Long before 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the major leagues, many African-Americans were playing baseball on all-black semipro teams, barnstorming clubs or loosely organized teams.
Catcher Louis “Pud” White was one of them. And when White’s son, Frank White, learned late in life about his father’s accomplishments, he decided that someone needed to tell his father’s story and the stories of his contemporaries and other black ballplayers in Minnesota.
White’s new book, “They Played for the Love of the Game: Untold Stories of Black Baseball in Minnesota,” does that. “Writing this book has been one of the most difficult tasks I’ve undertaken,” he writes.
The book is filled with names of players (Prince Honeycutt, Harold “Babe” Price and Toni “Tom Boy” Stone — a woman who has a field in the Dunning complex named in her honor) and teams (St. Paul Quicksteps, the Minneapolis Keystones, the Uptown Sanitary Shop) from the late 1800s into the 1970s.
It is illustrated with black-and-white photos of the period; sometimes players are identified, sometimes not. There are team lineups from the 1920s and ’30s and even a few boxscores, although most are hard to read.
African-American newspapers in the Twin Cities covered black teams well, until the major leagues became integrated and readers’ interest switched to those teams.
White’s book includes excerpts of stories that appeared in the Minneapolis Spokesman, the Northwestern Bulletin-Appeal and other local black papers.
White also tells his own stories: about Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House and what it meant to the black community. About Jimmy Lee, an athlete, sportswriter and official. About his memories of the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul — “Everything we needed, it seemed, was contained within the boundaries of Rondo: school, church, the grocery store, open lots where we played sports, the Ober boys club, and so on” — and its destruction by the construction of Interstate 94, which went right through it.
This is not an easy book to read and comprehend (a complete appendix and index notwithstanding) because it tries to cover so much ground, from racism to the Minnesota Twins’ Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. White has been part of the program for 15 years, and he worries that black youngsters drop the sport when they reach their teens.
His book is at its best when he tells personal stories, such as the trip he took with his dad’s traveling basketball team. A sign in one town referred to them using racial slurs, and a cafe in another town “closed” as they drove up.
White also interviewed more than 50 people, mostly paraphrasing what they said. Reading their own words might have been more interesting.
But this book definitely has a niche, especially for Minnesotans. As Hall of Famer Dave Winfield writes in the foreword: “When you learn about history so close to yourself, you gain a completely new perspective on life, where you are from, and, in my case, your career.”
Roman Augustoviz is a Star Tribune sports copy editor.