Sports Collectors Digest: Only The Ball Was White

By Marty Appel

In the history of baseball literature, few books were able to break new ground as did “Only the Ball Was White,” written by Robert Peterson and published by Prentice-Hall in 1970.

Such a breakthrough was the book, that it forced baseball “historians” to admit that they knew nothing about the Negro Leagues. Those leagues operated below everyone’s radar screens, and although many were aware of the leagues, and even decried the need for their existence, few knew the first thing about them.

Peterson’s work changed that, and led to a virtual cottage industry of books on the subject, which far exceeded his original research. But, he was the originator.

“I was raised in Warren, PA, and back during the Depression, Negro League teams would come to our town and play the local semi-pro club,” he recalls. “And I’d go to those games. I’d see the Homestead Grays, and it left a mark with me.

“After World War II, I went to Upsala College in New Jersey {now defunct}, and I played semi-pro ball myself. And we’d play games against the Richmond Giants, and the Indianapolis Clowns, who were then the elite team in the Negro American League. This would have been in 1948, the year after Jackie Robinson joined Brooklyn. The Negro Leagues were beginning their inevitable death, but they were still fielding some fast clubs. It was a kick to play against them.”

Peterson ventured into journalism and eventually got to New York to serve as a news editor for the World Telegram & Sun, the paper of Willard Mullin, Dan Daniel and Joe Williams – a great sports paper. But he wasn’t on the sports side of things, and when the paper folded following the tragic newspaper strike of 1966, he was determined to free lance, and sports drew his interest.

“I had an idea that I’d like to do something like Larry Ritter did with ‘The Glory of Their Times,’ – oral histories from Negro League players. But then I realized there would be little frame of reference for the average fan; the stories wouldn’t make sense without there first being a book explaining what these league were! Even Ritter, a great fan, was totally unaware that the Negro Leagues played games in Yankee Stadium in the ‘30s.”

Ritter was nothing if not encouraging – in fact, even a benefactor. Knowing that Peterson was going to struggle for a while as a free lancer, Ritter showed up at his door in Ramsey, N.J. with a check for $500 to help him out while he began research on his book. “What generosity!” says Peterson. “He barely knew me! I couldn’t take it – I turned it down.

“But then, he flies out on his own to St. Louis to interview Cool Papa Bell, supposedly to do a ‘volume two’ of Glory, but instead, he hands me the tapes and says, ‘this is for your book.’ An amazing man.”

Finding the players was no easy task for Peterson. There was no real “network” by which the players kept in touch. He went to Roy Campanella’s liquor store in Harlem, interviewed Campy, and Roy put him in touch with Judy Johnson, who was working for the Phillies, and with Buck Leonard. He visited them, and they knew a few guys, and eventually the network spred. Dave Malarcher was an especially knowledgeable source.

“Funny thing was”, says Peterson, “Campy, Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, other Negro League veterans who went on to play in the Majors, had sort of put the Negro Leagues behind them. Those interviews weren’t very strong. But the guys who never went to the Majors, this was the highlight of their life and they were terrific!

“I spent a lot of time in the New York Public Library, reading the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender,” he says. “They were the best of the black newspapers in covering sports. Then I’d trek up to Harlem and the Schomburg Library, which has important African-American historical records. I think I spent most of the summer of ’67 there.”

Prentice-Hall would come forward to publish the book in 1970, putting an illustration on the cover of a black hand holding a white baseball. It was an attention-getter, for sure. The book included a history of the Negro Leagues, biographies of some of its stars, what few meager statistics were then available, box scores of the annual All-Star Game, a 90-page “roster” of all known Negro League players (to that point), and some photos.

It received complimentary reviews in the New York Times and other papers, and an especially praiseworthy one in the Washington Post by Ray Robinson. It’s legitimacy established, the book opened the eyes of many.

Among those was no less than the Commissioner of Baseball, Bowie Kuhn. Kuhn wanted to get Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, and maybe others, into the Hall of Fame. Ted Williams had advocated it at his 1966 Hall of Fame acceptance speech. The idea never went away. But in his memoir, “Hardball,” Kuhn acknowledged that the 1970 publication of “Only the Ball Was White” served as an impetus to the establishment of a committee to determine which players might be worthy of Hall inclusion.

“Only the Ball Was White” stayed in print until 1976, then dropped out of sight for eight years before McGraw Hill reissued it. Four years later, they dropped it, and then Oxford University Press put it out as a softcover, where it remains in print to this day. It has only sold a rather modest 35,000 copies over the years, but no one disputes its historical importance.

Authors like John Holway, James Riley and others have come along to far exceed that initial research and write very important oral histories and biographies since, but as Peterson established nearly 40 years ago, baseball needed a book like his first to establish a foundation for understand of the Negro Leagues.

Now 78, Peterson recently moved from New Jersey to a suburb of Allentown, PA. His reentry in sports came with a basketball book in 1990, “Cages to Jump Shots,” and a football book in 1996, “Pigskin,” about early pro football. Still a freelancer after all these years, he has made a living largely writing and editing for Boy Scout publications.

He kept in touch with many of the subjects of his baseball book until their passings, and remains a member of SABR’s Negro League Committee.

As well he should be!