Sunday, November 20, 2011

Glory Days: Eric Van Gucht talks baseball

Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson, by Timothy M. Gay

Reviewed by Eric Van Gucht

Timothy M. Gay’s saga of barnstorming baseball, Diz, Satch, and Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson, provides readers with an interesting look at the key figures of the barnstorming era- not just Dizzy Dean, Satchel Paige, and Bob Feller, but other journeymen players including Zeke “Banana Nose” Bonura and Negro League stars such as Cool Papa Bell and a fascinating look at the longevity and spirit of Oscar Charleston, one of the premier first basemen.

Many of the contests between Paige and Dean had a feeling of a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition; not coincidentally, Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein was one of the primary organizers of said barnstorming affairs. Gay shows his flair in these affairs, often concentrating on the “yokel” image of Dizzy and his brother Paul (“Daffy” or “Harpo”) and how Paige was one of baseball’s first- and best- showmen. Gay mentions how Paige named his pitches (i.e. “The Bee Ball,” “Long Tom,” or “Midnight Rider”) and then blew them past Major Leaguers with ease.

A more poignant note is the struggle in those contests - the Negro Leaguers trying to prove they were just as good, and the Major Leaguers trying to save face. Gay also mentions much of the off-field politics, including the bigotry of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and the profiteers, such as Ray Doan, who organized many of the Dean-Paige tours of the ‘30s, and scout Cy Slapnicka, who squeezed as much money as he could for Feller to join Cleveland.

After Dean’s career was derailed by injuries, Bob Feller (“Rapid Robert”) becomes more of the focus, and is very enigmatically portrayed- first as a rebel against the system, then as a proponent against reform. His controversial remarks about Jackie Robinson’s talents court controversy, but Feller shouldn’t be castigated for his opinions alone. Gay often paints Feller as the tragic hero, a man whose flaw is not always thinking before he speaks. Of course, for those who know baseball, Feller and Paige became teammates and led the 1948 Cleveland Indians to a World Series Championship, their last to date. One wonders how many more titles Cleveland could have won in Paige had been allowed to play earlier.

Although the narrative is somewhat abstract, the in-depth information about the ballgame provides a compelling backstory to the complicated saga of the barnstorming tours. Fans of the nostalgia of Depression-era baseball garner a better look at the system and how, in the end, the fans truly did win, because those exhibitions showed the best of the best in their primes. As Dizzy Dean would say, it’s all about “sludding into third.”