July 1, 2013
"Southern League" by Larry Colton
Southern League is about the revival of the Birmingham Barons in 1964 as the first integrated baseball team in arguably the most famous segregated city in the country. Larry Colton jumps around among the points of view of owner Albert Belcher, manager Haywood Sullivan (later a major-league manager, front-office executive, and owner), pitcher Blue Moon Odom, outfielder Tommie Reynolds, pitcher Paul Lindblad, and second baseman Hoss Bowlin.
While Colton's approach is to get into the head of each of these men, discussing their family lives, their fears and worries, their triumphs, I never felt truly inside the characters. Instead, I think the book is best treated as a pretty good bird's eye view of life in a southern bus league in the early 1960s. Jackie Robinson had integrated Major League Baseball 18 years earlier, but you'd never know it in the Jim Crow south—baseball players got no exceptions. Roadside diners on the way from city to city and hotels throughout the league (Lynchburg, Asheville, Charlotte, Macon, and so on) declined to serve black players or demanded that they eat out back. White fans issued threats of violence. And the entire season played out against a backdrop of lynchings and church bombings. The James Chaney/Andrew Goodman/Michael Schwerner murders in Philadelphia, Mississippi took place that summer. The landmark Civil Rights Act was signed into law less than tw>o weeks later.
I'm of the mindset that we cannot have too many reminders of the extremely recent brutality of America's treatment of nonwhites, so I'm inclined to see the value in Southern League despite a one-noteness in its baseball stories and unconvincingly wholly positive portrayals of its subjects. They can't all be Willie Morris, though, so Southern League will serve.