The gradual introduction of African-Americans into Major League Baseball kept Joe Black on the outside until age 28, but it didn't take him long to make headlines. He experienced immediate and astounding success with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952, rising from obscurity to become the Bums' relief ace. He went 15-4 with a 2.15 ERA that season, which was good enough for the Rookie of the Year Award and a third-place finish in MVP voting. To top it off, as the surprise starter in Game 1 of the World Series, he threw a complete game in a 4-2 victory over the Yankees, becoming the first African-American to win a game in the Fall Classic.
He never came close to an encore -- unsuccessful attempts to add a third pitch and arm woes combined to short-circuit his career after six seasons. That's the kind of career I'd expect a SABR bio to effectively cover, but it's still in the works. Instead, I ended up becoming well-acquainted with the man by reading "Joe Black: More Than a Dodger."
The reason it came to my attention is because the author is Martha Jo Black, who happens to be 1) Joe Black's daughter, and 2) the White Sox's coordinator of fan experiences. Staying on top of her day-job duties meant that she spent seven years working on it with co-author Chuck Schoffner, and the love behind the labor is evident, especially over the back half of its 354 pages.
The first half of the book reads more or less like a straightforward baseball biography. The structure provides some natural gear-shifting, as the chapters alternate between his excellent 1952 season and his life's back story, from growing up in Plainfield, N.J., going to college at Morgan State University, and working his way into professional baseball through the Negro and Cuban leagues.
Some parts stand out, especially for White Sox fans. Minnie Minoso says Black helped his hitting in Cuba by pointing out that the future Sox star squeezed the sawdust out of the bat handle. There's also first-hand accounts from noted Brooklyn Dodgers fan Jerry Reinsdorf, although Martha Jo said when she asked Reinsdorf if he saw Game 1 of the 1952 World Series, Reinsdorf said, "I couldn't afford that ticket."
Joe Black also had to put on a brave front against vile racism. Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier, but not every city had a black player on the hometown team. He was under instruction -- from the Dodgers and Robinson -- to not fight back, and while he got away with charging into a dugout in Buffalo during his season in Triple-A in 1951, he had to try to shrug off a range of offenses, from simple epithets to the thread of a sniper, a year later.
During the part that covers his career, Martha Jo contributes personal asides in italics, reflecting on how these events shaped his future. They're frequent enough that you never forget that this is a book written by his daughter, but infrequent enough that I wondered how long the book was going to keep its distance. The promotional copy and the introduction had me ready to process it as a family story, but it introduces and establishes Joe Black firmly on the side of the "baseball book" line as it keeps returning to 1952.
Once she and Schoffner start to erase that boundary -- somewhat like hitters stamping out the back of the batter's box -- the book's heart emerges. The "more than a Dodger" tagline encompasses his lives as a teacher, Greyhound executive, and, of course, father.
Education is a heavy theme throughout all three. Joe Black's college degrees allowed him to find a teaching position in Plainfield when job promises from his playing days never materialized, and teaching set him up for a chance encounter with an advertising executive for Greyhound. The bus company, which was reeling from the firebomb on the Freedom Riders in Anniston, Ala. in 1961, wanted to hire a respected African-American who could reinforce the point that the company did not condone the attack on its customers. While he was initially brought on to address an immediate problem, he developed his own voice and became one of Greyhound's most visible executives.
And during that time, he also became a father to Martha Jo, and eventually a single father after winning the custody battle, which wasn't -- and maybe still isn't -- all too common for men.
That's when it gets personal for Martha Jo.
"The reason I wanted to do the book is because my dad did so much, and we wanted that to be out in the community -- the African-American community and all over," she said. "I hope this book tells men, 'You're good parents, and you should get some credit for being good parents.'"
And it gets surprisingly personal at times. The second part of this book could have been a rather simple profession of a daughter's love, so it takes some guts to include far more complicated aspects of his personal life -- the tug-of-war between parents, Joe's seven marriages, and his not-always-popular stances on black issues. He was called names like "sellout," "Uncle Tom" and worse for adhering to a rather conservative platform while black nationalism started finding its footing, although his involvement in numerous scholarship programs showed he knew that African-Americans needed help overcoming institutional obstacles.
"You have to at least try," Martha Jo said of her father's philosophy. "That was my dad's biggest thing: 'As long as you show some kind of effort, I will definitely help you.'"
There's plenty of intimate turmoil, and there could have been more, as Martha Jo said the first draft of the manuscript was 600 pages. The warts aren't always easy to read, but they humanize the subject and give this book its identity.
Joe Black's story could easily be super-humanized because, hey, he's an important African-American athlete who remade himself into an important African-American executive and formed friendships with luminaries like Jesse Owens and Martin Luther King Jr. along the way. That's a helluva story, but it's one any biographer could tackle. Once "Joe Black: More Than A Dodger" separated itself from that track, I understood why his daughter wanted to publish this one.
Hey, what are you reading?
The first (and last) time we did this, I hesitated to say the book talk was going to be a regular feature. Since it's nearly a year, I guess I lived up to my non-word.
That also means that you probably read (or re-read) a few good books during that time, so share what you think is worth sharing.