Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Book Review - Black Barons of Birmingham: The South's Greatest Negro League Team and Its Players - Larry Powell

"Black Barons of Birmingham: The South's Greatest Negro League Team and Its Players "
Larry Powell
McFarland Publishing, 2009
220 pages

Hall of Fame icons Willie Mays and Satchel Paige resonate deeply with baseball fans, as both were prime examples of perfection at their respective positions. They both share a common bond, as they played for one of the Negro Leagues most storied franchises, the Birmingham Black Barons. University of Alabama professor Larry Powell provides not only a history of this Southern staple of Negro League Baseball, but first hand narratives from the players who lived to tell it.

Staring in 1920, Birmingham was home for such Negro League greats as Mule Suttles, Willie Wells, Bill Foster, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, Piper Davis, Artie Wilson, Charley Pride and Dan Bankhead who was the first African-American pitcher in Major League baseball. The team was a fixture in an area that had very few options for African American athletes and fans. They provided hope and entertainment for many during the Depression and Jim-Crow segregation.

Birmingham's consistent presence in black baseball allows Powell to take the reader on the roller coaster ride that was Negro League Baseball, as the league peaked and then tried to hold on as key players were scooped up by Major League Baseball. He separates the book into pre and post-era integration, as the Black Barons were one of the few Negro League teams that played from the inception of the Negro National League in 1920 and survived until the Negro Leagues complete demise in 1960. This gives Powell the opportunity to isolate the perspective on how the league changed once the door opened to Major League Baseball.

The book is dominated by the interviews of the living Black Barons, most who played after 1950 when the league was considered less than Major League caliber. Such is the function of writing a narrative on the Negro Leagues in 2009, as there are only a few surviving players from the 1930's and 1940's. Many of the teams had disbanded and Major League Baseball was raiding the top talent of the league. While the competition may not have been as strong in the heyday of players like Davis, Paige and Suttles, their stories share the same hopes of making it big, the conflicts of playing for little pay versus working in local steel mills, and persevering in spite of the strong arm of the Jim Crow laws in the segregated South.

You will be intrigued by the tales of the play of these great men, and moved by their experiences of fighting against segregation to play baseball. You will discover names of the greats that you never saw play, and by the end of the book you will wish you had been there to see them. These are the stories of the Birmingham Black Barons, and they are the ones that our future generations need to hear.


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