— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
A conversation with Brad Snyder
Will Young talks Negro Leagues with the author of Beyond the Shadow of the Senators
Earlier this month, BTF was able to interview Brad Snyder, the author of Beyond the Shadow of the Senators, and ask about the Homestead Grays, Sam Lacy and Calvin Griffith.
Snyder wrote for the Baltimore Sun from 1994 to 1996 and wrote a fourteen-part series about Cal Ripken, Jr. during the season in which he broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played. During his undergraduate years, he covered the Duke University men’s basketball team for the Washington Post and published articles in Basketball America and the Raleigh News and Observer.
After graduating from Duke, Snyder attended Yale Law School and graduated in 1999. He currently works as a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.
BTF: How did you first get attracted to the subject of the Homestead Grays?
Snyder: I grew up outside of Washington D.C. hearing stories from my mother and her brothers about going to Washington Senators’ games at Griffith Stadium. When I started to research the Negro leagues in college, I was fascinated to learn that the Grays played at Griffith Stadium from 1940 to 1950 when the Senators were out of town. I thought it was ironic that the best team in the Negro leagues was playing in the same stadium as one of the worst teams in the major leagues.
BTF: Before you started researching this project, how knowledgeable were you about the Negro leagues?
Snyder: I knew almost nothing about the Negro leagues. I knew who Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige were, but that’s about it. I had not read a single book about the Negro leagues before my sophomore year of college. That is a travesty considering how big a baseball fan I was growing up. I hope that Beyond the Shadow of the Senators helps some young baseball fans learn about the Negro leagues.
BTF: The book morphed out of your senior honors thesis. How does your book differ from the work you did then?
Snyder: I had interviewed dozens for my honors thesis, but it was just that – a 115-page honors thesis consisting of three chapters. It was more of a social history about Washington’s black community. People in the community worked at institutions such as Howard University and lived in middle class black neighborhoods such as LeDroit Park. The honors thesis focused on how the Grays, who played in their backyard at Griffith Stadium, affected this community and how the community came to embrace the Grays.
Beyond the Shadow of the Senators, on the other hand, is more of a narrative about Sam Lacy, a black sportswriter who grew up in the neighborhood near Griffith Stadium and worked as a sportswriter for the Baltimore Afro-American to lead the campaign to integrate major league baseball, Buck Leonard, the Grays’ Hall of Fame first baseman who grew up in Rocky Mount, N.C., and who embarked on a career in black baseball at age 25 to support his widowed mother and younger siblings, and represented one of the arguments for integration, and Clark Griffith, the white owner of the Washington Senators who profited off the Grays’ games at Griffith Stadium and stubbornly refused to integrate the Senators until seven years after Jackie Robinson initially broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The book argues that the fight to integrate major league baseball began not in Brooklyn, but in Washington, D.C.
BTF: How much of the honor’s thesis remained in the book?
Snyder: Almost none. I completely rewrote the book from scratch. Some of the biographical material on Sam Lacy and Buck Leonard and the descriptions of the neighborhoods of Black Washington near Griffith Stadium were included in different forms. But there is probably not a single sentence from the honors thesis in Beyond the Shadow of the Senators.
BTF: Nearly every passage of the book is supported with an interview. The reader gets the feeling that many of these people enjoyed sitting down and reminiscing about the past. What difficulties did you face while interviewing all of these people?
Snyder: The difficulties in conducting the interviews were twofold. First, people who remembered or played in the Negro leagues are dying off. Second, Negro league research is plagued by a lack of documentation. The statistical recordkeeping in the Negro league was poor, the scheduling of games was haphazard, and black weekly newspapers were the only media outlets that regularly covered the games. Most Negro league historians are forced to rely on the reminiscences of old ballplayers. People, however, tend to remember things in their own unique ways—and not necessarily the ways things actually happened. Thus, I tried to verify the facts that I learned from my interviews with documentation from archives at Howard University and from box stories and game stories in black newspapers such as the Washington Afro-American, Washington Tribune, Chicago Defender, and Pittsburgh Courier.
For example, I had been told several times that Josh Gibson hit more home runs over Griffith Stadium’s left- and center-field fences in 1943 than the entire American League. I verified this by tracking down box scores in black newspapers from Gibson’s Griffith Stadium home runs that season and by going through white daily newspapers and finding all of the American League home runs hit there that season. Josh out-homered his white American League counterparts, 10-9.
BTF: Of the interviews, which one was the most helpful?
Snyder: My best interview was with Clark Griffith’s nephew, Calvin, with whom I spent two days in Indiatlantic, Fla. Calvin worked under Clark and took over as the owner of the Senators after Clark’s death in 1955. Calvin’s racial biases hampered his ability to run his team even in the decades after he moved Senators to Minnesota and renamed them the Twins. Speaking with him helped me understand why the Senators waited so long to integrate.
BTF: In the book, Sam Lacy is critical of Washington Post writer Shirley Povich for not speaking out in favor of integrating the Senators. Did you bring up this topic in your interview with Povich? What was his response?
Snyder: Sam Lacy resented Shirley Povich. The source of that resentment is unclear. I hypothesized that Lacy resented Povich because he was not tough enough in print on Povich’s good friend, Clark Griffith. Povich, however, spoke out in favor of integrating major league baseball as early as 1937. He was one of the most liberal white sports columnists at that time. He was not as vociferous as Lacy or black sportswriter Wendell Smith about integrating the Senators. I did bring up Lacy with Povich. Povich had no idea why Lacy resented him.
BTF: In the conclusion of the book, you suggested that a memorial of Buck Leonard and/or Sam Lacy should be erected at the site where Griffith Stadium was located. Was that an idea that you developed through your research or did you adopt it from someone else? Also, has there been any support for that idea since the publication of the book?
Snyder: It was an idea I came up with by talking to people and walking around the neighborhood near where Griffith Stadium once stood—and where the Howard University Hospital now stands—at Seventh and Florida Avenues. I was struck that despite being a city of monuments, Washington, D.C. has nothing to remind people that a great black baseball team once played here. If a monument was created, it should be outside and should be a symbol to remind the people in the community of what the Homestead Grays accomplished.
There has been support for monuments. The Howard University Hospital has a small display now inside the hospital. In addition, there is a group of people who would like to call Washington’s next major league team the Washington Grays. This group will be establishing a website at washingtongrays.com and are very supportive of creating monuments in the memory of great black sportswriters such as Mr. Lacy and ballplayers such as Mr. Leonard.
BTF: You researched and wrote Beyond the Shadow of the Senators after you got your law degree. Are you going to devote more time to law or are you working on any other baseball projects? If so, what topic are you researching?
Snyder: I’ve left my job at a Washington, D.C. law firm to devote myself full time to writing a book about Curt Flood and his Supreme Court lawsuit against major league baseball. It’s a natural marriage of my interests in law and baseball. Flood’s story is in many ways the next chapter after Jackie Robinson in the struggle for freedom and equality in professional sports.
BTF: Sounds like another interesting topic. Thanks again, for taking the time to talk with us.
For more information about Brad Snyder or Beyond the Shadow of the Senators
Posted: June 23, 2004 at 03:28 AM | 2 comment(s)
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