Babe Ruth, Jimmie Crutchfield, Negro Leagues historiography, Only the Ball Was White, Oscar Charleston, Robert Peterson
Published in 1970, Robert Peterson’s Only the Ball Was White was, I believe, the first comprehensive history of Negro League baseball. Based on numerous interviews and much archival research, Peterson brought attention to dozens of long-neglected black players, games, and incidents, and his work did much to reveal the texture of day-to-day life in the Negro Leagues.
With Peterson, Charleston began to get his due. “If an old Negro ballplayer is asked to name an all-time team, the odds are good that the discussion will start with Oscar Charleston,” said Peterson. Former player Jimmie Crutchfield told Peterson that he’d have a hard time choosing between Charleston and Gibson as the best player he had ever seen—and Crutchfield’s career didn’t begin until Oscar was thirty-three years old.
Peterson also emphasized how popular Charleston had been: “At his peak, . . . perhaps the most popular player in the game.” He cited a Pittsburgh Courier report that, in Philadelphia, “Scores of school kids turned out regularly just to see Oscar perform. He was to them what Babe Ruth is to kids of a lighter hue.”