Book Review Archives

Black Barons of Birmingham: The South's Greatest Negro League Team and Its Players

By: Larry Powell; Foreword by Clayton Sherrod
Reviewed by: Bill Plott
McFarland & Company, 2009
$29.95, Paperback

Larry Powell has broken new ground with this general history of the Birmingham Black Barons, a storied team in the Negro baseball leagues. It is the first real overview of the team that includes both a basic timeline of the team and also profiles of some of the more notable players.

Black Barons of Birmingham is a good follow-up to Every Other Sunday by the late Chris Fullerton (R. Boozer Press, 1999). Fullerton, the first executive director of the Friends of Rickwood Field, initiated the project as an outgrowth of his master’s thesis at the University of Mississippi. It was completed and published after his untimely death at the age of twenty-nine in an automobile accident in 1997. However, Fullerton’s work was more about local industrial history and sociology than baseball games. In large measure that was due to a dearth of concrete information about the Negro leagues when he did his research.

Powell’s approach includes a foreword by Birmingham chef Clayton Sherrod, who recalls watching the Black Barons as a youth. The book is divided into two parts. The first half is a cursory history of the team from its early days in the 1920s through the Piper Davis and Artie Wilson era of the 1940s, ending just before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in white baseball. The second half looks at the post-Jackie Black Barons, the ones signed to minor league contracts, invited to major league training camps, and even, in some cases, actually put in major league uniforms. It acknowledges both the positive and the negative impact of Jackie Robinson on the Negro leagues. There is the obvious positive of opening the door to the major leagues for black athletes. The negative is more subtle: Once that door was opened, thousands of black fans abandoned their teams to follow the careers of Robinson, Larry Doby, and the other trailblazers.

If there are flaws in Powell’s work, they are ones shared with a number of Negro leagues works. There is a real lack of baseball in the book. The chronicle of the 1920s is a page and a half. For the 1930s and 1940s even less. Decades are summarized with little or no attention to ball games, pennant races, and remarkable feats such as Gordon Zeigler’s seventeen-inning pitching duel with Sam Streeter in 1920, John “Steel Arm” Dickey’s twenty-five-game winning streak and the long, extraordinary career of “One Wing” Maddox, a one-armed pitcher-outfielder who played for the Black Barons and a number other teams.

There is also the mild annoyance, again shared with other authors, of referring generically to the “Negro League.” In fact, there was no such entity. There were the Negro American League, the Negro National League, the Negro Southern League—the Barons fielded teams in each—the East-West Colored League, and numerous others. They deserve specificity.

However, there is real strength in the wealth of information on individual players, much of it drawn from personal interviews. For many of these players, there is not likely to be any other detailed presentation of their lives and their careers. Powell has provided a platform for those players. Dec 2009

Bill Plott is a member of the Negro Leagues Researchers and Authors Group and of the Society for American Baseball Research Negro Leagues Committee.