Where were you thirty years ago, on Opening Day of the 1991 Major League Baseball season? I know where I was for part of that day: in The House of Fiction, the bookstore (not limited to fiction) owned by my dear friend Bill Tunilla and situated on Colorado Boulevard in the same block as Vroman’s Bookstore, a longtime Pasadena institution. Like me, Bill was a lifetime baseball fan and a lifetime reader of baseball books. Each year for Opening Day, he prepared a splendid display featuring books and paraphernalia that he’d been squirreling away over the previous year, often with a special theme in mind: Early Baseball, perhaps, or the Negro Leagues, or a rich trove of biographies, complemented by a wide-ranging miscellany that never failed to include some splendid surprises—always including a gem or two of baseball fiction.
If Bill were still alive, we’d talk on the phone sometime during the first couple of days of the 2021 season (after my family and I moved from Pasadena to Wheaton, Illinois, in the summer of 1994, we were able to see each other only rarely), and we’d let each other know what book we’d chosen for the occasion: maybe something recently published, maybe an old favorite to revisit. (I’m still able to compare notes more or less daily with my brother, Rick, in Northern California, as we did when we pored over the box scores in the Pomona Progress-Bulletin and listened to Vin Scully calling Dodger games on the radio.)
My choice for this season’s opening was The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell: Speed, Grace, and the Negro Leagues, by Lonnie Wheeler (who died last year). If you are a hardcore fan, you will have read at least a bit about Bell (1903–1991), and maybe (as I did, in a branch of the Pasadena Public Library many years ago) you will have heard some of his fellow Negro League players talk about his extraordinary feats on (and off) the diamond. Wheeler’s book gives us all that in depth and much more besides: He covers the whole arc of Bell’s life (including a vivid account of his wife, Clara, an “ardent Catholic,” who sounds delightful) and the Negro Leagues more generally, offering along the way a fresh angle on the black experience in the twentieth century.
One caveat: Unless you are an inveterate reader of baseball biographies and of workaday sportswriting more generally (especially of a generation ago or more), you are likely to find Wheeler’s style a bit grating. Clearly the book draws on prodigious research, and it made me feel almost as if I’d had a chance to see Bell play. Those are considerable accomplishments. There’s a strong moral underpinning to Wheeler’s account as well, which only occasionally veers into preachiness. Hence I was able to continue reading happily even when the boilerplate prose creaked.
We hear a lot these days about the barriers that kept black American athletes segregated from their white contemporaries, and the prejudice that flared—often quite viciously—when those barriers began to be challenged. It’s right that we should be reminded of that ugly history. What we don’t hear so much about is the extent to which many young white fans admired and even idolized black players—in baseball, certainly, but in football and basketball as well—in the 1950s, when I was a boy, and when defenders of segregation were much more prominent than they have been since that time.
I’m not suggesting, foolishly, that admiration for black athletes necessarily led to concrete support for policies that would improve the lot of black Americans more generally. Nor do I feel any great virtue accrued to me because I (like so many of my peers) admired and rooted for our favorite black players every bit as passionately as we cheered their white counterparts—in some cases even more so. I’m merely remarking on a change in consciousness that (so I think) hasn’t been sufficiently explored.
I hope some first-rate social historians will tackle this subject from various angles. There are a lot of people who (like me) were kids in the 1950s and are still around, but we’re getting older.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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