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Chuck Haga / Forum News Service, Published April 23 2013

Before Jackie Robinson, an integrated baseball team from Bismarck pointed toward the future

Grand Forks - Consider this while watching “42,” the new movie celebrating Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball in 1947:

A dozen years earlier, in the midst of the Great Depression, a team of white men and black men competed in a national semi-pro tournament.

Thirty-two teams competed, most of them with all-white rosters. There were four all-black teams, an all-Japanese team from the West Coast and an all-American Indian team from Oklahoma.

And there was one integrated team – from Bismarck, N.D. – with a roster that blended white farm boys and stars “borrowed” for a year or two from the Negro Leagues, including the great Satchel Paige.

Bismarck won it all.

During one tournament game, with Paige on the mound for Bismarck, a scout for the Cleveland Indians was interviewed on radio. “We wish we could find a chemical to bleach some of these colored boys,” he said. “We could take some of those players up to the majors and win a pennant with ’em.”

Paige made it to the majors, but well after Robinson broke the barrier and well after his own prime. Later, in his autobiography, he recalled arriving in Bismarck and meeting his employer, car dealer Neil Churchill, and his new teammates.

“It wasn’t until I signed up with Mr. Churchill that I found out I was going to be playing with white boys,” he said. “For the first time since I’d started throwing, I was going to have some of them on my side. It looked like they couldn’t hold out against me all the way after all.”

The stories are told in a new book, “Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line,” by Tom Dunkel, a freelance journalist who has written for Sports Illustrated and other major publications.

‘Double duty’

Dunkel tells how Churchill turned a “town ball” team into a national semi-pro powerhouse – and, by recruiting Paige and such other Negro League stars as Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, anticipated baseball’s future.

“They played on a color-blind baseball team: half black, half white,” Dunkel writes in his preface. “They wore the baggy uniforms then considered fashionable. They swung heavy, thick-handled bats perhaps better suited for beating rugs. They fielded with primitive gloves that were just a cut above barbecue mitts. But their team photo could have been taken yesterday.

“These were time travelers of a sort, ambassadors from the multiracial future.”

Black ballplayers had come to North Dakota before. Way back in 1899, the Grand Forks town team featured Walter Ball. Dickinson brought in Brick Jones in 1904.

In 1932, the team in Jamestown “quietly tapped into the Negro Leagues for several players,” Dunkel writes, including pitcher Wilber “Bullet” Rogan of the Kansas City Monarchs. When Rogan won 22 games for Jamestown, Bismarck responded by recruiting Paige.

He was recommended by Abe Saperstein, owner of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. Saperstein also kept on top of black baseball. Who’s the best black pitcher, Churchill asked Saperstein, who replied that Paige might be the best – period.

“Paige brought to the mound a jazz musician’s flair for improvisation and showmanship,” Dunkel writes, including his famous “lonesome pitcher” stunts – waving his teammates off the field for an inning and facing batters by himself, except for his catcher. He usually struck them out.

“He looked like a lounge chair unfolding when he threw a baseball, but his right arm was packed with gunpowder.”

A qualified welcome

In 1934, a team of American League all-stars – big leaguers – came to North Dakota to take on a team of the state’s all-stars, including such Negro League alums as Red Haley, Steel Arm Davis and Art Hancock.

In Valley City, the integrated North Dakota team won 6-5. In Bismarck, with Double Duty Radcliffe pitching, the North Dakota stars won 11-3. And they finished the sweep in Jamestown, 11-0.

Dunkel quotes one major leaguer muttering as he left the field after the Bismarck game, “I knew there were a lot of good Negroes in baseball. I just didn’t know they were all in Bismarck.”

Bismarck had a population then of about 11,000, including fewer than 50 black people. But the city embraced Paige and his teammates, black and white, perhaps because they were winners at a time when people were losing farms, businesses, jobs and hope.

Dunkel offers other theories why the black players were welcomed here. Maybe mixed-race baseball was more acceptable on the Northern Plains. Maybe harsh weather fed a spirit of tolerance.

Or perhaps this “racial comity” at the ballpark was simply “a product of indifference rather than open-mindedness,” he writes. “Blacks were in short supply … and not intruding on anybody’s comfort zone.” There were restrictions on where the black players could live and eat, and some of the language used to celebrate them would cause most people to blanch today.

This is a baseball story and a story of race relations, from a time long ago and not so long ago. It is a broader history, too, telling of prairie populism and the spirit-numbing effect of “dust flowing like snow.”

Chuck Haga is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald