DON GONYEA, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. Coming up, a country singer and a classical pianist walk into a bar - well, maybe not. But singer-songwriter Tift Merritt partners with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein on a new album.
But first, in 1947, Jackie Robinson famously broke the color line in baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, thus ending racial segregation in the major leagues. That was a landmark moment in the fight for racial integration in baseball, but there's another that few may be aware of, and it happened over a decade earlier in Bismarck, North Dakota.
An integrated team, playing semi-pro baseball, featured players such as the legendary Satchel Paige - perhaps the greatest pitcher ever with a personality to match - and Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe. It was assembled by a man named Neil Churchill, the local car dealer in Bismarck, who paid out of his own pocket to put together the best baseball team that he could, regardless of race. Tom Dunkel writes about all of this in his new book, "Color Blind."
TOM DUNKEL: Churchill took it to a scale that hadn't been done in terms of bringing players from the Negro Leagues to play out in North Dakota. The baseball was very competitive out there, and he set upon this mission of building the best team he could.
GONYEA: One of those players that he recruited was a young African-American man named Quincy Trouppe. You have him boarding the train for Bismarck in Chicago, I think.
DUNKEL: Yes. He was only 20 years old at that time, somewhat idealistic, still of an age where he spoke of baseball as a mother and father and best friend all wrapped up into one. And he went out to Bismarck to get an opportunity to play every day. He was playing for the Chicago American Giants - a Negro League team - and he was backing up a more experienced catcher. So he wanted to go out there and test himself to play ball, and that was the best opportunity for him. Very good ball player.
GONYEA: At one point, early on, before he got to Bismarck, he found himself in a game where Satchel Paige was pitching.
DUNKEL: Yes. Paige pitches the second game of the Sunday doubleheader. The second time up, Quincy locks in on a knee-high fastball and pulverizes it over the right-field wall. It ricocheted off the wall of a hospital that was about 400 feet away. Not too many players do that off of Satchel Paige. So Satchel was somewhat stunned into silence as Quincy was circling the bases.
GONYEA: So some years later, they're teammates...
GONYEA: ...in Bismarck, these two men. Trouppe had gotten there first. Satchel Paige would be recruited and signed some years later. Can you describe for me the moment when Satchel arrived in Bismarck, North Dakota?
DUNKEL: He arrives in town the 12th, he pitches his first game on August 13th. This was against Jamestown, the arch rival.
GONYEA: I want you to set the scene at the ballpark that night. This is a - it's a beautiful little small-town ballpark - 3,000 seats, chicken wire to protect the players from a foul ball.
DUNKEL: Yeah. It was that classic, small-town wooden ballpark. And some of the players had actually built the chicken wire screen to protect people from foul balls. It was packed to the gills that night. And Paige, as usual, his fastball was working that day. But I believe it was 18 strikeouts that day. People were getting at the ballpark three hours before the first pitch to get a good seat to see those teams when they were really going at it in '33, '34, '35.
GONYEA: Stands full of white fans, blacks and whites playing together on the field. And this was just the way it was? This was just baseball in Bismarck?
DUNKEL: That was baseball in Bismarck with that team, yeah.
GONYEA: And what was life like in Bismarck for those African-American players?
DUNKEL: You're not going to find the sort of prejudice you found in the Great South. But it was clear. There was certain parts of town that wouldn't be a good idea for a black man to be at night. You should be down the south side of town. They could still not get served a meal in restaurants.
GONYEA: And white players didn't refuse to play against them?
DUNKEL: Not in North Dakota. The tournament in Wichita, the national tournament, there was a little bit of friction. And one of the Alabama teams actually threatened to leave the tournament. But out in North Dakota and in Canada, no, the teams would play them, sure.
GONYEA: And even though this was an integrated team, scouts would show up. But there was a name for them.
DUNKEL: They were called ivory hunters. And the reason for that was because of the segregation of baseball. They couldn't sign black players. They can only sign white players. So it was a safari for finding the best white talent you could find.
GONYEA: What happened to some of these players?
DUNKEL: It's a curious dynamic here. The black players went on to have long baseball careers. One of the reasons for that is they didn't have many opportunities for other jobs, so you found people playing into their 40s and 50s. The white players, more or less, melted back into civilian society.
GONYEA: And, of course, after the color line was broken in the major leagues - 1947 - Satchel Paige finally got into the major leagues.
DUNKEL: Satchel Paige finally got in in '48. He was 42 years old. He played five years. Quincy Trouppe also finally made it to the major leagues. The Cleveland Indians signed him. It was a little bit bittersweet. At that point, he made it to the major leagues, but he was 39 at the time for a catcher - appeared in six games, and I think he had 10 at-bats. But he did make it.
GONYEA: So what questions does this story raise in your mind, given that the long path of segregation in baseball - and sport in general - continued so long after this?
DUNKEL: One question it raises is - in my mind - is why this team was not a little better known than it was. I mean, they accomplished something quite remarkable. The question you can always ask is why didn't it happen earlier? But there were not enough Neil Churchills pushing that. It was a slow grind. And this was an important step in that process of grinding forward.
GONYEA: And I understand there's a single photograph of this integrated team.
DUNKEL: It's quite interesting. There's one photograph that was taken by a newspaper photographer before the team left for this big Wichita tournament in August of 1935. And you can see he arranged the players. Infielders are in front with Churchill, which is mostly white players. The outfielder and the pitchers are in the back. And there's one white person in that back row, who's the left fielder, Moose Johnson, the power-hitting left fielder. He is standing next to Satchel Paige - Satchel is on his right - and Moose has his big paw of a right hand on Satchel's shoulder.
That hand on the shoulder is a precursor of an iconic baseball moment which occurred early in the spring of 1947. The Dodgers were playing in Cincinnati. Pee Wee Reese is standing by second base with Jackie Robinson, and he puts his arm around Robinson's shoulder. That was Pee Wee Reese signaling to his Dodger teammates and to the rest of the country that Jackie Robinson is my teammate. I accept him. This is all going to be OK.
GONYEA: And back in 1935 in Bismarck, for a white player to just casually have his hand on Satchel Paige's shoulder says something.
DUNKEL: Try to find another picture like that.
GONYEA: That's writer Tom Dunkel. His new book is called "Color Blind: The Forgotten Team that Broke Baseball's Color Line." Tom, thanks for being here.
DUNKEL: Thank you for having me.