Talk about a coincidence. I travelled to Wichita, Kansas with my wife who had a speaking engagement a week ago this past November 2. Upon arriving at our hotel the afternoon before, I discovered that in my haste to pack for the trip, I did not bring the current book I was reading; Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line by Tim Dunkel (Atlantic Press, New York, 2013). The inner self-scolding I was giving myself for leaving the book was interrupted by my wife. She wanted to determine the travel time to where she was to speak the next morning.
A little more than a block from the hotel on our exploratory search for Wichita’s Exploration Place, we drove passed Lawrence-Dumont Stadium; home field of the annual National Baseball Congress. Coincidentally, Dunkel’s book is about the NBC’s first tournament in 1935 won by a mixed raced team from Bismarck, North Dakota whose star pitcher was Satchel Paige.
Major League baseball’s “invisible color line”, which kept out African American and dark-skinned Latino ball players, was solidly adhered to in 1935. However, there was competition at baseball’s semi-professional level between white and African American teams. During that time, many Negro League teams such as the Kansas City Monarchs, Homestead Grays, and others travelled in cars and busses throughout the upper Midwest, Eastern seaboard, and the Great Plains to play white teams in rural towns. The games were a source of entertainment for the small town baseball fans and it generated needed income for the Negro League teams.
But baseball racial integration took another step at the semi-pro level during the early 1930s in rural North Dakota. Negro League players were being recruited to improve the previously all white semi-professional team in many towns. The city of Bismarck, the North Dakota capital, had six players with Negro League baseball experience on its team in 1935; Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, Red Haley, Barney Morris, Quincy Troupe, and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe. It was the best semi-professional team in the state.
Through creating the National Baseball Congress, Wichita sports promoter Raymond Harry “Hap” Dumont wanted to have a tournament for the top semi-professional teams in the country that year. He invited not only teams from rural and metropolitan cities, but also industrial corporation teams that were organized to boost employee morale and build company loyalty. The tournament fielded a collection of players with varied experiences in the game. Former Major League players past their prime, former minor league players who never made it to the Major League level, and the “good but not quite good enough for professional baseball” amateur players all participated in that first NBC competition.
But to get more attention for his initial tournament Dumont invited four African American teams, the Memphis Red Sox, Monroe (La.) Monarchs, Austin (Texas) Centennials, and San Angelo (Texas) Sheepherders. He also invited the mixed race team from North Dakota, who added Negro League pitcher Chet Brewer to its tournament roster. Many white teams, especially those from southern cities, complained about having to play against African Americans, but Dumont kept to his plan for that first tournament.
Behind the pitching of Satchel Paige and the overall excellent performances by the other African American players, Bismarck won the double elimination tournament without losing a game. Paige won four games, struck out 66 batters in 39 innings, walking only five, and surrendering only five runs. But what was more important than Bismarck’s triumph on the field was how the African American and white players coexisted as teammates and in harmony worked together for the team to become tournament champions. One excuse white professional baseball executives used for maintaining “the color line” was that African Americans, dark-skinned Latinos, and whites could not as teammates play together in peace. The team from North Dakota’s capital in 1935 proved they were wrong.
Bismarck’s success in that first NBC tournament made no dent in the racial policies of professional baseball. The Major Leagues remained “all white” for 12 more years. Even “Hap” Dumont gave in to complaints from white participants in the tournament and by 1940 the NBC affiliate leagues eliminated African American teams from participation.
African Americans did not return to the NBC tournament until the 1950s and it by then had changed its focus to players of amateur status, primarily college age players. Today the NBC has one of the oldest and biggest amateur baseball tournaments in the country with African American alumni such as Barry Bonds, Dave Winfield, Tony Gwynn, and Joe Carter.
Read more about the journey of Negro League baseball in my book “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. For more information, go to www.klmitchell.com or http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown