SOUTHERN LEAGUE: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race. By Larry Colton. Grand Central Publishing. 320 pages. $27.99.
Larry Colton makes you sweat in the Alabama summer heat right along with John “Blue Moon” Odom as he is pulled over by one of Birmingham’s finest. It’s midnight, it’s 1964 and Odom is driving his new Ford Galaxy in a part of town off-limits to blacks.
Thorough research and a wonderful weave of personalities are parts of what make “Southern League” the best baseball book of the new season. Colorful narrative is the foundation of this book about the first integrated professional team in Alabama.
How to explain that as a superstar 19-year-old pitcher from Macon, Ga., he had received $75,000 from Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Athletics, the largest signing bonus ever given a black athlete? Or that team owner Charlie Finley had the shiny candy-apple-red car delivered to Odom at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field? But Odom tried.
“Do I look stupid?” the policeman said. “You telling me this brand-new car is yours but you don’t know where it come from?”
The 1964 Birmingham Barons almost won the Southern League championship, falling short by one game. Thus, no free trip to Hawaii as Finley dangled as motivation. Colton relives the season through four players: Odom and outfielder Tommie Reynolds, blacks in an often hostile environment, and white teammates Hoss Bowlin, a second baseman and good ‘ol boy from Arkansas, and the late Paul Lindblad, a pitcher from Kansas.
Odom and Lindblad would go on to play for the Oakland A’s during their run of three straight World Series titles from 1972-74, but not before taking the field in a city where Martin Luther King Jr. was infamously jailed. “Welcome to Bombingham” is a chapter title, influenced by 45 unsolved bombings at black churches. Integrated baseball was illegal in Birmingham until 1964 by city ordinance No. 597, and one of the enforcers was Bull Connor; Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety happened to be a former Barons radio announcer.
But a “raucous crowd of 6,592, with blacks and whites sitting shoulder-to-shoulder” turned out for the season opener against Asheville at Rickwood Field. Together, the team and town made it through the 1964 season, mostly without incident in a tribute to oft-maligned Birmingham.
“You will be aware that this was an integrated gathering,” Birmingham News sports editor Benny Marshall writes of opening night. “And it happened, my friends, in Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.A.”
Colton doesn’t draw much on his own Southern League experience; he pitched for the 1966 Macon Peaches as a 23-year-old from California. But the ballplayer turned author — Colton has written three other books — clearly can relate to the trials of adjustment.
Stars fell from the ranks of Alabamans, too. Finley grew up in Birmingham before moving off to strike it rich in the disability insurance business. Haywood Sullivan, the Barons’ manager, was raised in Dothan, Ala. (and later became a Boston Red Sox managing partner).
Bear Bryant, the legendary University of Alabama football coach, stepped in to quietly give Hoss Bowlin his start in coaching.
Icing: Colton finishes with “Where are they now?” updates ending with Lindblad’s wife lamenting his Alzheimer’s battle.
“The perfect teammate,” Blue Moon Odom says all these years later.
An almost perfect book, an ideal read for the spring of “42” — Jackie Robinson’s baseball crusade on the big screen. Except that the 1964 Barons don’t leave the South after spring training, they set up baseball shop in the Heart of Dixie and remain there for an eventful summer Colton captures in rich detail.
Reviewer Gene Sapakoff is a Post and Courier sports columnist.