Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor-League Baseball in the American South

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Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor-League Baseball in the American South. By Bruce Adelson. (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999. Pp. [xii], 275. $27.95, ISBN 0-8139-1884-7.)

The racial integration of major league baseball in 1947 has been much celebrated in recent years. The majors officially retired Jackie Robinson's number and Larry Doby, who broke the color barrier in the American League playing for the Cleveland Indians just two-and-one-half months after Robinson broke in with the Dodgers, was recently (and belatedly) inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In Brushing Back Jim Crow, Bruce Adelson tells the rest of the story. He examines the hard-fought battles to integrate minor league baseball in the 1950s. It is a fascinating story that Adelson tells well.

The struggle to integrate the minor leagues in the South was different from Robinson's and Doby's experiences in a number of important ways. First and foremost, major league teams tended to be well north of the Mason-Dixon line. The North was not without racial strife; indeed, the Boston Red Sox were the last team to place an African American on the roster. But most general managers understood the differences in race relations between the two regions and, at first, kept their African American players away from the southern circuits. Branch Rickey, for example, sent Jackie Robinson to play his minor league ball in Montreal rather than for a Dodger farm team in the South. Another important difference between Robinson, Doby, Monte Irvin, and Roy Campanella on the one hand and the players in the minors in the 1950s was age. The first African Americans in the majors had played in the Negro Leagues and were in their late 20s and early 30s when they made it to the majors. Players such as Billy Williams, Lee May, Hank Aaron, Felipe Alou, Cito Gaston, and Ruben Amaro, among others, were still teenagers when they played minor league baseball in the South. Often they were far from home for the first time in their lives (some did not speak English), and they were trying to prove themselves as ballplayers. Added to those pressures, these young athletes faced increasingly hostile race relations, often in small and medium-sized southern cities.

Adelson does a wonderful job of recounting individual and group struggles these young men faced. He uses a wide range of oral history interviews, local newspapers, the black press, and sports magazines to chronicle the lives of these players. …