- Playing in Shadows: Texas and Negro League Baseball
The history of African-American professional baseball is well-trodden territory—from Robert Paterson's authoritative Only the Ball Was White (1970) to Kadir Nelson's recent illustrated children's book, We Are the Ship (2008). These works rightly locate twentieth-century black baseball—in its varied manifestations—as an important site of racial pride for African Americans amid social circumstances that treated them as second-class citizens.
While the history of African-American baseball has been thoroughly documented, the specificities that mark this topic are often glossed over. Rob Fink's Playing in Shadows: Texas and Negro League Baseball fills in some of these gaps by examining the role that Texas played in the development of black baseball. Fink's study traces Texas' influence on African-American baseball from the sport's beginnings in the state until the integration of Major League Baseball (MLB). The integration of professional baseball caused an overall decrease in black baseball's popularity and constrained most teams, in Texas and beyond, to dissolve by the mid 1950s. Fink justifies his narrow topical focus by claiming that African-American baseball cannot be understood comprehensively without taking into account the role that Texas and black Texans played in shaping it (p. 9).
Fink notes that the short-lived Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana League (1929-1931), a professional league with nine teams in Texas, marked black baseball's peak in the state prior to integration. However, Texas was littered with semiprofessional teams prior to and after this organization's existence. These teams were poorly-funded—often folding and later reappearing with different teams and rosters—and featured unpaid players who participated during their spare time. While semiprofessional baseball in Texas was far from glamorous, Fink avers that it provided a valuable object through which black Texans asserted and solidified community bonds.
In addition to discussing Texas' black leagues and teams, Fink provides extended discussions of the Texans who shaped black baseball in America. The most significant of these is Andrew "Rube" Foster (1879-1930). A native Texan who began his career as a pitcher on a semiprofessional team from Waco, Foster founded the Negro National League in 1920 and served as its president until 1926. In addition to Foster, Fink discusses several of the most important black players from Texas and explains their contributions to the game, such as William "Willie" Foster, Louis Santop, "Smokey" Joe Williams, Raleigh [End Page 460] "Biz" Mackey, and Willie Wells. Fink claims that these great Texans, similar to other early twentieth-century black athletes like the boxer Jack Johnson, provided public counters to racist stereotypes that cast African Americans as inferior to whites.
While Fink's discussion of black baseball in Texas is engaging and clearly articulated, his claim that Texas is central to the history of African-American baseball is not always persuasively argued. For instance, although Rube Foster was born and began playing baseball in Texas, he spent the vast majority of his career and achieved his greatest accomplishments while living outside of the state. While Foster's importance to the history of African-American baseball is unquestionable, the role that Texas played in his career does not seem as significant as Fink claims. Furthermore, while Fink repeatedly asserts that black baseball in Texas composed a site through which African Americans asserted racial pride and created community, he does not always accompany these assertions with concrete evidence to suggest precisely how it did so.
Although Fink's volume is sometimes lacking in evidence, he acknowledges that much of the history of black baseball in Texas is lost. The majority of Fink's primary source material derives from scattered accounts in Texas' black newspapers. He adds texture to the data he gleans from these sources by including photographs of the players he mentions, maps that showcase where Texas' teams were located, and an appendix of Negro League players who were either born or once played in Texas. Fink's ability to...