1964 was not a time of racial harmony in Birmingham, Alabama. The previous year saw the jailing of Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four African American girls. Both events cast Birmingham as a place of particularly harsh intolerance, even in comparison with the neighboring cities and states of the Jim Crow South. Twenty years earlier, Jackie Robinson broke
baseball's color barrier but the Birmingham Barons - Birmingham's professional team in the Southern League - remained all-white due to a city ordinance called the "Checkers Rule," forbidding blacks and whites from playing any game together, including baseball. In 1961, Major League Baseball mandated that all minor league teams integrate and the team disbanded rather than allow blacks to play on the same field.
In Southern League : A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South's Most Compelling Pennant Race, Larry Colton details the 1964 season of the new, fully integrated Birmingham Barons. Charlie O'Finley, the charismatic owner of the Kansas City Athletics, started the experiment of integrated baseball in Birmingham to return minor league baseball to his hometown. Although his main goal was to create a pipeline of talented ballplayers for his Major League team, more importantly it created a litmus test for the city of Birmingham. If an integrated baseball team could be successful both on the field and at the gate, and get through a season without any serious, racially charged incidents, it would go a long way towards getting Birmingham out of the segregated Dark Ages.
Southern League is a fantastic read told mostly through the day-to-day lives of four Baron players (two black and two white) as well as rookie manager Heywood Sullivan, a native Alabaman. The Barons were an immensely talented team, perhaps one of the best in Birmingham history, and Colton captures the excitement of the 1964 Southern League pennant race. Yet perhaps the most illuminating aspect of the story is the compassion and camaraderie that developed not only among the players of the team, but between the Barons and their city. Many of the players and fans were forced to deal directly with integration for the first time and, with the results so roundly successful, many were changed for the better.