Books: “Color Blind”

March 27, 2014

Neil Churchill, at the center of the front row, with the 1935 Bismark team.

Neil Churchill, at the center of the front row, with the 1935 Bismark team.

One aspect of my father’s life that I don’t know nearly enough about is the time he spent managing a semi-pro baseball team. He mentioned it now and then, but the only detail I have retained is that his team played a couple of games against a team managed by Johnny Vander Meer. Vander Meer is the only pitcher in the history of major league baseball to pitch no-hitters in two consecutive games. That was in 1938. He also pitched a no-hitter in the Texas League 14 years later.
At the time that my father told me about opposing Vander Meer, I didn’t understand the importance of semi-pro baseball. In fact, I probably didn’t know what the expression meant. In broad terms, there have historically been three categories of baseball leagues: professional, semi-professional, and amateur.The professional leagues are what we know as the major and minor leagues, including the minor leagues whose teams are not affiliated with major league teams. Among the rest, a team is considered semi-pro if even one of its players is paid.

Local newspaper reports that the Bismark team had won the first national semi-pro championship.

Local newspaper reports that the Bismark team had won the first national semi-pro championship.

How many were paid and how they were paid varied a lot from time to time and place to place. There were teams sponsored by companies, by local businesses, by civic and social organizations, by towns, and by private individuals. On some teams, every player was paid. On some only a handful. And in circumstances in which the competition was intense, one or more of the players on a team who were paid were ringers recruited from the minor leagues or the Negro Leagues with offers of bigger salaries than the pros were paying.
There were semi-pro teams all over the United States and Canada, and many of them could draw crowds in those days when the big leagues were concentrated in the eastern part of the country where they were out of reach for most Americans. Semi-pro ball could provide an especially welcome diversion during the epoch in which the plains were beset by both economic depression and drought. One team in particular is the subject of Tom Dunkel’s book, “Color Blind.” The team Dunkel writes about was based in Bismark, North Dakota in the 1930s; it was not a member of a league, but played against teams in nearby and far-off towns and against barnstorming teams that wandered the landscape trying to make a buck. The Bismark team, so far as we know, didn’t have an official nickname although they are often referred to as the Churchills. That’s a nod to Neil Churchill, a partner in a Bismark auto dealership, an habitual if not addicted gambler, and the owner and frequently the manager of the local nine.



Churchill was devoted to the game and he was competitive. He was constantly striking deals with pro players to give the Bismarks an edge over their opponents. Winning was such a priority with him that he didn’t care what color the players were. In fact, because the pro leagues were more than a decade away from coming to their senses, Churchill was able to attract some talented black players, including Satchel Paige. Paige should have spent his career in the majors, but because of the color line and because of his wanderlust, he’d take the field wherever he got the best offer. In 1933 and in 1935, that offer — a $400 a month and a late-model car—came from Churchill , and Paige bolted from the Negro League team in Pittsburgh and made for Bismark. That was no small achievement for Churchill. Although there is no way to establish the widely held belief that Paige was the greatest pitcher of his time, and perhaps of any time, we know enough about him to know that he was extraordinary. In ’35 he started and won four games and relieved in another when Bismark took seven straight to win the inaugural National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita.



Among the other outstanding black players Churchill recruited were pitcher-catcher Ted “Double Duty” Radcliff, and catcher Quincy Thomas Trouppe (nee Troupe) who, by the way, was the father of prominent poet-journalist-academic Quincy Thomas Troupe Jr.

Churchill led the only integrated organized team in that rough-and-tumble era in baseball, and he got some pushback for his trouble. And Bismark’s black players, of course, had to endure the insults and isolation that the land of “all men are created equal” imposed on many of its citizens then and for more than 30 years after. In his book, Dunkel brings to light a fragment of American history in which the relationship between the people and their national game was much more intimate than it was to become, and by evoking the names of men like Paige and Radcliffe and Trouppe, he reminds us of the crime that was committed for more than six decades against many of its finest practitioners.




6 Responses to “Books: “Color Blind””

  1. Frank Bergson Says:

    Great article Charlie.

    I have a vague recollection of going to a Triple A game growing up in Toronto in the 50’s, (back when the International League included Montreal and Havana). I don’t know which team Toronto Maple Leafs played that day, but I remember my dad telling me that Satchel Paige was the greatest pitcher I would ever see. (My recollections of these years is not completely reliable LOL)

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I gather from what I’ve read that some of the “myths” surrounding Paige weren’t myths at all. For example, evidently it is true that he would call in the outfielders and tell them to sit either on the grass beyond the baseline or even on the bench while he retired the next three batters without a ball being hit in the air. It’s possible that if he had been allowed to play in the majors, the concentration of talent when there were only 16 big-league teams would have taken away a little of his edge, but it still seems that he would have been an outstanding pitcher at any level of competition.

  2. shoreacres Says:

    Somewhere along the line, I think I conflated “minor league” and “semi-pro.” It’s good to have that sorted out.

    And I thought your comment about the relationship between the people and their national game being far more intimate than it would become was interesting. I pulled out the big, fat book that contains the history of my grandparents’ and parents’ town, and found this. It’s a little long, but perhaps not too much so.

    Sam Clatt, the first Mayor of Melcher, was the right fielder well before 1920. Jess Long and Bob Cowan completed the outfield. Bill Barber, a swell third sacker, turned down several higher offers…Bill Fathergill was second base and the clown of the team…Walter Jones was the catcher and designated talker…

    The town team was known as the Farmers Union Team for some years. Other top players of the 20s were George Weir [my grandparents’ neighbor and the town grocer], Glen Storms, Ike Bagnall [grandfather of my first real boyfriend] and John White.

    The Melcher Merchants became the consistent sponsor through the years. In 1916 the Merchants played a Cinncinnati Reds farm team touring the area. During the hayday [sic] of mine production, several of the coal companies fielded their own teams. This was fine recreation, entertaining, and a great morale booster.”

    • charlespaolino Says:

      That’s a wonderful fragment; it’s good that that was preserved. It captures the spirit of “town ball,” which was an important part of life in those day. It’s probably not a good thing that activity of that sort has all but passed from the scene — replaced by electronic attractions of various sorts. Thanks for sharing that. I’ve been neglecting WordPress. The days just aren’t long enough, which, at my age, is a wonderful problem to have.

  3. Jim Stimac Says:

    The team in question was from Bismarck, ND.
    Vernon “Moose” Johnson was not black; he was a first generation Finnish-American from Crystal Falls, Michigan.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      Yes, the reference to Vernon Johnson was careless of me. I have deleted it. Thanks for pointing it out.

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