In 2012 Warner Bros. Pictures released the film ’42’ which tells the story of how Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson (1919-1972) broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball (“MLB”). The late film star Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020) starred as Robinson in the biopic and delivered a phenomenal performance. Robinson did break the color barrier, but he was not the only player to do so at that time. In Cleveland, Ohio, Indians owner William Louis “Bill” Veeck (1914-1986) was determined on further integrating baseball and set his eyes on the Negro Leagues as a pool for untapped talent. Soon enough, he had purchased the rights to Lawrence Eugene “Larry” Doby (1923-2003). The Indians subsequently signed Negro League pitcher Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige (1906-1982) who joined the ranks and became another teammate of the team’s ace, Robert William Andrew “Bob” Feller (1918-2010).
The integration of America’s past-time was a ground-breaking event but not without its difficulty. Racial discrimination affected every aspect of life in America. Like Robinson, Doby and Paige were forced to endure unrelenting racial abuse and indignations. In the years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Jim Crow legislation and unwritten segregation rules permeated throughout America and as we see in this story, fame and success did not offer any recourse to routine humiliation. Further, the on-field triumphs and adulation from fans, stood in contrast to life outside of the stadium. Across the ocean in Europe, America had fought a war against the Axis Powers in the name of democracy and freedom. But for Doby, Paige and millions of Black Americans, those concepts were nowhere to be found back in the United States.
Anyone who believes in human rights, liberty, and the laws of this nation, will be enraged at times while reading this book. I personally found myself incensed at what they players had to endure simply to exist. However, the book does have brighter moments and it is a moving account of how change was made and an inside look into the lives of those who made it happen. The beauty of Epplin’s work is that the reader does not need to possess prior knowledge of MLB history. In fact, it is written in such a way that the reader can quickly learn about the players who will change history. I did know of Doby, Paige, and of course Robinson, but was not as aware of Bob Feller’s role in the story. Feller was not in a management position but was a prodigy himself at times in competition with Saige. There did exist a mutual respect between the two and the battles in proving who’s the better pitcher give the story the suspense that helps make it an enjoyable read. The most interesting figure in the book is undoubtedly Veeck, whose personal life also suffered through this period as readers will learn as the book progresses. Integration was his primary goal, and he knew it would not be pretty. Epplin captures his determination perfectly here:
“Undoubtedly there would be blowback, but Veeck was prepared to weather it. “The only thing blocking [integration] was no law, it was just a gentlemen’s agreement,” he later said. “And I was no gentleman.”
Adjusting to life in the big league was not an easy feat and the athletes still had to combat racism even within their own team. The author touches that subject too, showing the difficulties for owners who realized the talent to be found among other ethnic groups. Despite the backlash, Veeck was successful, and the Indians were aided by their new acquisitions who began to develop a fan base. In the film ’42’, there is a scene where Robinson is talking to Wesley Branch Rickey (1881-1965) and ready to quit. Rickey refuses to let him walk and explains that outside the stadium there are white children mimicking Robinson’s routine before stepping to the plate. Doby and Paige soon became fan favorites. It is true that America still had a long way to go in dismantling the racial codes in effect, but as star athletes, these brave souls were doing their part to help make that reality.
Doby is quoted throughout the book but as Epplin explains he had a reserved and humble personality. In comparison, Paige had no issue making his opinions known and reveled in being able to catch people off-guard. Interestingly, the two stars were not as close as one might expect, and Doby makes a statement that reveals the differences in opinions towards the realities they were facing. I cannot say which man was right but do recognize that the enormous pressure they were under, combined with hostile environments, required coping mechanisms. Thankfully, there is no substance abuse in the book, but I cannot imagine that they did not have moments in which they questioned why they were on that team and not back in the Negro Leagues where they had acceptance. Younger readers will learn a great deal about the difficulties faced by Black Americans when traveling across the United States. Lack of accommodations, quality meals and the threat of violence never abated. A road trip could have easily become a matter of life and death.
There are no episodes of violence directly towards the players in the book and each of them lived well beyond 1947. But despite their roles in a history making year, MLB continued to drag its feet in diversifying the league. As Epplin points out:
“The Yankees fielded all-white lineups until 1955, the Detroit Tigers until 1958. The Red Sox held out until the bitter end, refusing to promote a Black player until 1959, Doby’s last year in the league.”
Eventually the players retired but they left their legacies intact. 1947 might seem like ancient history today but we must remember that it was less than eighty years ago but since that time, America has changed significantly and today MLB is home to players of all backgrounds. Athletes now earn unbelievable salaries and enjoy fame on levels once unheard of. This would not be possible without the sacrifices made by Doby, Paige and other minority athletes who risked their lives by breaking the color lines. If you are fan of MLB history or even American history, there is a wealth of information in this book. Should you read it, be prepared to have feelings of anger, suspense, and pride. This book is not just the story of baseball but that of the United States. Highly recommended.