Monday, January 23, 2006

Review: Beyond The Shadow Of The Senators

For those of us who religiously followed the soap opera surrounding the relocation of the Expos to Washington, we remember that a popular mascot choice for the new team was "Grays".

That name would have been an homage to the Homestead Grays, the Negro League team which played many home games in Washington's Old Griffith Stadium. Much to the chagrin of Mayor Tony Williams and Will Carroll, the Expos were renamed the "Nationals" and the rest is history.

But the story behind the Homestead Grays, arguably the most successful franchise in Negro League history, is largely unknown to the common baseball fan. Brad Snyder's exhaustively researched book Beyond the Shadow of the Senators fills in the gaps on an important period in baseball history.

When I picked up this book to read it, I expected to read a definitive account of the history of the Homestead Grays franchise and its time in Washington. While that story is intertwined in its pages, it's not the main thrust of the book.

The actual theme of the book is tough to pigeon-hole; it's a tremendously detailed account of a very complicated sociological role that Washington DC, the Washington Senators, the Homestead Grays, the Negro Leagues and the "black press" played in the integration of Major League Baseball.

Snyder's incredibly complex tale covers many areas of history, including writer Sam Lacy, ballplayers Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, Clark Griffith and the Washington Senators, the Homestead Grays, and the black culture of early 20th century Washington DC.

The book describes how black Washingtonians were some of the best patrons of Clark Griffith's Washington Senators in the 1920's and 30's, despite the all-white nature of the Senator teams Griffith put on the field.

However, blacks stopped coming to see the Senators once the Homestead Grays moved a majority of their games from Pittsburgh to Washington. They did so not because of loyalty to their skin color, but because the Grays played a more competitive brand of baseball.

One would think that the success of the Grays would prompt Griffith to sign one of their stars like Gibson or Leonard to play for the pitiful Senators. However, the money Griffith made by renting his stadium to the Grays was the only thing that kept the Senators franchise afloat. Besides any racist leanings Griffith has been accused of having, he also had plenty of financial incentive to keep the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues separate.

The so-called "black press" of Washington constantly pressured Griffith, to no avail, to take advantage of the Negro League talent that played in his own stadium. Snyder argues this crusade taken up by journalists like Sam Lacy, Wendell Smith and Art Carter directly led to baseball's eventual integration in 1947.

Snyder presents in breathtaking detail the story of how the Grays helped drive the integration of baseball. However, the complex nature of the story leads to a somewhat unfocused book that covers a gigantic amount of information.

In between an introduction and an epilogue, Snyder dedicates nine chapters each to a different subject or topic. The only link between some of the topics is the (sometimes minor) part each played in Washington's role in baseball's integration. For example, the chapter dedicated to Satchel Paige is full of information about the great pitcher, who was a much of a performer as an athlete.

The forty pages dedicated to Paige are interesting and informative; however, the only relevance to the topic of the book is how Paige's appearances at Griffith Stadium drew huge crowds and contributed to the popularity of the Grays among Washington's black fanbase.

The book is incredibly detailed, and that is its greatest strength. Snyder spent 10 years researching material about this period in baseball history. That hard work is evident in an exhaustive set of endnotes and a bibliography which encompass 100 pages of text. The book is worth reading alone simply to glean the tremendous amount of historical information.

However, the incredible detail is the book's biggest weakness as well. Snyder covers an huge range of topics, some of which are only tangential to the role Washington played in integrating baseball. It's very hard to tie so many loose strands of information back to the author's original thesis. Snyder does an admirable job, but as a result the book has a somewhat unfocused quality.

Despite its faults, Beyond the Shadow of the Senators is still an amazingly detailed account of a very important time in baseball and American history. The history of the Homestead Grays in Washington DC and its role in baseball's integration have been largely ignored by mainstream baseball fans. Brad Snyder does a very good job in filling that void.


Blogger Ryan said...

I loved this book. Highest recommendation.

3:12 PM  
Blogger Carl said...

Your timing is perfect. I'm about to finish "The Glory of Their Times" and was getting ready to look for the next baseball title. Thanks.

3:24 PM  

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