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Black History Month: African-American Sports History

At our offices here in Boston, many of us are thinking about the Super Bowl... well... obsessively. So we thought it would be a nice kickoff to Black History Month to highlight a few Beacon's books that discuss the history of African-Americans in sports.

Book cover for Showdown by Thomas G. SmithShowdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins by Thomas G. Smith Buy from Beacon Press | Independent Bookstore | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell's 

In 1961-as America crackled with racial tension-the Washington Redskins stood alone as the only professional football team without a black player on its roster. In fact, during the entire twenty-five-year history of the franchise, no African American had ever played for George Preston Marshall, the Redskins' cantankerous principal owner. With slicked-down white hair and angular facial features, the nattily attired, sixty-four-year-old NFL team owner already had a well-deserved reputation for flamboyance, showmanship, and erratic behavior. And like other Southern-born segregationists, Marshall stood firm against race-mixing. "We'll start signing Negroes," he once boasted, "when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites." But that was about to change.

Opposing Marshall was Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, whose determination that the Redskins-or "Paleskins," as he called them-reflect John F. Kennedy's New Frontier ideals led to one of the most high-profile contests to spill beyond the sports pages. Realizing that racial justice and gridiron success had the potential either to dovetail or take an ugly turn, civil rights advocates and sports fans alike anxiously turned their eyes toward the nation's capital. There was always the possibility that Marshall-one of the NFL's most influential and dominating founding fathers-might defy demands from the Kennedy administration to desegregate his lily-white team. When further pressured to desegregate by the press, Marshall remained defiant, declaring that no one, including the White House, could tell him how to run his business.

In Showdown, sports historian Thomas G. Smith captures this striking moment, one that held sweeping implications not only for one team's racist policy but also for a sharply segregated city and for the nation as a whole. Part sports history, part civil rights story, this compelling and untold narrative serves as a powerful lens onto racism in sport, illustrating how, in microcosm, the fight to desegregate the Redskins was part of a wider struggle against racial injustice in America.

“Smith has written a thoughtful and engaging book that details the racial integration of one of professional football’s most storied franchises. With great insight and passion, he explains how African American athletes finally cracked the color barrier to play for the Washington Redskins amid the turmoil of the civil rights movement and the nation’s quest for equality on and off the playing field.”—David K. Wiggins, author of Glory Bound: Black Athletes in a White America

Listen to an interview with the author of Showdown on Weekend All Things Considered.

Read Chapter 5: The Washington Whiteskins on Scribd.  

Book cover for Raceball by Rob RuckRaceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game by Rob Ruck Preorder the Paperback (release date 2/21/12) or buy the hardcover

After peaking at 27 percent of all major leaguers in 1975, African Americans now make up less than one-tenth--a decline unimaginable in other men's pro sports. The number of Latin Americans, by contrast, has exploded to over one-quarter of all major leaguers and roughly half of those playing in the minors. Award-winning historian Rob Ruck not only explains the catalyst for this sea change; he also breaks down the consequences that cut across society. Integration cost black and Caribbean societies control over their own sporting lives, changing the meaning of the sport, but not always for the better. While it channeled black and Latino athletes into major league baseball, integration did little for the communities they left behind.

By looking at this history from the vantage point of black America and the Caribbean, a more complex story comes into focus, one largely missing from traditional narratives of baseball's history. Raceball unveils a fresh and stunning truth: baseball has never been stronger as a business, never weaker as a game.

“One of our greatest historians of sport has given us a gift for the ages: a history of baseball that captures its multicultural dynamics in original and profoundly illuminating ways. Synthesizing a lifetime of pathbreaking research, Raceball presents a brilliant new account—in black, white, and brown—of what can no longer be regarded as merely the national game.”—Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship

Read Chapter 2: Blackball's Heyday on Scribd.

Listen to an interview with the author of Raceball on NPR's Only a Game.

Watch Rob Ruck talking about Raceball on YouTube.

0979Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston by Howard Bryant

WINNER OF SPITBALL MAGAZINE'S 2002 CASEY AWARD FOR BEST BASEBALL BOOK OF THE YEAR "An essential read." -John Henry, principal owner of the Boston Red Sox
With a new introduction by celebrated baseball writer Roger Kahn and a new afterword by the author, updating John Henry's first year of ownership after nearly six decades of the Yawkey dynasty, the legacy of the late Will McDonough, and the author's return to his native Boston after a seventeen-year absence, Shut Out has reopened the discussion of baseball, race, and Boston with a new candor.

"One of the best baseball books I have ever read, and in fact one of the best non-fiction books I have read in years. To simply call it a baseball book is to do it a disservice, in that people interested in American history, race relations in America, and simply human nature might not read it, which would be their loss." 
—Lisa Winston, USA Today's Sports Weekly

Watch Howard Bryant talk about Shutout on YouTube.