Talking ball with Southern League’s Larry Colton

As an especially slow reader, it took me a good part of the summer to finish reading the book, Southern League. I savored every minute of the experience. By the most conservative of estimates, it is easily one of the 10 best baseball books I’ve ever read. I’m even tempted to put it at right at No. 1, ahead of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, but let’s call it top five for now, while reserving the right to move it up further at a later date.

The book, written brilliantly by Larry Colton, tells the story of the 1964 Birmingham Barons, the first integrated sports team in the city’s history. At one time, Birmingham had a law called the “Checkers Rule,” which prevented blacks and whites from participating in the same sports contests, covering everything from baseball to basketball to yes, even checkers. That all changed with the minor league Barons in 1964.

In examining the explosive racial history of Birmingham, described by Martin Luther King as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” the book details the exploits of the Barons. Along the way, we learn of the fortunes of four players and the team’s fair-minded manager, Haywood Sullivan.

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It is just a phenomenal book. It deserves to be ranked up there with the giants, not only Ball Four, but Roger Angell’s The Summer Game, The Bronx Zoo, and Veeck As In Wreck, among other titles.

The author, Larry Colton, has many connections to baseball. A former big leaguer, he pitched one game for the Phillies in 1968. The first batter that he faced was none other than Pete Rose. Among the friends that he has made in the game are Rick Wise, his Phillies teammate in 1968, and Mike Epstein, who played with him in college. As a pitcher in the Puerto Rican Winter League, Colton faced some formidable hitters, including two fellows named Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda. But now his greatest baseball accomplishment may be as an author.

Markusen: Larry, what prompted this idea for a book? Was it due to the fact that you had played in the Southern League, or was it because of other factors?

Colton: Here’s the genesis of this. I did play in the Southern League in 1966, which was two years after this story took place. When I was in college at Berkeley, I wrote a term paper that got me interested in the civil rights issue. I was not an activist, but I was aware of what was going on with civil rights and race. It stayed with me.

This is my fifth book. Originally, I had an idea for a fiction book based on an incident in which a white man shot a black man. There were two guys who witnessed the incident, a black guy and a white guy. They were ballplayers, and they saw the incident from two different perspectives. So I showed the manuscript to a friend of mine who is a writer and said. “Well, Larry, it’s not the worst book I’ve ever read.” So I thought maybe I should write something else!

The book was going to be set in Birmingham. I had started doing research on the city of Birmingham and its racial history and became interested in the topic [for Southern League]. At the time, I didn’t know the Barons were the first integrated team in the city.

And even in 1966, when I played in the Southern League, black players could still not eat with whites in restaurants in Birmingham. They could not stay in hotels with whites. I never saw the black players on my team except at the ballpark.

Markusen: In looking at the 1964 Barons, you tend to spotlight four players (outfielder Tommie Reynolds, second baseman Hoss Bowlin, and pitchers Blue Moon Odom and Paul Lindblad). How did you pick these four players?

Colton: Well, two were white and two were black. I had more information on them than most of the other players. I didn’t talk to Paul, who had already died by then, but his wife Kathy was very cooperative and helpful. Paul was from the heartland, the Midwest. Hoss was from the South. Tom and Blue Moon were black. It was a good combination.

I’ve used multiple characters before. It’s not easy, but I’ve been able to put people into the civil and racial landscape of the time. It can be difficult, but I had experience doing it before.

Markusen: Blue Moon Odom has had his share of drug problems and legal problems. How is he doing these days?

Colton: He’s doing great now. He’s one of the real joys of doing this book. I was worried about him going in. He had a reputation for being sullen. He’s living in Southern California, so I went down to see him. He was very guarded. He didn’t want to talk about the problems with the police.

But now he’s been clean and sober for 20 years. He didn’t make much money comparatively during his career, but he has a good pension and manages to get by. He loves to play golf. We played several rounds of golf together. He was leery at first, but we met several times, and with each progressive meeting, we connected a little more. At one point, he said, “You’re fun to be around.” And then later, he said, “I think you’re one of my best friends now.”

Here’s something that I didn’t use in the book. We were playing in a golf tournament with some other major league players. Blue Moon said to me, “Did Tommie Reynolds tell you about what happened with me and him in Boston? We had this fight.”

They’d been drinking. The fight ended when Blue Moon hit him over the head with a Coke bottle. So Blue Moon asked me, 40 years after this incident took place, “Do you think I should apologize to Tommie.” He’s asking me about this.

I told him, “Yes, you should.” So later that day at the tournament, Blue Moon pulled Tommie over and apologized. Forty years later.

I really like Blue Moon. He’s very funny. I really like the guy.

Markusen: Were there any players whom you attempted to contact but were not able to talk to?

Colton: Bert Campaneris would never respond to my appeals. I called him several times, left messages. I never talked to Bert. I don’t know why he didn‘t call back. Perhaps he didn’t know that I was really a writer.

I’m a member of the major league players Alumni Association, so I got his address. I went to his house in Scottsdale. I figured that if he wouldn’t talk to me over the phone, he could talk to me in person! I went to the address listed. There was no such place. It didn’t exist.

I was interested in hearing about his escape from Cuba and what he went through. He was the one guy I missed.

Markusen: The manager of the Barons, Haywood Sullivan, emerges as a real hero in this book for his colorblind leadership. Why do you think he didn’t have more success as a big league manager?

Colton: The story behind that. Every one I talked to raved about what a great guy he was. All of the players were positive. He got called up to manage Kansas City about 50 games into the 1965 season. They had a terrible team so he didn’t set the world on fire.

His son, Marc, said that Charlie Finley’s meddling, telling him what to do, who to play, he couldn’t stand it. Sullivan had an allegiance to the Yawkeys. When he got the call from the Red Sox to go into management, he jumped at it. He saw a chance to be a general manager.

One of the things that’s come out of the book: he’s one of the only guys to play, manage, be a general manager, and be an owner. But he’s not in the Alabama Hall of Fame. How could he not be in the Alabama Hall of Fame?

While doing the book, I met a guy from the Alabama Hall of Fame. I told him, “What the hell are you guys thinking of?”

Markusen: In contrast to Sullivan, there is the villainous Bull Connor, the former announcer for the Barons who served as commissioner of public safety, promoting segregation in Birmingham Do you think Connor was embarrassed by the success of the integrated Barons, who played well and drew good crowds?

Colton: Bull Connor, I would have loved to have interviewed. He died decades ago. It must have torn at him. He was a baseball man. He was the voice of the Barons and went to thousands of games. He led an effort called “Keep Birmingham Baseball White.”

I don’t know if he was embarrassed. He probably would have wanted integrated baseball to fail. He did not want integrated baseball at all.

I should mention the book has been optioned to be a film. I’ve been hired to write the screenplay. Now this is just the first step. Money still has to be raised. With other movies like 42 and The Butler coming out about that time period and this issue, I don’t know if that will help this become a movie.

But you know, the real hero of this is [Albert] Belcher, the owner of the Barons. He took the risk [of resurrecting Birmingham baseball under integrated circumstances]. This is Birmingham in 1964. It was a bad situation racially.

Markusen: Was it especially difficult to recreate the Barons’ season because they were a minor league team, and therefore did not receive the same volume of press coverage as a typical major league club?

Colton: Yeah, it would have been easier for a big league team. But I spent a lot of time in the Birmingham library. There were two daily newspapers that covered the team. I read every game account in the two newspapers. They had them on microfilm. I must have spent a $1,000 just on copies.

Using the two newspaper accounts as my guideline, I could then go to the player and ask him about a game. Of course, it’s difficult for the players trying to remember what they had for breakfast, much less what happened 50 years ago! A few incidents stand out. The one thing that Blue Moon Odom could recall was his professional debut, which was in his hometown of Macon. Every player remembered that game. It was standing room only in the ballpark. Blue Moon was pulled in the sixth inning, and half of the crowd in attendance, which was black, left the park.

Sure, it would have been easier to follow a major league team, with more media. But you do the best you can.

Markusen: Thank you, Larry. The book is Southern League, published by Grand Central Publishing. It is a wonderful story of minor league baseball, civil rights, and the players and manager who helped a city turn the corner.

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Comments

  1. Marc Schneider said...

    Great interview!  Much better than most author interviews.  This is a fascinating time in American history and the book sort of coincides with “October 1964”-the David Halberstam book that covered the St. Louis Cardinals.

  2. dennis Bedard said...

    Couple of points here.  Halberstam’s book is the second best baseball book I ever read.  The best was “1948” by the same author.  The 1964 book, while purporting to be about the Cardinals, was really about racial integration in the major leagues.  It was fascinating reading about the struggle of guys like Frank Robinson, Gibson, Bill White, Vada Pinson, Aaron, and Banks as they made their way through the minor leagues in the 1950’s.  If we are ranking great baseball books, let us not forget An Unpaid Slave, The Boys of Summer, and The Bronx is Burning.  And I believe that Haywood Sullivan later played a role in the front office for the 1967 Boston Red Sox.

  3. Marc Schneider said...

    Dennis,

    Not to nitpick but the Halberstam book is “1949” about the 1949 pennant race between the Yankees and Red Sox. It is, indeed, a great book.  I was always a Halberstam fan-both his sports and non-sports books-anyway.

  4. Bruce Markusen said...

    James, while I agree that black Americans have lost a lot of interest in the game, the story of integration is not merely “self-congratulation” by whites. Colton clearly celebrates the achievements of people like Blue Moon Odom and Tommie Reynolds (both black) in integrating the Barons. He also portrays Bull Connor as the clear villain.

    Should we not tell these stories that are so important in revealing the culture and history of America? Young Americans, in particular, need to learn about Jim Crow segregation and the extent to which some racists went to in fulfilling it. We also need to hear about the heroes who emerged (both black and white) in overcoming these incidents of racism and bigotry.

  5. Yehoshua Friedman said...

    Colton should consider Kickstarter or some other crowdfunding website to fund the movie. A lot of fans would like to get in on the act.

  6. Johnston said...

    Yes, it is a story that should be told – and it has been. Over and over. It’s time to tell new and different stories – that aren’t so self-congratulating – and to make new and different movies.

    Like the blacks, I’m tired of this. It was an important matter to tell, but it has been told. Time to move on.

  7. james wilson said...

    The Barons are a good story. Period. Lessons? What lessons would we draw? That integration was the death of black American baseball? No, that is a truth, one of those “unintended consequences”, but it is not any part of the lesson, is it? We teach propaganda and ignore truths. You may be sure young people will have their propaganda straight long before they leave school.

    Sixty-six years on and the puffery of Jackie Robinson day and “civil rights” games grows relentlessly, in inverse proportion to the dearth of black fans and players in the game. Black people could care less. At least somebody is not acting foolishly.

  8. james wilson said...

    All that trouble to integrate baseball and black Americans have completely lost interest in the game.
    And in the integration stories as well, which is strictly a white reserve of self-congratulation.

    “One more victory over the Romans and we shall be ruined”—King Pyrrhus

  9. Steve Treder said...

    To perceive the racial integration of baseball as only something to do with African-Americans (and whites), moreover as only something to do with baseball, is to demonstrate having utterly not learned the lesson.

  10. Gyre said...

    I’ve never heard of opportunities beyond baseball for black Americans prior to #42.  I’ve never heard of Negro Football or any other sport in those days.  If there is only one exit, everyone will crowd into it.  Once many other doors open up, people can chose other careers.

  11. Marc Schneider said...

    The people that have responded to James Wilson and Johnston are a lot kinder and gentler to them than I would have been in the face of the most inane comments I have ever read. 

    My suspicion is that people that think “it’s time to move on” are really more interested in ignoring history that they find uncomfortable.

  12. Gil Tex said...

    Bruce, no contemporary baseball books in your top 10?  Why do we bury this wonderful sport in nostalgia?  Today’s players are every bit as colorful as those that played in the golden age, and exponentially more talented.

    I recommend The Bullpen Gospels by Dirk Hayhurst.

  13. Bruce Markusen said...

    Gil, Southern League is a contemporary book; it came out this year.

    In terms of contemporary subject matter, most baseball books tend to look back a number of years rather than look at something that happened recently. That’s just the nature of baseball books in general.

    But I have heard that Hayhurst’s book is very good. I’ll try to read it at some point this winter.

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