---- — History is something you never stop learning. The more you know the more you realize you don’t know the half of it. The civil rights struggle in this country is a good example of that. No matter how rough race relations come across in textbooks, novels and movies, there is always another story to leave you shaking your head in disbelief.
Larry Colton is a writer and former professional baseball player. He has a unique ability to find an undiscovered piece of history and turn it into a spellbinding story. He achieved his bona fides with “No Ordinary Joes,” his amazing biography of four U.S. Navy submariners who survived capture and internment by the Japanese during World War II. It was a side of the WWII that few people were aware of and Colton told it with incredible passion. If anyone could provide a provocative twist to the civil rights movement it would be Colton.
Combining his love of baseball and his knack for a good story, Colton came upon the ideal tale to explore race relations in the Deep South in 1964. A new minor league was being established that was to be called the Southern League. Included in the league were the Birmingham (Alabama) Barons, a squad that included two African Americans and three Hispanics, and was the first integrated team in the city’s history. Colton’s review of that season in the midst of the civil rights movement resulted in his new book, “Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race.”
It was the ultimate experiment in racial tolerance since Martin Luther King considered Birmingham the most segregated city in America. It was the home to Bull Connor, the Birmingham commissioner of public safety, who infamously ordered police dogs and water hoses to be turned on peaceful civil rights protesters. Alabama’s governor was George Wallace, whose best-known quote was, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Birmingham was also the city where four young black girls were killed when members of the Ku Klux Klan set their church on fire.
To understand just how intolerant Birmingham was at that time, the Ku Klux Klan was still popular, lynchings still occurred, separate water fountains were the rule, and “white” hospitals would not accept black patients. The landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision integrating public schools was being resisted, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act was being debated in Washington. Forced change was on the horizon and whites were not happy about it.
“Southern League” opens with a vignette about pitcher John “Blue Moon” Odom. Odom would go on to achieve stardom with the World Series champion Oakland A’s in the early ‘70s but in 1964 he was just out of high school, signed to a huge bonus, and assigned to the Barons to start his professional career.
Odom was driving his brand new Ford Galaxy and was pulled over by a white cop for some minor infraction, but more so because he was a black teenager driving an expensive new car. Fortunately, the cop had heard of him so he let Odom go but advised him to stay in the “black” (he used a stronger word) part of town. It was Odom’s initiation into professional baseball in the Deep South. Fame and fortune didn’t change how you were treated if your skin was the wrong color.
Colton tells the story of “Southern League” through the eyes of four players (two black and two white), the manager and the team owner. He intersperses the events of the era with the baseball season to give the reader a feel for the ongoing tensions of the era. It’s a tribute to the players, both black and white, their manager, and even their owner that they truly bonded as a team.
The book is technically about the Barons’ season and their efforts to win the league title. But it’s really a history lesson about the end of the Jim Crow era in the Deep South, the indignities African Americans faced, and the whites’ resistance to change. Colton hit a home run with “No Ordinary Joes” and hits another with “Southern League.”
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.