In 1947 Jackie Robinson famously broke the color line in baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, ending racial segregation in the major leagues.
That moment was a landmark for racial integration in baseball, but there’s another moment few may be aware of, and it happened over a decade before Robinson, in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Tom Dunkel writes about this Bismarck team in his new book, Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line.
Legendary baseball players such as Satchel Paige, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, and Quincy Trouppe left the negro leagues to play ball for the team.
One man formed the team, Dunkel tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Don Gonyea. Neil Churchill, a successful automobile dealership owner in Bismarck, paid out of his own pocket to put together the best baseball team that he could — regardless of race.
On catcher Quincy Troupe
“Quincy was an interesting person … He was only 20 years old at the 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 … He went out to Bismarck to get an opportunity to play everyday … he wanted to go out there to test himself to play ball, and that was the best opportunity for him.”
On Satchel Paige arriving in Bismarck
“He pitches his first game on August the 13th; this is against Jamestown, the arch rival … It was that classic, small-town wooden ballpark … It was packed to the gills that night, and Paige, as usual, his fastball was working that day. I believe it was 18 strike-outs that day. People were getting at the ball park 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.
On the integrated team; segregated town
“That was baseball in Bismarck with that team … You aren’t going to find the same prejudice you found in the South, but it was clear. There were certain parts of town [where] it wouldn’t be a good idea for a black man to be at night … They could still not get served a meal in restaurants.”
On “Ivory Hunters”
“[The scouts] were called “Ivory Hunters,” and the reason for that was that was because the segregation of baseball. They couldn’t sign black players; they could only sign white players … Satchel finally got in in ‘48 [after the color line was broken in the major leagues] … He was 42 years old. He played five years … Quincy Trouppe also finally made it to the major leagues. The Cleveland Indians signed him.”
On the single team photo
“There is 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 … which is mostly white players. The outfielders and the pitchers are in the back, and there is one white person in that back row who is the left fielder Moose Johnson. He is standing next to Satchel Paige … and Moose has his big paw of a right hand on Satchel’s shoulder.”
“That … is a precursor of an iconic baseball moment which occurred early in the spring of 1947 … Pee Wee Reese 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 the rest of the country, that Robinson is my teammate … this is all going to be okay.”