Our Team: Satchel Paige, Larry Doby, and the World Series That Changed Baseball

Image of Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series That Changed Baseball
Release Date: 
March 30, 2021
Flatiron Books
Reviewed by: 

“Our Team gloriously chronicles the excruciating birth pains and exhilarating triumph of a ballclub that played an undervalued but coequal role in challenging major league baseball's institutionalized racism, and grabbed the brass ring almost immediately, taking the World Series crown in 1948, following the four-way pennant race of the century.”

Luke Epplin's Our Team: Satchel Paige, Larry Doby, and the World Series That Changed Baseball is the second barn-burning book in six months to home in on a classic 1948 campaign, recounting the breathtaking battle for the ’48 American League pennant hot on the heels of Dewey Defeats Truman, A. J. Baime's rip-roaring take on Harry Truman's upset electoral victory over Thomas Dewey.

Our Team's story (like Dewey Defeats Truman's) resonates far beyond ’48, and far beyond baseball. And even though the 1948 Cleveland Indians brought the city its lone World Series title in the last 100 years, the Our in the book's title doesn't refer to success-starved Cleveland fans. Rather, it refers to African Americans who saw their hopes and aspirations embodied in the team, and its two barrier-breaking Black stars: the fast-rising power-hitting centerfielder Larry Doby, who had integrated the American League the year before; and the ageless, smoke-throwing, barnstorming legend of the Negro Leagues, Leroy "Satchel" Paige.

Of course, this isn't quite the baseball integration origin story we all know and cherish. Jackie Robinson's arrival in 1947 as the first man in the 20th century to cross major league baseball's color line is often heralded as a harbinger of landmark triumphs to follow over the next 20 years as the modern civil rights movement hit its stride and dismantled the system of American apartheid commonly known as Jim Crow.

But the racial exclusion that had made the major leagues inaccessible and inhospitable to Blacks didn't disappear the day Robinson made his Ebbets Field debut, any more than Brown v. Board of Education put an immediate end to school segregation, or Southern restaurant owners (to paraphrase historian Tim Tyson) read about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the newspaper, sighed and said, “Well, we had a good run,” and took the “Whites Only” sign out of the window.

Those pivotal moments proved only the beginning of the end, on the baseball diamond as everywhere else. Every day he took the field, Robinson confronted the same racism and resistance that had kept his much longer-suffering Negro League forbears off it for decades.

Robinson's heroic absorption of all the blows he took in that first season is thoroughly documented in books and films ranging from Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer (1972) to the 1950 biopic in which he played himself, to the 2013 film 42, and it's celebrated in every ballpark in the major leagues, where Robinson's universally retired number hangs in the rafters. Without question, Robinson helped pave the way for the Black major leaguers who would dominate the game for the next 30 years. But what of the players who followed Robinson up that road long before enough time had passed to pave it?

When Larry Doby broke the color line in the American League 11 weeks after Robinson's National League debut, he faced precisely the same abuses and indignities as Robinson. As he later recalled, "Nobody said, ‘We’re gonna be nice to the second Black.’”

The Boys of Summer recounts the story of the Jackie Robinson Dodgers, a team that helped redeem a beloved American institution thereto stained, like the country itself, by pervasive and entrenched white supremacy. It also captures the rise and fall of a unit that reached greatness quickly, but never won a World Series until it was in decline.

Our Team gloriously chronicles the excruciating birth pains and exhilarating triumph of a ballclub that played an undervalued but coequal role in challenging major league baseball's institutionalized racism, and grabbed the brass ring almost immediately, taking the World Series crown in 1948, following the four-way pennant race of the century.

Part of the magic of The Boys of Summer is that it made reasonably interesting characters of Robinson's extensive supporting cast by demonstrating how that mid-century experience of participating in the integration of baseball made otherwise fairly nondescript old ballplayers like Carl Furillo into men that otherwise they never would have become.

Epplin's task is arguably easier, as his book zeroes in on four undeniably captivating characters: the talented, determined, but often achingly vulnerable Doby; the real-life Roy Hobbs freak of nature from the Iowa cornfields, fireballer Bob Feller; and two of the most colorful characters in baseball history, P. T. Barnum-like owner Bill Veeck; and the ageless, inimitable, and historically unhittable Satchel Paige.

Paige's and Feller's paths crossed repeatedly years before they somewhat awkwardly teamed up on the ’48 Indians. The two often faced off as the marquee attractions in Black vs. white all-star exhibitions on the barnstorming circuit of the 1930s. Though Paige faced formidable barriers Feller never had to worry about, both, in their own ways, pioneered the economic independence ballplayers would enjoy 40 years later, Feller pursuing entrepreneurship and challenging big-league authority as a barnstorming impresario, and Paige prefiguring future free agency by relentlessly selling his peerless pitching talents to the highest bidder, and never signing a contract he intended to honor any longer than it remained the best deal he could get.

Paige played everywhere from South Dakota to Puerto Rico, and even pitched a season in the service of the brutal Dominican dictator Raphael Trujillo. But some of his most memorable, popular, and profitable outings involved high-profile faceoffs with Feller.

Though Feller clearly recognized that facing the wildly popular Paige was essential to his enterprise, in multiple interviews over the years, as Epplin wrenchingly reports, Feller's bred-in-the-bone prejudices never quite allowed him to recognize Paige as a pitching equal. He might acknowledge Paige’s velocity, or raw talent, but question his work ethic, parroting stereotypical notions of Black laziness, or low intelligence. Likewise, he'd run down other Black players—even those it might have benefited his business to promote—insisting that none quite measured up to the baseline talent level of the white major leagues. “Maybe Paige when he was young,” he told one reporter. “When you name him, you’re done. Some can field pretty good. Most of them are fast. But I have seen none who combine the qualities of a big league ball player . . . Not even Jackie Robinson.”

Veeck, equally renowned and reviled for shamelessly filling the stands through sideshow antics and carnival hucksterism (and more or less inventing—as far as the majors were concerned—the entertainment-centric mindset that reliably draws crowds with only middling interest in baseball to ballparks today), emerges as an equal opportunity hustler with a genuine belief that integration was both necessary to improve his teams and the right thing to do.

Epplin also presents Veeck's freewheeling approach as a study in contrast with the practiced paternalism and high-minded sanctimony of the Dodgers' Branch Rickey. Both were innovative; Veeck was also impulsive, often to his detriment. But at least Veeck had the decency to buy Doby’s contract from the formidable Effa Manley, owner of the Negro League Newark Eagles. Rickey simply stole Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs, refusing to recognize the franchise as a legitimate business.

Larry Doby's experience forms the dramatic center and emotional core of Our Team, providing some of its most painful episodes and thrilling highlights. Epplin's description of Doby’s icy reception in the Indians clubhouse is particularly revealing. Much as when affirmative action began to change the complexion of American employment and upward mobility in the 1970s, white ballplayers took a “zero-sum game” view of the arrival of Black players like Doby on their teams, perceiving their presence as a direct threat to their own jobs.

This perception proved particularly acute in Doby’s case, partly because he arrived virtually unannounced in the Indians’ clubhouse (unlike Robinson, who spent a pre-planned gap year with a Dodgers minor-league affiliate before Rickey brought him to Brooklyn), and partly because he joined a team with a stable infield as a man who’d played second base in the Negro League. Doby would eventually find a home where the ballclub desperately needed him—in the outfield—but upon his arrival, no established infielder was any too eager to give up his job to make room for a Black man.

Some players refused to welcome Doby out of prejudice or fear for their jobs; others, Epplin writes, were happy to have him on the team but reluctant to appear too inviting out of deference to their more bigoted teammates. As Epplin quotes Bill Greason, a Black pitcher who reached the majors nearly seven years later, “Any white guy who might have wanted to be friendly to a black ballplayer was in a spot; he had to worry about being ostracized by his own.”

Sequestered in a Black hotel in Cleveland during his first season with the team, Doby called his wife each night and told her that “amid the stress, isolation, and rancor of the first week, he’d shed seven pounds.”

Often he made lengthy late-night calls to Jackie Robinson to talk about “the challenges of keeping their cool while being bombarded with racist invective. ‘Jackie got all the publicity for putting up with [racial slurs] . . . He was first, but the crap I took was just as bad.’ . . . Through these candid conversations, Doby felt, the two ‘kept each other from giving up.’”

Many of Our Team’s most exciting moments, naturally, occur during Epplin’s account of the 1948 season, when Doby (after a woeful rookie year) emerged as a full-fledged star, the Indians battled three other teams for the American League pennant, and defeated the Red Sox in a tie-breaking game to reach the World Series. The year 1948 also marked Paige’s decades-overdue major league debut, and striking highs and lows for both aging hurlers Paige and Feller.

Our Team is arguably at its most compelling not in Epplin’s account of the ’48 pennant race but in setting up the backstories of its four protagonists, and describing the deflating aftermath of that thrilling season, in which “the promise of 1948 was not kept.” Much more than the story of a season, Our Team is also much more than a baseball book.

As such it offers much to complement several other recent books that tell similar or related stories, in addition to the nearly half-century-old The Boys of Summer. Our Team takes a more measured “just the facts” approach to Satchel Paige’s story than Larry Tye’s wonderful 2009 biography Satchel, which makes time for seemingly every myth or tall tale that ever arose in Satchel’s own telling or that of legendary Black baseball bard Buck O’Neil. Our Team takes an approach more similar to that of Tom Dunkel’s Color Blind: The Forgotten Team that Broke Baseball’s Color Line, which tells the weirder-than-fiction story of Paige’s two mid-’30s summers of semipro ball in the badlands.

Joseph Thomas Moore’s Larry Doby: The Struggle of the American League’s First Black Player still stands as the definitive Doby biography, and provides some interesting contrasting takes on certain episodes in Doby’s early years in the majors, particularly the “Eddie Robinson Incident” that proved the lowest of the many lows of his 1947 season.

Epplin likewise reinforces the views of Mark Whitaker’s Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance and Neal Lanctot’s Negro Leagues: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution, on integration’s swift decimation the Negro Leagues. As each writer explains, Black baseball simply couldn’t survive the transition, not simply because of the poaching of its best talent, its historic instability, or the diverted attention of its once-loyal Black fans, but also because of the stigma increasingly attached to once-celebrated independent Black institutions that had developed under segregation. These institutions’ unfortunate association with the deprivations and humiliations of the Jim Crow era seemed to make many Blacks want to forget them when the barriers that had made them necessary began to recede.

Finally, Our Team’s approach to covering baseball strikes, in one respect, a telling contrast with Jeremy Beer’s terrific 2019 biography of Negro League great Oscar Charleston. Beer’s noble efforts to graft modern sabermetric analysis onto the sometimes-scant statistical data available in Negro League records does much to place Charleston’s staggering achievements into a relatable context for contemporary baseball fans trying to assess his reputation as “Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Tris Speaker all rolled into one.”

But it also identifies Beer’s biography as a book written primarily for baseball aficionados, whereas Luke Epplin, with Our Team, is aiming for a wider audience that his book richly deserves to find.