Book Review: Color Blind
- Updated: July 19, 2013
With the release of the new Jackie Robinson movie, 42, the awareness of the famous story of how Robinson broke the color line in baseball is more rampant than ever. In his new book, Color Blind: The Forgotten Team that Broke Baseball’s Color Line, Tom Dunkel introduces America to a long lost team that once ruled the lands of North Dakota and helped to revolutionize the way America played baseball.
Just as the Brooklyn Dodgers did with Robinson, the team is Bismarck that Dunkel chronicles in this book noticed that they would gain a competitive advantage from allowing some of the more talented African Americans on their team. This was especially true because all other teams at that time were segregated.
Readers who have followed the book reviews on BaseballReflections.com will remember a review about a book by Timothy Gay called Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert which discussed the glory days of for profit baseball organized by players during the off season. Dunkel’s book reads a lot like Gay’s and includes many of the same players and a few similar story lines. If you enjoyed Gay’s writing, you will most certainly enjoy Dunkel’s as well.
That said, the book has some story telling characteristics to it, but still reads somewhat like a historical play by play of events. The book profiles many different players who were on the team, most of whom even the most ardent of baseball fans would never have heard of. It’s hard to imagine that baseball was supremely popular in North Dakota, so much so that it was a huge money maker at times for the ownership groups.
A simple glance at the cover of the book and anyone can notice the team was certainly integrated. On the front of the jacket is a picture of the 1935 team from Bismarck featuring five white players and six African American players. That’s right, the number of black players outnumbered the whites on this team 12 years before Robinson broke in with the Dodgers.
Once Churchill made his decision, he started asking everyone in baseball who the best Negro League players were. His plan was to lure them away from their Negro League teams with the promise of either more playing time or more money.
If there is a main character of the book, it is probably the manager of the Bismarck team, Neil Churchill. Churchill was a car dealer by trade and a gambler by hobby. He was ever committed to the Bismarck team and to winning. He would stop at nothing until he had the best semi-pro team in the country. This is one of the reasons, Churchill didn’t blink when considering the possibility of having African Americans on his baseball team. Once he learned how good some of the black players were in the Negro Leagues, he figured he had to get a piece of the action. This is how Churchill came in touch with one of the most well-known baseball players ever, Satchel Paige. “Satch” was playing for the Pittsburgh Crawfords when Churchill heard he was the best African American pitcher in the country. Churchill also heard that Paige wasn’t necessarily happy with the owner of the Crawfords, so he saw it as an opportunity to swoop in and secure some top of the line talent.
Satch decided to come to North Dakota after he heard Churchill’s promise of payment between $300-$400 a month as well as a used Chrysler. This is generally how Churchill lured the other Negro League players as well. Either that, or he would promise some of the younger players a chance to play baseball every day when they may be sitting behind a stalwart at their current club.
Dunkel is a freelance journalist who has had his work published in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and the Washington Post.
The book was published in early April in hardback by the Atlantic Monthly Press and is 345 pages in length. It retails for $25.