Back when I was working on my PhD in history the big book that was causing a stir was Time on the Cross, a book that was hugely controversial and was supposed to use new statistical methods, later called “cliometrics” (Clio was the Greek Muse of history), to revolutionize how we viewed the institution of slavery. Well, it didn’t actually end up doing that, but it did introduce “cliometrics” and statistical analysis to the study of history in a big way (try being a social historian today without it) and that changed how history was studied.
In January 1970 Robert Peterson did something like that when he published Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All Black Professional Teams, generally known by the first five words of the title. It told America about the Negro Leagues at a time when the Negro Leagues were almost entirely forgotten by the general public and by baseball fans. What little was known was more myth than reality. Peterson’s book began a trend of looking at the reality of Negro League baseball. There were stories, an historical narrative, some thoughts on individual players. All were researched in newspapers, team papers (such as were available), and interviews with surviving players and associated people. It was utterly groundbreaking in both the study of black history and baseball history.
There had been other books, like Sol White’s history, but they were old and generally ignored in 1970. Peterson, following on Ted Williams’ plea for recognition of Negro League players in his Hall of Fame address, wrote a book that tried to place black baseball in the context of its times and in the context of the larger black community. It’s worth noting the book for that reason alone. And it wasn’t stat heavy (unlike Time on the Cross) which made it more acceptable to a general audience.
It’s outdated now. Forty-five years of research will do that to a book. Some of the info turned out to be wrong, much of it is still good. It’s a fine read. It was the first book I ever read on the subject and so it continues to hold a special place in my psyche. Copies are still available (Amazon has a copy for $15.64) and it’s worth reading at least once.
As an aside, Peterson was one of the people chosen for the committee that selected the 2006 Hall of Fame members for Negro League baseball. He died a couple of weeks before the voting, but sent in a copy of his choices. The copy was accepted and he helped elect some deserving members to the Hall of Fame. I think it’s nice that did that for a pioneer who helped rescue the Negro Leagues from oblivion.