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When baseball in Bismarck was ‘Color Blind’

Posted Apr 24, 2013 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated Apr 24, 2013 at 06:43 PM

The current movie “42” celebrates, quite rightly, the courage of Jackie Robinson and the vision of Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey as they collaborated to break the color line in major-league baseball in 1947.


It’s a shame Neil Churchill never received his due.

Who?

Churchill owned an automobile dealership in Bismarck, N.D., and 14 years before baseball’s “great experiment,” he was managing an integrated baseball team on the dusty plains near Little Big Horn, where Gen. George Custer and his Seventh Cavalry succumbed to the murderous pitch of Crazy Horse’s troops 57 years earlier.

Churchill managed a barnstorming team of six blacks — including Satchel Paige — and five whites, turned town baseball on its ear in the mid-1930s and won the 1935 National Baseball Congress semipro tournament in Wichita, Kan. It was a truly integrated team, with players who pulled together and cared for each other despite their cultural differences.

Freelance journalist Tom Dunkel brings this Bismarck squad to life in his absorbing new book, “Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line,” (Atlantic Monthly Press; hardback, $25, 345 pages). Dunkel writes with a passion and flair that matches the gritty, hardscrabble North Dakota landscape and culture of the Great Depression. And although Dunkel concedes his book “was a dredging operation” as he tried to uncover information, his meticulous research and clever writing blows the dust off a forgotten — but important — chapter in baseball history.

Unlike Rickey, Churchill was not a social reformer. In fact, Dunkel writes, “the social and political ripple effects of integrated baseball were lost on Neil Churchill,” who merely wanted to put the best team possible on the field. If that included blacks, so be it. And if opponents and even fellow townspeople were offended, tough luck.

Churchill cut an interesting figure, “a fat man stretched precariously thin with work, his sports teams, community meetings, card games, and a full household.”

What’s enjoyable about Dunkel’s narrative is his descriptive writing. For example, slugger Walter Ringhofer “resembled a side of beef and hit with Angus-like power.”

Joe Desiderato “was an indispensable member of the chorus, not a lead singer.”

Semipro baseball players “loved their liquor, cursed like sailors, caroused at night, smoked between innings, and would rather slide into second base buck naked than read a book.”

And this gem: “Farmers wives still had faces like worn linoleum, their girlish looks scuffed away by years of back-bending chores and prairie winds.”

The only glitch in the book comes early, when Dunkel refers to “soon-to-be-great Yankees pitcher” Lefty Grove, when he in fact was referring to Lefty Gomez.

Paige is definitely a major character in this book, and Dunkel follows the circuitous route that Satch took during the 1930s — a pattern that was consistent throughout his career. If there was money to be made, Paige was there. He was not always the most dependable sort, but when he took the mound he was usually money in the bank.

After pitching and winning the final of the 1935 NBC tournament in Wichita, Paige had something tangible to hold onto — a title from a nationally recognized organization. The world saw that an integrated team could work as an efficient machine. Still, Paige was a little unsettled by the adulation after he got the final out.

Paige “had seen a lot in baseball, but nothing compared to this,” Dunkel writes. “Usually when a black man got engulfed by screaming white people someone was carrying a rope.”

And that’s the undercurrent to Dunkel’s work. No matter how groundbreaking this team was, none of the black players were going to be signed by major-league scouts. Certainly, scouts were impressed with players like Paige, pitcher Hilton Smith, infielder Red Haley, pitcher Barney Morris, catcher-outfielder Quincy Troupe and catcher-pitcher Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe.

Troupe was a good example. He could hit, catch and throw. “But,” Dunkel writes, “he couldn’t be white.”

The 1935 photo that graces the book’s cover is instructive. The six black players are standing in the back row, along with white outfielder Vernon “Moose” Johnson, who rests his hand on Paige’s left shoulder in a show of camaraderie. It’s not unlike a scene 12 years later, when Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese draped his arm around Jackie Robinson to show heckling fans that they were teammates.

“If only the rest of the world would catch up to Bismarck, North Dakota,” Dunkel laments.

It was an unlikely venue for social change. And admittedly, some Bismarck residents took issue with Churchill’s moves, falling back on the old, tired “not in my back yard” mentality.

But for Churchill, it was his finest hour. The same can be said for Dunkel, who has created a fascinating addition to baseball’s library.

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