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NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 12.2 (2004) 137-139
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William F. McNeil.The California Winter League: America's First Integrated Professional Baseball League. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2002. 325 pp. Cloth, $35.00.
Years ago very few Major League baseball players earned enough to afford off-season vacations. One opportunity to increase their modest earnings was to participate in the California Winter League (cwl), an organization that was unusual because both black and white teams were represented. The list of Major League players who played in the cwl includes such luminaries as Walter Johnson, Bob Meusel, Babe Herman, Buck Newsome, Earl Averill, Tony Lazzeri, Buck Weaver, Larry French, Herman Pillette, and many others. Great players from the Negro Leagues included Jay "Cool Papa" Bell, Oscar Charleston, Norman "Turkey" Stearnes, "Mule" Suttles, and Leroy "Satchel" Paige. Many less talented players, both black and white, also participated.
William McNeil argues:
The California Winter League, the first integrated professional baseball league within the continental limits of the United States, was the most important professional league in the country during the first half of the twentieth century, surpassing both the Negro Leagues, and the Major Leagues.... It was, in fact, the only true Major League between 1920 and 1947. (p.236)
This is an astonishing statement. I have followed professional baseball since 1935, and yet I had never heard of the California Winter League before agreeing to review this book. I doubt that I am alone in this regard, and I surely cannot agree with the author's extreme claim. Why does he make it? Because the cwl was an integrated league (between, but not within, teams), McNeil has been able to document quantitatively that the black players were at least as good as the white ones. He does this by making many comparisons over the final twenty-five years of the CWL's existence, including team standings for every season and performance comparisons for forty-five players based on their cwl statistics versus their performance in major and/or triple-A leagues.
However, it is unlikely that there can be many informed (and sane) people today who would doubt the ability of African Americans where athletic accomplishment is concerned. If the existence of the California Winter League, which unquestionably demonstrated the high-level competence of blacks, had been somehow responsible for the long-overdue integration of Major League baseball that finally got under way in 1947, then there might be a solid basis for McNeil's claim regarding the league's supreme importance. But he does not draw this connection because none exists. [End Page 137]
This book provides a description of every season of the cwl, starting in 1906 and ending in 1946, after which the cwl, along with the professional Negro Leagues, died because of the integration of Major League baseball. Although the numbers of teams varied greatly across seasons, there was always a team of black players competing against the other teams or teams staffed with whites. The white teams included, from time to time, many top-flight Major Leaguers, as noted above. Where pitchers were concerned, this allows a comparison of the records of specific match-ups between black and white hurlers, including an interesting game-by-game analysis of games in which Bob Feller and Satchel Paige both pitched (neither dominated the other). The book also includes a "Who's Who" listing, in sections separated by race, of the seasonal records of many of the players who participated in the league.
A problem with these records is that they are admittedly incomplete and inaccurate. Much of the data was culled from newspaper accounts, and sometimes the box scores from competing newspapers did not agree, which throws doubt on the accuracy of all of them. Box scores for many games simply do not exist. McNeil has done a commendable job (and it must have been a tedious one) of digging out as much quantitative information as he could.
As one of its definitions of the word league , my...