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When North Dakota broke baseball’s color line

Tom Dunkel

So long ago that almost everyone has forgotten it, something remarkable happened in North Dakota. During the Depression, a charismatic Chrysler dealer in Bismarck put together a minor league baseball team that included both white and black players. Decades before desegregation and the Civil Rights era, the team captured the town’s attention and affection, becoming the center of the region’s social experience, and winning games across the Midwest with a sensational lineup that included some of baseball’s greatest players.

Tom Dunkel grew up playing football in a baseball-loving family, and has written about sports and other topics for publications including Sports Illustrated, the Baltimore Sun, Smithsonian, and the Washington Post. He’d never heard anything about integrated baseball in North Dakota until he stumbled upon the story that became his book, “Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line” (Atlantic Monthly Press).

“I was writing about anti-aging medicine, of all things, in 2007, and my Google research somehow turned up an obituary for a baseball player named Ted ‘Double Duty’ Radcliffe, who died at age 103 in 2005. To procrastinate for a few minutes, I checked out his Wikipedia bio, and saw he had played on an integrated baseball team in the 1930s,” said Dunkel. “I knew Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the major leagues [in 1947], so if Radcliffe was playing on an integrated team so much earlier, that was really interesting. Then I found out that Quincy Trouppe and Satchel Paige had been team members too, and Paige is one of the great characters in sports history, so I was hooked.”

Dunkel creates rich portraits of the Bismarck team’s players and especially of the team’s manager, Neil Churchill, a larger-than-life figure who defied the rules of the day to collect the very best players he could find, black or white.

'Characters, to say the least'

“This was a wild and wooly bunch of guys, right out of ‘Guys and Dolls’ or something like that. They were a bunch of characters to say the least,” said Dunkel in an interview. “North Dakota was still somewhat the frontier in those days. Well, it still might be — there are probably some real characters out on the oil fields today.”

This might look like a book about baseball, but it’s really a book about life during hard times in a place that has never really had easy times. “I was surprised to learn how hard North Dakota was hit by the Depression. The state got battered unmercifully. Its population is only now just recovering to the level of the 1930 Census,” Dunkel said. “My intent was to write a sports book that would appeal to non-baseball-loving readers. I wanted the book to be about the characters on that Bismarck team, and the time and place in which they operated, more than I wanted it to be about game accounts or statistics.”

“Color Blind” takes a sobering look at Depression-era poverty on the drought-stricken Plains, and surveys race relations during a time when lynchings were a popular form of public entertainment. Black-white relations were tense everywhere, but in Depression-era North Dakota, where only 377 people were classified as “Negro” in the 1930 Census, larger tensions were those between white settlers and the native Sioux population. Somehow, as Dunkel shows, baseball was the thing that brought everyone together. Even Sitting Bull makes an appearance in this tale.

“It would have been great to do this 20 or 30 years ago, when some of these people were still alive. Fortunately, many of their relatives are alive, and I was able to talk with them. But I couldn’t find some of them. I presume they are out there somewhere,” Dunkel said. “After they were done playing ball, these guys melted back into civilian life, especially the white guys, who went into other occupations, while the black players played into their 40s and 50s, due to lack of opportunities.”

Film, photos saved

In the decades after the team dispersed, it was largely forgotten. Although Churchill kept no memorabilia from the team he created, Trouppe documented his career carefully, and Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary includes some of his film and photos.

“Rumor has it that there’s a woman out there who has some film footage of Satchel Paige,” says Dunkel, who continues to follow leads and rumors, although the book is done. “It would be a real find if it was the 1930s Bismarck team. You never know what’s in somebody’s basement or attic.”

The impact the team made continues to this day. Quincy Trouppe, Hilton Lee Smith and Satchel Paige went on to the major leagues, and today’s baseball is richer for Churchill’s insights. But did it bring lasting change to North Dakota?

“Certainly Bismarck — and other town teams that experimented with integrated baseball — opened people’s eyes. Many North Dakotans and Canadians literally had never seen a black person before. When you open eyes, you often open minds,” says Dunkel.

“I think the bigger impact of that Bismarck team was outside the state in the realm of sports. Of course, there’s no way to quantify the impact Bismarck had on opening the door to blacks in the Major Leagues. But progress comes in incremental steps, and Bismarck represented a step forward.”

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