There are a lot of good books about the Negro Leagues. There are also, unfortunately, some bad ones. I haven’t done a book review in forever, so I decided that would be a good way to end this month long journey into black baseball. Here’s a look at Negro League Baseball: Photographs by Ernest C. Withers.
As the title implies, this is primarily a picture book. In format, it’s oversized and one of those coffee table books that people frequently purchase, put on their coffee table to impress people, and never really read. This one is worth a look. Withers was a freelance photographer in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1940s (and later, but the book concentrates on the 1940s) who took pictures of whatever he found in the black community of Memphis. That included pictures at the ballpark.
It shouldn’t surprise you that the majority of pictures involve the Memphis Red Sox. There are pictures of players, owners, fans, umpires, the park in general. Many of the pictures are posed, there are few action shots. And that makes them valuable as portraits of the players, rather than shots of just any ball game. Most 1940s Memphis players are present as well as shots of other players who came to town with the visiting team. Withers also attended the East-West All Star Game and gives us pictures of greats who, because they were in the Negro National League (Memphis belonged to the Negro American League), didn’t come to Memphis on a regular basis. There is a picture of Josh Gibson which the book claims is the last shot of Gibson in uniform.
And as much as the book’s emphasis is on baseball, the pictures of the fans and executives give a wonderful glimpse of black life in Memphis in the era. There is an outstanding picture of the four Martin brothers. All were succesful doctors (one was a dentist) who ran the team. One of them, J.B. Martin, became President of the Negro American League. The picture shows four successful businessmen waiting for a train. They could be any four successful businessmen waiting for a train. They simply happen to be black. In some ways, it is these kinds of pictures that are the most important.
There is a Forward by Willie Mays (who played against the Red Sox), and Introduction by Withers, and an interesting commentary by Daniel Wolff. All are fine, but the heart of the book is the portfolio of pictures. The book was published by Harry N . Abrams Books in 2004. It retails for $35 and is well worth looking over. It is available at an inflated price from amazon.com, I checked.