There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
On one level, a 30-year-old white lawyer from Potomac, Md., wouldn’t be the obvious author for a book about Washington race relations during the ’30s and ’40s. But though Brad Snyder never set foot in Shaw or on U Street as a kid, baseball offered him a perspective others didn’t have.
Growing up, Snyder was a die-hard Baltimore Orioles fan in a family whose elders all yammered on about the Washington Senators, the team that left town the year before Snyder was born. But nobody talked about the Homestead Graysa star-studded Negro League team that played in the Senators’ Griffith Stadium, before big crowds in the heart of black Washington, for several years before Jackie Robinson crossed baseball’s color line in 1947. When he discovered the Grays, Snyder was more than surprised. “I almost felt deprived,” he says. “I had the sense that I had been kept from learning about the real history of this city.”
His indignation fueled a Duke undergraduate thesis on the Grays. That paper, fleshed out with lots of extra research and more than 100 pages of footnotes, has just been released as Beyond the Shadow of the Senators: The Untold Story of the Homestead Grays and the Integration of Baseball.
Baseball’s integration is hardly virgin territory for scholars. Snyder’s book, though, takes a fresh approach. It focuses on the inescapableand all too often awkwardrelationship between white baseball and black baseball, played out in the nation’s capital, a city that was at once Southern yet also home to the federal government.
Shadow locates its race-related conflicts within the overlapping relationships of several subtly drawn characters. In 1937, Sam Lacy, a crusading Washington sportswriter for African-American newspapers (who’s still alive and approaching 100), challenged Senators owner Clark Griffith to integrate the sport; Griffith’s reply that the event was “not far off” made national headlines.
But it would take another decade: Despite his forward-looking words, Griffith, who made significant money on the Grays’ rentals of his stadium, had reasons to support the status quo. (So did African-American Grays owner Cum Posey, who risked losing his business if the major leagues integrated without compensating Negro League owners.) But despite his resistance to change, Griffith avoided general condemnation at the timenot least because Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall expressed more openly racist views than Griffith ever did. Lacy, meanwhile, clashed publicly with Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich, who, as one of the city’s leading voices for integration, might have been his ally had personal animus not intervened.
To Snyder, these relationships not only shaped the tenor of race relations in Washington during that era but also, in a more mundane way, condemned the Senators to their legendary fate. “The amazing thing is that in September 1954four months after Brown vs. Board of Education and seven years after Jackie Robinsonthe Senators were still segregated,” Snyder says. When the financially struggling team did integrate, it was with an Afro-Cuban player, Carlos Paula. “With their stadium in the middle of the African-American community, they could have desperately used a black star,” Snyder says.
With Washington now awaiting a new baseball franchise, the lessons of the Senators reverberate even today. For all the focus on building pricey sky boxes, “you have to market a team to the entire community, not just to upper-class whites,” Snyder says. “If the Montreal Expos move to Washington, the owners would be foolish not to market Vladimir Guererro to the Latino community here.” Louis Jacobson
Brad Snyder appears April 6, at 5 p.m. at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. For more information, call (202) 364-1919.