An excerpt from Color Blind
On April 15, 1947, a corner of the earth shook; to be precise, a grimy corner of Flatbush Avenue in the borough of Brooklyn, New York. That chilly afternoon, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson - son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave; the coal-black ballplayer who, in the words of writer Roger Kahn, “burned with a dark fire” - put on a white wool shirt with Dodgers emblazoned across the chest in royal blue. On his back: number 42.
The United States that April was a nation cleaved in half. Segregated restrooms, whites-only restaurants, poll taxes, and voter literacy tests were the law across much of the land. A person of color who wanted to attend a Major League baseball game in St. Louis had to sit in a designated section of the right field bleachers. It would be another year before President Harry Truman integrated the military, seven years until the Supreme Court drove a stake through the heart of separate-but-equal education.
Due to baseball’s status as then-undisputed heavyweight champ of all sports, the mere act of Robinson donning the same uniform as twenty-four Caucasian teammates was freighted with significance. Mixed-race baseball represented a prying open of the American Dream, a peek at the prospect of full citizenship for all. Far from New York, people took note. An editorial writer at Wisconsin’s unheralded Manitowoc Herald-Times felt compelled to sit down at his typewriter and peck away: “It is to baseball’s credit that one of the highest walls in the way of real liberation of the Negro has been breached. One of the last and most uncompromising camps of those who adhere to the dogma of white supremacy has been captured. Good Luck, Jackie Robinson.”
Not everyone shared those sentiments. Robinson endured innumerable taunts and death threats that season, stoically playing on. By doing so, he and Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey, the bow-tie-wearing mastermind of this so-called “great experiment”, together erased baseball’s color line. Robinson’s legacy is such that in March 1984 he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, putting him in the heady company of Jonas Salk, Martha Graham, General Omar Bradley, Martin Luther King, Jr. and those select few overachievers who’ve received the nation’s highest civilian honor. In a White House ceremony, President Ronald Reagan said Robinson “struck a mighty blow for equality, freedom, and the American way of life.” Major League Baseball not only inducted him into the Hall of Fame, but took the unprecedented step of retiring number 42 on every team, its way of paying eternal tribute to the shattering of a seemingly impregnable wall of exclusion. Obstacles outside baseball soon began to fall as well; in the courts, in the classroom, at the lunch counter.
Those barriers had cracks in them prior to 1947, some large enough for men and women to squeeze through, often without fanfare though rarely without some attendant risk. One group of athletes defied the norms of their sport and their society just like Jackie Robinson, only they did it back in the 1930s when he was still in high school. They played on a colorblind baseball team: half black, half white. 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. It might have made more sense for them to have arrived by rocket ship from another planet. Instead, they gravitated one by one to a baseball diamond scratched into the dark soil of the Great Plains, some 1,500 miles from Brooklyn. Out where wheat waves and corn stalks reach for the sky, it was as if a mysterious hand had planted some magic seeds - - seeds that would grow to produce a crop of ballplayers, the likes of which this country had never seen.
Prairieland of Opportunity
The theme of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago was “A Century of Progress” and during its extended run 48 million people poured through the turnstiles. So much to see: that odd rear-engine au- tomobile, pink-cheeked babies snoozing in incubators, a Televisor contraption that—Honey, can you believe this?—displayed moving pictures beamed from remote locations. So much to do: walk through a facsimile Belgian village, take a spin in the Sky Ride cable cars, sample Miracle Whip dressing dispensed by Kraft Food’s newly patented “emulsifying machine.” The World’s Fair offered the masses a glimpse of a bright future personified by Westinghouse Electric’s Willie the Robot. Bark a command into the telephone receiver by Willie’s side and he would obediently shake your hand, stand up, sit down, even smoke a cigarette.
Unfortunately, when the gates closed at day’s end too many fairgoers had to leave behind the wondrous, glass-walled “House of Tomorrow” and return home to the wearisome reality of the Great Depression: leftovers again for supper and unpaid bills piling high. One in four Americans had no job in 1933. Large swaths of the country were backsliding from industrial-age splendor into crippled-economy squalor. An editor at the Chicago Tribune decided his fellow citizens could use a pick-me-up diversion. He proposed a special sporting event held in conjunction with the Century of
Progress, a midsummer exhibition in which the best baseball players from the American and National leagues would square off and do battle. On July 6, Chicago’s Comiskey Park hosted a one-time- only “All-Star Game” and 47,595 people purchased tickets. The American League prevailed, 4–2, thanks in part to a two-run homer swatted by the New York Yankees’ irrepressible Babe Ruth. Having surpassed the rosiest of expectations, the All-Star Game became an annual affair. (That home-run ball Ruth deposited in the right field bleachers at Comiskey sold at auction in 2006 for $805,000.)
Three weeks after the All-Star festivities, twenty-year-old Quincy Troupe boarded a Lockheed Orion single-engine airplane at Chicago Municipal Airport. The Orion was a puddle jumper, holding just six passengers plus sacks of mail.Troupe had a man’s body, with 210 pounds of muscle drawn tight on his six-foot-three-inch frame, but the lingering boy in him was betrayed by a cherubic baby face. He had never been on a plane before. A friend recommended “a stiff highball” as a cure for his jitters. Troupe had never taken a drink of alcohol before. Anxiety trumped his Christian upbringing and he sipped a preflight cocktail. Around midnight the tiny plane taxied down the runway and angled skyward, bound for a stopover in Minneapolis, then a quick hop to Bismarck, North Dakota. Troupe carried with him a small leather case. It contained his ukulele. His first spare moment in Bismarck he intended to buy sheet music for a new song he’d heard, a melancholy ballad called “Moonglow” that Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington would eventually grab hold of and turn into dueling hit records:
It must have been moonglow, way up in the blue
It must have been moonglow that led me straight to you.
Quincy Troupe wasn’t a traveling musician. He was a professional baseball player: a black professional baseball player, which meant he wasn’t going to be appearing in an All-Star Game any- time soon. There were gaping holes in the “Century of Progress” when it came to race relations. To be black in America was to be a second-class citizen at best and, in some corners, viewed as less human than Willie the Robot. Baseball contorted itself like the rest of society, functioning as an agent of unspoken apartheid. The major and minor leagues had been purely white enterprises for nearly fifty years. Up until that morning, Troupe was a switch-hitting backup catcher for the Chicago American Giants of the Negro National League. The book on him was that he had a good head for the game, plus a bazooka arm and lively bat. Raw meat, but grade A. On top of that—sportswriters, beware—he was a Golden Gloves boxer.
In June the Chicago American Giants had gone on the road to face the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Giants’ second baseman was hurt, so Troupe filled in for him and got the nod to play both ends of a Saturday doubleheader. The bad news was that the Crawfords’ starting pitcher for game two that afternoon happened to be Satchel Paige. There arguably was no one better in all of baseball, black or white. Paige had a whooping crane’s physique and an unorthodox high-kick delivery, but he threw with supernatural ferocity. A teammate once remarked that trying to catch his fastball “was like catching a bullet.”
Satchel Paige was roughly in his mid-twenties, part of the Paige mystique being a missing birth certificate and his uncertain age. Already hailed as king of the Negro Leagues, he was still a legend in the making. Paige brought to the mound a jazz musi- cian’s flair for improvisation and showmanship: Louis Armstrong in spikes. He drew upon a dizzying array of pitches, mostly variations on a head-of-the-class fastball and a good-enough-to-get-by curve. He gave them nicknames as if they were old friends, which they were: Be Ball, Jump Ball, Trouble Ball, Nothin’ Ball, Wobbly Ball, Hurry-Up Ball, Bat Dodger, and Two-Hoop Blooper, not to mention his signature Hesitation Pitch, in which Paige’s body would momentarily freeze mid-motion, confounding hitters. Nearly every batter dreaded having to stand in against “Ol’ Satch.” Quincy Troupe showed no fear in Pittsburgh. He made an out his first at bat, but the second time up pulverized a knee-high fastball. It cleared the right field fence as if shot from a cannon, ricocheting off the side of Memorial Hospital, more than 400 feet from home plate.
Paige stared in disbelief as the boy catcher circled the bases. Legends are seldom stunned into silence.
That night Troupe dined at the Crawford Grill, a restaurant owned by Gus Greenlee, Pittsburgh’s high-profile rogue and highest-profile black man. The Grill was more than a restaurant. It was an all-purpose pleasure palace with a busy bar, a live- entertainment nightclub, and upstairs rooms where love could be discreetly bought and sold. Greenlee also managed a stable of boxers (notably light-heavyweight champion John Henry Lewis) and presided over a thriving numbers racket, all of which had provided him the disposable income to buy the Crawfords baseball team. A big man who puffed big cigars, Gus Greenlee was something of a Robin Hood figure in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. A shady character to be sure, but one who employed hundreds of people, ran soup lines, and gave generously to hospitals and the NAACP. Black athletes and fans flocked to his Grill after games. No surprise, then, when Satchel Paige also stopped by for a bite to eat that evening. He broke into a grin upon spotting the youngster who’d cracked the wall-banger home run off him.
“What’s your name?” Paige inquired, not that he’d remember. He had total command of his pitches, but people’s names flummoxed him. He solved that problem by calling almost everybody Bo’.
“Quincy Troupe,” Troupe answered softly, nerves jangling. “I shouldn’t ever forget that name after what happened today!”
Paige bellowed, playing to the cluster of teammates and hangers-on who, as usual, were cruising in his wake. He cackled, then lowered his voice, turning uncharacteristically avuncular.
“I’ve got a tip for you, Quincy,” said Paige. “You can go a long way in this game if you just listen to what the other players tell you. Don’t be a know-it-all, take it easy with the girls, and lay off the liquor.”
This was odd counsel coming from Satch, a man with a hard- earned reputation for living large and bending every rule that ever got in his way. He was no stranger to a stiff highball. Troupe, on the other hand, had the demeanor of a lifelong Eagle Scout: diligent, modest, and polite almost to a fault. “I’m more than grateful and thankful for the advice,” Troupe replied, swooning inside. The great Satchel Paige had gone out of his way to impart wisdom to a kid opponent. To him! Troupe immediately placed the lanky pitcher upon a pedestal from which he would never tumble.
That home run in Pittsburgh proved to be the highlight of Troupe’s tenure with the Chicago American Giants. In truth, there weren’t many big moments from which to choose. He was glued to the bench, a callow understudy to an older, established catcher who would sit out a game every week or so to rest his achy legs. Limited playing time wasn’t Troupe’s only frustration. Like a lot of Negro League teams, the Giants had financial difficulties. These were hard times. A couple of Troupe’s paychecks had been delayed. As a result, his ears pricked up shortly after that Pittsburgh road trip when someone told him about a baseball opportunity worth investigating. In Nowhere, North Dakota.
Quincy Troupe—the youngest of ten children—was unique in his own way, just as Satchel Paige and Babe Ruth were in theirs. The closest he came to cussing was “doggone,” and he wrote letters home to his mother in Saint Louis on a steady basis—almost saintly behavior for a pro ballplayer. Although city bred, there was a touch of hayseed in him and a lot of mama’s boy. He’d begun baseball life playing for his hometown heroes, the Negro League’s St. Louis Stars. That team also had money troubles. In the waning days of the 1931 season Troupe’s teammates on the Stars sent him to inquire about the possibility of getting paid their overdue wages, partly just to see if the rookie would be gullible enough to actually do it. Dick Kent had risen from shoeshine boy to co-owner of the Stars. He also was the sole owner of several cab companies and a black newspaper, the St. Louis American. He didn’t get that far on personality.
Troupe tapped on Kent’s office door. The boss opened up and glared at him. “What you want, boy?”
“Sir, the fellows asked me to come for the balance you owe us,” Troupe meekly responded.
Kent calmly walked over to his desk, slid open a drawer, and pulled out a gun. “You young bastard,” he growled, waving the pistol for effect. “I’ll whip your head flat if you say another word about money!” End of conversation. Also the end of the St. Louis Stars. Within a few days the players walked away and the team ceased operations.
It was now two years later and Quincy Troupe, marginally wiser in the ways of the world, sat gazing out the window of a pipsqueak airplane. Down below the twinkle of Chicago faded to black; stockyards, the Loop, and a whole city of big shoulders were swallowed by the night. He had signed on with a semipro team in Bismarck, in the process swapping office towers for grain silos, trading the glare of neon for the glimmer of a million stars. Team manager Neil Churchill was an automobile dealer with a runaway passion for baseball. And baseball, Troupe would soon learn, provided a welcome outlet for community pride in Depression-battered North Dakota. It was the weapon of choice for grudge matches between rival towns, such an integral part of civic life that Troupe didn’t have to pay for his plane ticket. Northwest Airways provided complimentary transportation as a goodwill gesture to Bismarck baseball fans. Keep the faith. Help was on the way.
It’s impossible to be half pregnant, but to play semiprofessional baseball was another matter, though almost as oxymoronic. Up until about World War II, the pro-amateur dividing line could be nonsensically blurry. Churchill had visions of building a powerhouse lineup capable of holding its own against the best minor league teams, and maybe a few in the Major Leagues. That kind of quality building material didn’t exist in North Dakota. Finding premium ballplayers would require thinking outside the box, outside the state. Outside the northern European, family-farm gene pool. To that end, he’d begun cherry-picking players from the struggling Negro Leagues. This was Neil Churchill’s emulsifying machine, if you will: an efficacious blending of black and white, Miracle Whip baseball. God knows what cash cow he was milking. Churchill didn’t pinch pennies. He offered Troupe $175 a month, $35 above what he made with the Chicago American Giants. What’s more, he guaranteed Troupe the starting catcher’s position. Churchill told a Bismarck Tribune reporter he’d landed “the black Babe Ruth.” That was the car salesman in him talking: no-money-down, zero-percent- financing hyperbole. Troupe knew it, even if Tribune readers did not. He had yet to prove himself on a ball field day in, day out. This would be his chance.
The money was good. Yet money alone couldn’t lure a twenty- year-old black man to one of the whitest, poorest states in America. It took something more visceral and magnetic: true love. No woman crooked a finger and gave Quincy Troupe that sly, come-hither stare. He was flying west, through the darkness and into the dawn, primarily for the joy of playing baseball, that notorious heartbreaker of a game.
It must have been moonglow, way up in the blue
It must have been moonglow that led me straight to you
I still hear you sayin’, “Dear one, hold me fast.”
And I keep on prayin’, “Oh, Lord, please make this last.”