The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues by John Holway: a review

This formidable book is the culmination of John Holway’s life’s work. The project is a considerable accomplishment, and a valuable reference, but it’s a disappointment.

This is mainly a reference work, and for that purpose it’s certainly something you want on your bookshelf. There are year-by-year lists of leagues, of league standings and team records, of league leaders in several statistical categories, and of team rosters. Each chapter also records playoff results (usually in the form of game-by-game descriptions), black players in international ball, the results of many exhibition games/series involving major league players, and other noteworthy events. Every chapter also has a number of pertinent quotes and anecdotes. And an occasional short essay tries to put players and events into context. This represents an enormous research effort spanning nearly six decades. This is Holway’s best effort to record what he knows about Negro League baseball. It is a good effort.

Nonetheless, the book has obvious problems.

The book’s subtitle, “The Other Half of Baseball History,” suggests one of those difficulties. Holway’s an advocate for Black baseball, and he occasionally lets that advocacy obscure the history. To be fair, this is a largely harmless issue, and Holway often goes out of his way to present contrary evidence. But the bias pervades this book.

There’s a quotation on the book’s cover which suggests its other weakness–the quote’s attributed to Bob Feller, who is described as a “former Negro League star.” The sloppy proofreading that missed this obvious error is evident throughout the book. Botched quotations, repeated factoids, and similar distractions are common. Holway’s editors did not serve him well.

The book’s publishers also let Holway down. The book is very well organized, but not well laid out. Would the publisher had made some effort to make the organization more obvious. Some typeface adjustments, a judicious use of boxes and shading, and just some careful attention to production values would have vastly improved the reading experience. This book really needed a competent layout designer.

Finally: I’m reluctant to fault Holway for the deficiencies in this book’s statistical record, which are limited to the common categories and are noticeably devoid of context. Some of the difficulties are generational–we’ve all become accustomed to detailed baseball statistics. Other, and more important, difficulties are certainly due to deficiencies in Negro League record keeping–and even in the very nature of the Negro Leagues. I’d certainly like better statistics. I just don’t see any reason to hold John Holway responsible to provide them.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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