Dunkel tells a great story, and he has great raw material to work with, starting with the local car dealer who managed the team, and decided to raise it above the standard run of town baseball teams in the upper mid west by paying his players out of the winning of his gambling habit. Neil Churchill wanted to field a winning team, and wasn't concerned about the loyalties or the skin color of his players. He bought away rival teams' best players, and brought in Negro League greats Satchel Page and Ted "Double duty" Radcliffe. Semipro baseball at the time lived on the shadowy fringes below and between minor league teams affiliated with the big leagues, company-sponsored traveling teams and leagues, amateur town leagues, and of course the Negro Leagues; contracts and roster rules were undocumented or ignored, schedules were flexible, statistics were spotty. Bismarck's team started as an amateur town league team, and started paying players, most not quite good enough or white enough to make it in organized minor league baseball, to keep pace in an escalating pitching arms race with neighboring rival Jamestown.
And remarkably Churchill was able to sign the best pitching arm.of all in the legendary Paige, and even more remarkably keep him (mostly) on the roster for the magical year of 1935 when the team swept through its regular season winning most of its games (different sources list different won-lost records, but the winning percentage hovered around 80%) and won an invitation to the national semipro "Little World Series."
Among the cast of amazing characters Dunkel has to work with are the organizers and promoters, including Abe Saperstein, who later put together the best-known traveling novelty act in all of sports, the Harlem Globetrotters, but got his start organizing semipro baseball leagues and tournaments in the upper midwest, and Hap Dumont, who singlehandedly organized, promoted, and ran the 1935 national championship. Working from Wichita, Kansas, Dumont was able to lure 32 teams to that "baseball mecca" with the promise of thousands of dollars in prize money; among the 32 teams were company teams, town teams, a novelty team of brothers (challenged by another team of.brothers who were left off the invitation list!), several black teams--and Bismarck's mixed race team that baffled all commentators (how to describe the fact that these black players were better than most white players yet still support the blatant racism of baseball's color line) and out-battled all challengers to win the double-elimination tournament without a loss.
Dunkel tells the story with masterful pace and timing, mixing detailed baseball research with relevant background on the time and place. Not only was there a Great Depression on, but North Dakota was also in the midst of a historic string of drought years, yet Churchill was able to lure black players to all-white Bismarck and lure enough white patrons into the ballpark to watch them keep the mixture financially afloat for several of the worst years of the 1930s.
The good times couldn't and didn't last, and Dunkel takes the time to bring the story up to date and connect the dots that lead to Jackie Robinson. Town baseball in Bismarck didn't survive the Depression or the war, and not all of Churchill's players lived happily ever after. But their stories now live on in this classic account that gives them the respect and recognition they richly deserve.
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