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02/24/2006 Archived Entry: "Seminal baseball author Robert Peterson dies at 80"


Robert Peterson, author of a critically-acclaimed book on Negro League baseball, passed away this week at the age of 80. Peterson wrote "Only the Ball was White" in 1970, one year before Satchel Paige became the first former Negro League star to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. It has been said it was not a coincidence.

Whether Peterson's book influenced the decision by the Hall to include ex-Negro Leaguers after ignoring them for 32 years, there is no doubt his book marked a turning point in baseball research. Before "Only the Ball was White" came out, very little was known about the old black leagues outside Paige's entertaining autobiography, "Maybe I'll Pitch Forever," and references here and there in other books and magazines. There had been many stories and names floating in the periphery of baseball memory, but Peterson authored the first comprehensive history of the Negro Leagues from their beginning in the late 19th century to their slow death in the 1950's. It included standings (when available), All-Star Game boxscores and a register of all known former players in the major Negro Leagues. For the first time, a book was available that drew a line from the earliest stars like Frank Grant and Sol White through the years after Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers in 1946 and youngsters like Ernie Banks, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron were rising from such teams as the Kansas City Monarchs, Birmingham Black Barons and Indianapolis Clowns (the last of the legendary barnstorming teams, and subject of Bill Heward's superb book, "Some are Called Clowns"). It was a breakthrough in baseball writing.

Prior to authoring "Only the Ball was White," Peterson had written for such diverse publications as Sport, Sports Illustrated, Boy's Life, Seventeen and the New York Times Magazine. While he never wrote another book that matched the success of "Only the Ball was White," he pointed the way for subsequent authors such as John B. Holway (who writes for Baseball Guru), Donn Rogosin, James A. Riley and Ken Burns, who have all written notably on the Negro Leagues. Holway and Riley in particular have taken Peterson one step further; Holway for his excellent series of first-person player narratives in the style of Lawrence Ritter's "The Glory of Their Times," and Riley for his exhaustive "Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues."

The true measure of Peterson's work is that 36 years after its release, "Only the Ball was White" is still a standard-setter among Negro League literature and remains required reading on the subject. He was 80 years old.

-Bruce Baskin

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