Only the Ball Was White
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Throughout the 1900's, before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1946, black baseball talent blossomed in the Negro Leagues. Baseball buffs still sing the praises of Josh Gibson who could be counted on to hit 70 homeruns in a season, and Satchel Paige who pitched over 100 no-hitters in his career. Only the Ball Was White pays tribute to the many topflight players from the Negro Leagues. Narrated by actor Paul Winfield, the program documents a bygone bittersweet era in baseball and the men who were denied stardom by the color line. Ballplayers throughout the country were interviewed for this program, all of them quick to tell tales of the life, the competition, and the camaraderie. These include: Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella, Buck Leonard, Jimmy Crutchfield, David Malarcher, Effa Manley, and Quincy Trouppe.
It seems elementary in the age of mega-league professional sports, many of which have been revolutionized by African American athletes, to point out that before Jackie Robinson major league baseball was lily white. The Negro Leagues were the crucible where African American players honed their skills. But it took over two decades, until Robert Peterson published Only the Ball Was White in 1972, to get a good glimpse at the stars and journeyman players of the Negro Leagues. It took even longer, until 1992, for Peterson's book, reprinted in a new edition, to garner its deserved critical acclaim. Well, Peterson's book cues up this documentary, which is narrated thoughtfully by Paul Winfield. Throughout Only the Ball, the footage of stars and Hall of Famers such as Buck Leonard, Roy Campanella, Jimmy Crutchfield, and the ever-fascinating Satchel Paige is excellent. Winfield and the players demonstrate abundantly that while the Negro Leagues were an implicit illustration of the absolute unfairness of segregation laws, they were also a vast demonstration that great, invaluable talent was being fostered in those circumstances. And it wasn't just a matter of "settling" for a second-class league. Players thrived, and fans loved the games. This is a delight for sports lovers, historians of the game, and anyone interested in U.S. cultural history. --Andrew Bartlett