Under Jackie's Shadow

Voices of Black Minor Leaguers Baseball Left Behind

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Pub Date Apr 01 2024 | Archive Date Mar 31 2024

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Under Jackie’s Shadow is a portal to the hidden world of Minor League baseball in the era just after Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

What was it like to be Black and playing in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1965, or Memphis, Tennessee, in 1973? What was it like to play for white coaches and scouting directors from the Jim Crow South who cut their professional teeth in the segregated game before Jackie Robinson ushered in the sport’s integration? Or to be called into the clubhouse with your Black teammates one spring training morning in 1969 and told that to make the ballclub you’d have to beat out the Black men in that room, because none of you were ever going to beat out a white player, regardless? Or to spend a staggering eight seasons playing A-ball in the Midwest League, even winning a triple crown, while watching less-talented white teammates get promoted each year while you stayed behind? The thirteen players in Under Jackie’s Shadow are going to tell you.

The players’ experiences in baseball’s Minor Leagues in the 1960s and 1970s do not comport with the largely celebratory tales the leagues like to tell about themselves. The Black Minor League players remained largely invisible men—most of whom couldn’t be named by even the most devoted baseball followers. Based on Mitchell Nathanson’s interviews, Under Jackie’s Shadow uses the players’ own words to tell the unvarnished story of what it was like to be a Black baseball player navigating the wilds of professional baseball’s Minor Leagues following the integration of the Major Leagues. Harrowing, beautiful, and maddening, these stories are vital to our understanding of race not only in baseball but in the United States as a whole.
Under Jackie’s Shadow is a portal to the hidden world of Minor League baseball in the era just after Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

What was it like to be Black and playing...

Advance Praise

“In his brilliant and important reckoning of baseball’s neglected Black heroes, Mitchell Nathanson masterfully illuminates their stories. I was immersed in the extraordinary lives of young athletes who boldly strived to more fully integrate the Major Leagues during the turbulent 1960s. Segregation and racism curved their love of the game, relegating their visions of glory to a field of dreams deferred. To be sure, the denial of their talents was baseball’s and America’s loss. Yet their memories are devoid of bitterness and regret. This book will inspire generations. It is a poignant story of what could have been and what may yet be.”—Chris Thomas King, author of The Blues: The Authentic Narrative of My Music and Culture

Under Jackie’s Shadow is a journey over historical terrain strewn with the wreckage of Black players’ lives and dreams too often dashed against the ramparts of discriminatory traditions and consigned to oblivion. Under Jackie’s Shadow compels us to look at this hidden and lost history, to acknowledge and come to grips with its impact on the men most directly involved and its implications relative to what MLB was as an institution, what America was as a society, and what in some significant measure America is still burdened with as a nation today.”—Harry Edwards, author of The Revolt of the Black Athlete

“In his brilliant and important reckoning of baseball’s neglected Black heroes, Mitchell Nathanson masterfully illuminates their stories. I was immersed in the extraordinary lives of young athletes...

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ISBN 9781496237170
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Featured Reviews

This is an amazing collection of essays written by black men who were never allowed to progress beyond the Minor Leagues in the world of baseball after Jackie Robinson. The stories are honest, unvarnished truths that are both eye-opening and disturbing; a sad commentary on how far things still needed to go. It’s raw and interesting and of course, sad and unfair. It will really make you think.

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The stories that were shared in this collection are so important to the history of baseball. They draw attention to the pitfalls and gaps within history which has been shielded away by the minor leagues and with men who have not had a voice to share their story. Each of the stories feel as though they are spoken from a different individual, which shows the skill and dedication by the author to be as truthful to the emotion and narrative they were trying to tell. One thing noticed was the shift of excitement and hopefulness when first being drafted, to often feeling burnt out and apathetic towards the game as a whole.

The way the author included other players that were active at the time, as well as fellow teammates, offered a reminder that these events happened in a not so distant time and highlighted the work that still needs to be addressed in the current times. I feel as though I will be looking at the modern game with a different view, and I am hopeful to see more changes in my lifetime.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Note: Thank you to NetGalley, University of Nebraska Press, and Mitchell Nathanson for the advanced reader copy of the book. What follows is my unbiased review of the book.

Whenever I heard talk of baseball’s pension plan, I always wondered why the multi-millionaire headline-grabbing players need a pension. They don’t. Those who do need a pension are the ones who don’t make it to the big leagues or do spend a small amount of time in “the Show,” but have given a good portion of their young lives to the game of baseball. Many of the men in this book deserve that as well.

When Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, that didn’t make racial prejudice go away. It didn’t even level the playing field for black athletes. In Under Jackie’s Shadow, author Mitchell Nathanson interviews black minor league baseball players of the 1950s through 1970s about their experiences playing in the minor leagues. For many of them, especially those that played in the south, there was a great disparity as to how they were treated versus their white counterparts.

Several of the interviewees came from sheltered backgrounds where they didn’t experience as much racism as others had. It was a shock to them to go to Florida and suddenly hear the word “ni–er” tossed at them and learn that restaurants wouldn’t serve them. Florida does seem to be the biggest problem in that regard. Between spring training and the minor leagues there, many of the players detail the segregation and outright hostility they faced there.

However, it was baseball itself that held these players back. Many of the organizations would sign these young black athletes and then hold them back from advancing through the system to the Major Leagues. Some of the statistics they had are amazing, yet they were passed over again and again in favor of white players whose statistics were less than stellar. In some cases, the managers were outright hostile to them. In others, it seems to be throughout a particular organization.

For many, it left a bad taste in their mouths and they turned away from baseball completely. It’s a hard thing to digest when something you love doing, like playing professional baseball, punishes you for the color of your skin.

The interviews Nathanson had are transcribed here for readers to learn from. They are pretty startling in a way and really drive home what conditions were like in the Jim Crow South, and the country as a whole through the lens of baseball. Even as the Civil Rights movement is going on, there is still bias in the treatment of these men, no matter what their skill level. Some of them spend eight years or more in the minor leagues with nothing to show for it. Shouldn’t they be entitled to pensions of some kind to help them start a new career? Especially after many times, they were plucked out of college, unable to finish their degree. In one case, a former player details how a team worked around a white player’s schedule who wanted to complete his college education but refused to do the same for him.

Under Jackie’s Shadow is presented very well as a witness to the racism in our country as well as baseball. There was no magic wand once Jackie Robinson began to play that made it all better, and you might better understand the concept of institutionalized racism and why affirmative action has been needed to level the playing field.

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Under Jackie's Shadow was a hard book to read, and I don't mean that in a way that it was poorly written or a bad book or anything like that. No, I mean the subject matter was just tough to read. For a very short book, it took a long time to complete because you just have to take breaks from it. The anger in these interviews almost radiates from each page and Mitchell Nathanson has done a remarkable job of pulling them together.

In the tradition of The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter, Nathanson's book is a collection of interviews. Unlike The Glory of Their Times which was mostly a fun read, Under Jackie's Shadow is a collection of interviews from various black players who still found themselves unable to succeed in baseball after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. The players explain how they had to be twice as good, recall the stories of having to stay in different hotels and eat at different restaurants or use different doors from their teammates.

Again, it's not an easy read. It's a worthwhile book, but it takes a toll.

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This oral history book features the experiences of 13 Black Minor League baseball players who played after Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues in 1947. They talk a bit about their upbringing, how they got into baseball as a youth, and then their experiences with getting signed and playing in each city they were assigned to.

Each player had stories of racism, being ignored by racist managers, coaches, and teams bypassing them for less talented players, racist fans, and segregation. The stories are heartbreaking, and I can't imagine what that was like to go through. This is definitely a tough read, and I found myself taking breaks in between stories because the treatment these gentlemen received is very upsetting. This is a very important book, though, and I would recommend it to baseball fans who love the history of the game.

My thanks to the University of Nebraska Press, author Mitchell Nathan's, and NetGalley for gifting me a digital copy of this book. My opinions are my own.

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An incredibly important collection of stories that truly need to be heard. As hard and heavy as they are to read, it is necessary in order to advance the game.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an eARC in exchange for an honest review.

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