By all accounts, Birmingham, Ala., was the epicenter of the civil-rights movement of the ’60s. It was there that two of the most important moments in the fight surrounding segregation occurred: the arrest of Martin Luther King Jr., which resulted in his still-powerful “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” and the bombing of a Baptist church that killed four young girls.
The city is also where, in 1964, the Birmingham Barons, a minor-league affiliate of the Kansas City A’s, returned baseball to the city after a two-year absence, this time boasting an integrated team and park. The chicken-wire fencing to separate black and white patrons was torn down, and starting for the Barons were four South American players and one African-American.
By focusing on this team in his latest nonfiction work, Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race (Grand Central, 319 pages, $28), author and onetime WW contributor Larry Colton achieves something of a double play. Primarily, Colton showcases his ability to write about his favorite sport (he pitched briefly for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1968), painting a vivid portrait of the Barons at their best and worst on the diamond. But by following the team throughout the season, Colton can provide a quick and dirty history lesson on the post-Jim Crow, pre-Civil Rights Act South.
As the team hit the road for away games, he details how towns like Charlotte, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn., were embracing or still fighting against desegregation. As with any story of this kind, the impression is most deep when Colton focuses on individuals, such as star players like pitcher Johnny “Blue Moon” Odom or Cuban émigré Bert Campaneris dealing with taunts from the stands or having to depart postgame for a restaurant or hotel far from the rest of their teammates.
That said, Colton’s real strength is writing about the baseball side of this story, which means Southern League is probably going to appeal more to students of sports history than readers looking for a deep exploration of desegregation. For the former, though, the book is a sheer delight, reveling in the personalities (each short chapter is named for and focuses on one of the Barons) and the crass underbelly of America’s pastime.
GO: Larry Colton reads at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651, on Wednesday, May 29. 7:30 pm. Free.