Integrating the Orioles, Baseball and Race in Baltimore by Bob Luke
As years go by and older generations pass, it is important that the stories and names involved with American's Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s be preserved, remembered and learned from. The same holds true in America's great game of baseball. While Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day each April 15, the history of integrating each of the big-league clubs can and should be an interesting study. Integrating the Orioles, Baseball and Race in Baltimore is that type of study.
This book will appeal to readers on multiple levels. It is first, a book of baseball history. Fans of the game should enjoy this even if they are not fans of the franchise. Orioles fans will of course, be interested in learning more about how their team and city dealt with race relations. Those interested in the Negro Leagues will also find this book informative. Finally, as America continues to deal with issues regarding race relations in the twenty-first century, it is a book which will remind all readers of not only the struggles that have gone before but of those we still face.
Well researched and drawing heavily from primary sources, the author promises in the Preface, "This book shows how one major league baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles, traveled the path to integration. This book also examines the push by civil rights organizations, Baltimore residents and several players to integrate the Orioles' front office which was, and is today, where the organizational power lies. The reader will also see the ongoing struggle for civil rights in the city of Baltimore, how racial tensions in the city affected the team and how the Orioles contributed to integration in the city" (1). It does exactly that.
Luke begins the book with a history of black baseball in the city of Baltimore, beginning in 1874. From that point on, he does an excellent job of weaving the histories of the city, the game and the Orioles organization. He provides the reader with ample background information about the first- and second-generation African American players who played for the Orioles, [End Page 238] beginning with the first black Oriole, pitcher Jehosie Heard, in 1954. Readers are cautioned early on that this story is not about the Orioles' on-field play throughout the years. That, however, is not a negative. The focus instead is on the men both on and off the field who were a part of the civil rights struggles of the franchise. In most cases, thanks to extensive first-hand quotes, readers learn how many of those involved view that era through the lens of time.
The book provides an honest look at the tardy pace in which the Orioles signed and promoted black players. It informs us that outfielder Dave Pope joined the team in June of 1955 and was the only player of color on that season's team, which finished in seventh place. Interestingly enough, at the same time, the Dodgers won that year's World Series with five black players. Luke points out, "Five other black players, including Puerto Rican-born Roberto Clemente, made their major league debut in 1955."
The narrative essentially ends with the unveiling of Eddie Murray's statue at Camden Yards in 2012. It is then followed by an epilogue which includes coverage of the 2015 arrest of Freddie Gray and its results. It feels forced. Although there are still obvious racial issues in the city, it is difficult to tie them to the baseball team. Yet, that's what Luke seems to do. In noting that game attendance by blacks has decreased in the last thirty years, he writes, "The Orioles do not publicize attendance figures by race, gender, or ethnicity but it is a safe bet that black attendance is less than ten percent" (161). Of course, no team in any professional sports league announces attendance figures based on those parameters. He follows that by citing the cost of attending a game, effects from segregation, and a low number of African American players on the roster as reasons for potential fans from the black community not being attracted to baseball. The thought that it's cost prohibitive for many fans to attend major-league games is certainly not unique to Baltimore, nor is it unique to fans of color.
In addition to 172 pages of text, Integrating the Orioles includes chapter notes, a bibliography and index. The Afterword tells readers what happened to those included in this story of change later in their lives. With ample photographs sprinkled throughout, it's a relatively quick read. It is also a book worth keeping around for reference. [End Page 239]