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Moorhead, Minn. — Steve Hoffbeck has spent a lot of time squinting over old newspapers. He's leading a team of nine writers on the book, Black Baseball in Minnesota. Hoffbeck is a history professor at Minnesota State University - Moorhead. For the past five years he's researched the history of black teams and players. He's tracked down leads trying to find people or documents -- anything that would produce information.
Hoffbeck says if newspapers covered games played by black teams, they often treated them as oddities. Not many people were interested in black baseball players or their teams.
"It's very hard to track these because often times newspapers don't give much publicity. But surprisingly, there will be pictures in a number of newspapers," says Hoffbeck. "One of my responsibilities has been to track down as many pictures of individuals and of the teams as I can get, and I've got quite a collection. But often times these are pictures from the newspapers, and the quality is not the greatest."
Hoffbeck says players moved a lot between teams, and the teams themselves didn't always last very long. Semi-pro teams had a short lifespan. But the main problem with Hoffbeck's research project is a lack of records. In an era of blatant discrimination, black baseball was considered inferior.
"There will be some box scores in some newspapers, and many times I can't even tell where they're going (to tour) next," says Hoffbeck. "They tour in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa. So I had to go to all the historical societies of those states in order to find the newspapers, to try and track where they going next."
Hoffbeck says black barnstorming teams were common in the Midwest.
"It's considered to be, by black players, a little more hospitable place than some of the other places. There's a little bit more of the equality," says Hoffbeck. "It's not perfect, there still is discrimination, there will be the name-calling sorts of things."
In a time when Jim Crow laws were still enforced in many southern states -- prohibiting integration of any type -- small-town baseball teams were making history. Twelve years before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball, there were integrated teams in the Midwest. One was in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Bismarck car dealer Neil Churchill sponsored and coached an integrated team in 1935. Steve Hoffbeck says Churchill cared most about winning.
"He is mixing blacks and whites in the middle 1930s, and they win a national semi-professional championship," says Hoffbeck. "That's where Satchel Paige comes into the story. He pitches in Bismarck for three years."
Unlike many black baseball players of his era, Leroy "Satchel" Paige wasn't so anonymous. Paige was the first black pitcher to win a game in the major leagues. He was witty and quotable. When asked about his age, which he kept a secret his entire life, Paige would respond, "Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."
Paige did everything with style. In the summer of 1950, Paige arrived in a chauffeur-driven Cadillac to pitch for the Minot Mallards. Boyd Christenson was a bat boy for the team.
"Every joint in his body was just thrown into that pitch, and you could hear that smack when it hit that mitt," says Christenson.
Christenson remembers watching Paige give an unforgettable performance.
"He intentionally walked three batters. He called in the outfield and called in the infield, and he struck out the next three batters with bases loaded," says Christenson. "I have never seen anything like it. The fans just went crazy. Here's a man who was probably pushing 50, and I mean ... that ball moved around ... it was like magic."
Odis "Oats" LeGrand coached a Moorhead team that played against Satchel Paige.
"He didn't take much time. He was quick on the mound. Any game he was in were close scores, they were short games," says LeGrand. "He was a very presentable person. Nice to talk to, easy to talk to."
Paige was perhaps the most famous black player of his era to play in Minnesota. Author Steve Hoffbeck says Paige and other players made people realize black players were not inferior. He says in a time when opportunities for black men in all areas of society were restricted, baseball was more than a game.
"(Baseball was) a way to show your manhood in American society, and that's on the field. And if you can beat the white teams, then how can people say you are inferior?" says Hoffbeck.
Hoffbeck's book, Black Baseball in Minnesota, will be published in spring, 2004.