these players as well as the supporting cast of Belcher, Finley, Bert “Campy” Campaneris, and a host of other players. As he does, he unpacks both their personal histories, their baseball histories, and how they reacted to the ever present racial tension not just in Birmingham but also around the Southern League. Yet even with the ever present reality of racism hovering in the background, Colton turns to writing about the season itself and the dynamic which every minor league team faces, the ever present “call up” to the majors in the midst of a competitive season in which the Barons were in first place for a large stretch of it until the very end.
I liked this book for several reasons. It is book about baseball. It is a history of baseball. It is a book about people (and I have always found people interesting). I also liked this book because it tells a story which needs to be told and remembered – about breaking the color barrier at a different and necessary level, 17 years after Jackie Robinson did so with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It is a book about people who helped to break down that barrier, one pitch, one out, one game at a time which made an impact in ways large and small.
I rate this book a ‘very good’ read.
Note: I received a galley copy of this book from Net Galley via the publisher in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.