Southern League

New epilogue material for Extra Innings to be added June 10, 2013

A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race

“Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail 1963

1964 was a pivotal year in the Civil Rights movement, and in Birmingham, Alabama – perhaps the epicenter of American racial conflict – a remarkable grand experiment was about to take place: Alabama’s first-ever integrated team, the Barons of baseball’s Southern League.

Manager Haywood Sullivan, a good ol' Alabama boy

Manager Haywood Sullivan, a good ol’ Alabama boy

Johnny “Blue Moon” Odom, a talented pitcher and Tommie Reynolds, an outfielder – both young black ballplayers with dreams of playing someday in the big leagues, along with Bert Campaneris, an escapee from Cuba, all found themselves in this simmering cauldron of a minor league town, all playing for manager Haywood Sullivan, a white former major leaguer who had grown up surrounded by the ways of Jim Crow just down the road in Dothan, Alabama.

Critically-acclaimed and best-selling author Larry Colton – himself a former professional pitcher who played in the Southern League — traces the entire 1964 season, writing about the extraordinary relationships among the Barons players and their charismatic manager Sullivan. Colton captures the heat of Birmingham and its citizens during this tumultuous year. The infamous Bull Connor, for example, who ordered the notorious Birmingham police to pummel civil rights marchers with blasts from powerful water hoses, was a fervent follower of the Barons. (He had leveraged his fame as a long-time broadcaster of Baron games to launch his political career.) Famed Alabama head football coach Bear Bryant was a regular at the Barons’ games. And the flamboyant Charlie Finley, who hailed from Birmingham, was the owner of the Kansas City Athletics, the major league team that controlled the Barons’ players and the team’s fate.

More than a story about baseball, this is a true accounting of a pivotal moment in the transformation of American society. Colton takes us on the road with the players as they stay in separate but unequal hotels; he introduces their girlfriends and young wives; he follows a desperate pennant race down to the wire; he takes us inside the culture of our great American sport in an era when players worked off-season jobs in warehouses for a buck-fifty an hour; and he gets us to root for a courageous team owner regularly facing threats from the KKK.

Seventeen years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color line in the major leagues, official Birmingham was resisting the end of segregation with bombs and terror. But Birmingham’s citizens, black and white, were finally going to go to the ballpark to watch their very first integrated sports team.

Around the Southern League, the racial jeers and taunts that rained down upon these Birmingham players echoed the abuse Jackie Robinson had faced, but these young athletes were forged into a team capable of winning in spite of the hostility. Their story is told here for the first time.

First-ever integrated team in Alabama

First-ever integrated team in Alabama

Southern League reviews

Although Southern League is not scheduled for release until May 14, 2013, the book has already started to create a buzz:

Those who say that sports do not, or should not, make us think about anything beyond the field itself have always been wrong.  The summer of ‘64 and the stories found in Southern League demonstrate that once again.
Bob Costas, NBC Sports

When I read “Counting Coup,” I was staggered by Larry Colton’s ability to persuade a group of high school girls to share their heart’s secrets, so I am not surprised that for “Southern League” he could get a bunch of aging baseball players to remember the hopes and fears of their minor league days. The breadth of Colton’s reporting here, placing the Birmingham Barons’ 1964 season squarely into the context of the civil rights era, is a narrative tour de force.
Richard Ben Cramer, Pulitzer prize-winning author of “What It Takes,” “Joe DiMaggio,” and “How Israel Lost.”

I can’t say this loud enough…this is a great book! (I’d throw in an f-bomb for emphasis but that sort of thing is frowned upon in high literary circles.) The explosive racial cauldron of Birmingham in the sixties, unforgettable characters and baseball all come together in Larry Colton’s memorable narrative, SOUTHERN LEAGUE. Baseball is the tie that binds, barely, but that’s enough.
Ron Shelton, writer/director of Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, Cobb and other films

Larry Colton’s interweaving of the 1964 Southern League baseball season with the Civil Rights movement revisits a period in American history that many of us will not – and should not – forget. With Colton’s retelling of players enduring racial insults on the field and threats and other indignities off the field, SOUTHERN LEAGUE makes for riveting, and revealing, reading.
Bill White, former president of the American League

Larry Colton has an extraordinary gift for capturing those times when everyday, glitz and glamour-free American sports, is not merely a metaphor for our culture but becomes a mechanism for cultural change. His highest expression of that gift comes now in SOUTHERN LEAGUE in which he introduces you to players nobody has yet built statues of, but who forced sea-changes in the America in which you live.
Keith Olbermann

Former major league pitcher Colton delivers a moving account of the 1964 minor league season involving the Birmingham Barons of the erstwhile segregated Southern League. As his subtitle suggests, he strives to interweave race and sports, and does so skillfully in focusing on the year following demonstrations spawned by Martin Luther King Jr.’s subsequent jailing, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham that resulted in the deaths of four girls, and the city’s well-earned reputation as “Bombingham.” Particularly effective are biographical sketches of pitchers John “Blue Moon” Odom and Paul Lindblad, manager Haywood Sullivan, and Kansas City Athletics owner Charles Finley, who had purchased the Birmingham franchise. Young black pitching star Odom, a native of the Deep South, contended with the region’s racism with considerable courage; his white teammate Lindblad treated Odom with respect, earning the accolade “perfect teammate.” All too familiar with Jim Crow practices, Georgia-born Sullivan came to deftly handle the racially integrated Barons, something encouraged by Finley.
VERDICT: This terrific rendering is highly recommended both to baseball fans and to students of civil rights history and African American studies.-RCC
Starred Review in Library Journal, February 15, 2013


“Thorough research and a wonderful weave of personalities are parts of what make ‘Southern League’ the best baseball book of the new season. Colorful narrative is the foundation of this book about the first integrated professional team in Alabama.”

Gene Sapakoff, Charleston Post and Courier sports columnist, June 2, 2013, review of ‘Southern League’.

“‘SOUTHERN LEAGUE’ deserves to be considered one of the eye-opening books of its type and will serve as a teaching tool for those who believe that sports — and life — in America was always as it is today.”

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on May 31, 2013, 20SomethingReads

“With ‘Southern League,’ Larry Colton has created a wonderfully entertaining book about what it was like to live during this difficult time of racial inequality. And with his love and enthusiasm for baseball he’s made a year in the minors seem like we’ve all just played in the World Series.”

Jim Carmin of the National Book Critics Circle in The Oregonian, June 2, 2013

Publication Details

Author: Larry Colton
Release Date: May, 2013
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Available in May


Book excerpt

Southern League and Me