Books

How Integration Came to the American League, in Cleveland’s Glory Days

Whether or not you care about baseball, you know the name Jackie Robinson. But even baseball fans of a certain age might not know Larry Doby, who made his major-league debut with the Cleveland Indians on July 5, 1947, integrating the American League just three months after Robinson had courageously done the same for the National League. Doby’s experience as the second Black player to break baseball’s 20th-century color barrier is one strand of Luke Epplin’s first book, “Our Team.” Epplin recounts the Indians’ seasons of 1947 and 1948 through the stories of four iconic figures: Doby; Satchel Paige, the Negro leagues pitching legend who joined the Indians in 1948, at 42 years old; Bill Veeck, the team’s maverick owner; and Bob Feller, the Hall of Fame pitcher who had debuted in Cleveland in 1936, when he was just 17. Below, Epplin talks about the origins of his interest in the team, how Doby’s experience differed from Robinson’s and more.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

It’s strange to find somebody like me, from rural Illinois, near St. Louis, writing a book about Cleveland. I grew up as a Cardinals fan. But here’s how the germ happened: My grandfather on my dad’s side was hard of hearing, so he didn’t go to World War II. Instead he worked in an airplane factory in St. Louis. He would go to Sportsman’s Park, which at that time hosted two baseball teams: the Cardinals, who were always great, and the Browns, who were terrible. My grandfather was an unusual man, in that he was a big fan of the Browns.

The last owner of the Browns (before they became the Baltimore Orioles) was Bill Veeck, the iconoclastic showman. I wanted to pursue a longer project about him. While researching, I went back to his earlier years owning the Indians. Reading through the archives of The Sporting News at the New York Public Library, I kept seeing these four names coming up: Bill Veeck, Larry Doby, Satchel Paige and Bob Feller. You had these four men, two white and two Black, and they each seemed to represent different facets of the integration that was happening at the time. I thought, the larger story is to be told here, through these four individuals.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

I hadn’t realized how different Larry Doby’s introduction to the American League was from Jackie Robinson’s introduction to the National League. Robinson was signed in October 1945. From there he goes to spring training, and then has an entire season in the minor leagues. Then he goes to another spring training before he’s introduced into the National League. So he has a sort of acclimation period, to wrap his mind around what is happening. Doby is playing in the Negro leagues on the Newark Eagles in 1947. He’s 23 and he’s tearing up the league. On July 1, Veeck contacts the co-owner of the Newark Eagles, a woman by the name of Effa Manley. Doby plays a doubleheader in Newark on July 4, boards a train, and the very next day he’s in an Indians uniform. So he literally travels overnight from the Negro leagues to the major leagues. It almost throws him into a state of shock. He said the first several times he came to the plate in the majors, he couldn’t stop his teeth from chattering.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

It was originally going to start when Doby entered the league with the Indians, on July 5, 1947. I was going to start the narrative right in the middle and do flashbacks as necessary. But as I was researching, I realized you really needed to get the wartime experiences — all of them had experiences then that shaped how they approached the postwar years. And I found these characters were crisscrossing with one another and even colliding before they’re together on the Indians. Feller and Paige first faced each other when Feller was 17. They played against each other dozens of times in barnstorming games that captured the nation’s attention. Feller had it in his mind all those years that he really wanted to join forces with Paige. So I needed to go a lot further back, which is why the book now starts in 1936, to show who these men were before and during the war.

What creative person (not a writer) has influenced you and your work?

The cartoonist Charles Schulz. When I was a kid, I had an uncle Ronnie who collected the “Peanuts” books from the very beginning. He gave me a complete duplicate set he had, from 1950 to 1975 or so. I grew up reading those books over and over and over again. I really liked Schulz’s economy of emotion and of story. He takes those four panels and not only creates a larger world, but he can convey deep, heartfelt human emotion in these characters. I really admire the starkness of his art and how he can suggest things with just a few pen lines. He taught me a lot about getting to the heart of things, cutting things down to their essence.

Persuade someone to read “Our Team” in 50 words or less.

You’ve got an integration story that perhaps isn’t as well known, and the most exciting pennant race in American League history. You’ve got four characters who are larger than life but also deeply human and flawed. The confluence produces what I think is just a magical season.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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