Robert W. Peterson, 80; Wrote Seminal Book on the Negro Leagues

Times Staff Writer

Robert W. Peterson, a former newspaper editor who shed light on a little-known aspect of baseball history with his seminal book on the sport’s Negro Leagues, “Only the Ball Was White,” has died. He was 80.

Peterson, who had lung cancer and emphysema, died of a heart attack Feb. 11 at a hospital near Allentown, Pa., according to his wife, Peggy.

Published in 1970, “Only the Ball Was White” was the first detailed accounting of Negro baseball. As both an oral history by the players and an accounting of the glory and despair of their times, the book was like no other.


One day a team might be playing before a huge crowd made up of fans of all colors at Yankee Stadium, the book related. A few days later the same team might be on a bus in the countryside, the players broke and looking for a game to earn gas money.

This was part of American life for decades until 1951, when the Negro Leagues finally went out of business after the integration of baseball’s major leagues. Through much of that time an unofficial -- but firm -- color barrier kept blacks from playing in the majors. Jackie Robinson broke that barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

“It isn’t possible to exaggerate how important that book is,” said Lawrence Hogan, a professor of history at Union County College in Cranford, N.J., who is also a leading expert on the Negro Leagues. “When you start [investigating] the Negro Leagues, you start with Bob’s book.”

Jim Gates, the library director at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., agreed: “His book is among the top 10 ever written [on baseball], the key that unlocked the door to a missing piece in baseball history.”

A native of Warren, Pa., Peterson grew up playing baseball and watching the Negro League teams that barnstormed the region playing local semi-pro squads. He recalled seeing Josh Gibson, the great catcher for the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, hit what is still regarded as the longest home run in the history of Warren County.

A catcher himself, Peterson played against some of the Negro League stars, his wife said. Peterson also played baseball at Upsala College in East Orange, N.J., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English.

He served in the Navy from 1944 to 1946 and was stationed in Panama, where he played baseball.

After the war, he worked at small papers in Pennsylvania and New York and was managing editor of the Chronicle-Telegram in Elyria, Ohio. In 1961 he became an assistant news editor at the New York World-Telegram, which folded in 1966.

Peterson had been writing freelance stories for Boys’ Life and other publications of the Boy Scouts of America when publisher Prentice-Hall gave him a modest advance for his proposed baseball book.

According to his wife, Peterson started his search for the great players of the Negro Leagues at a liquor store in Brooklyn owned by former Dodger catcher Roy Campanella, who was paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1958.

Campanella, who had once played with the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro National League, helped him find Judy Johnson, a hard-hitting third baseman for three Negro League teams.

By that time, Johnson -- who like Campanella is now enshrined in the Hall of Fame -- was living in Philadelphia scouting for the Phillies. Johnson helped him find other players.

“Prior to the publication of that book, most of us didn’t know about Negro League baseball,” said Hall of Fame historian Gates. “It was a revelation to me. [Peterson] created a field of study that didn’t exist.”

Professional baseball had long ignored the contributions of the great Negro League players and had a standing rule that membership in the Hall of Fame was predicated on having played a minimum of 10 years of major league baseball. And the Negro Leagues had never been seen as a major league.

But, according to Gates, that thinking started to shift in 1966 when the great Boston slugger Ted Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Williams, known for his strong opinions, mentioned the Negro League players in his induction speech and helped kindle interest. By 1971, pitcher Satchel Paige, who played in the major leagues as well as the Negro Leagues, was the first player from the Negro Leagues voted into the hall.

“Negro baseball,” Peterson wrote in the book, “was both a gladsome thing and a blot on America’s conscience.”

Peterson wrote two other sports books, “Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball’s Early Years” (1990), which details the early years of the game, and “Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football” (1996), which traces the game’s evolution from the 1890s to the late 1950s. He also wrote a history of the Boy Scouts of America.

Peterson served on a 12-member panel selected by the Hall of Fame to identify Negro League players who might have been overlooked for admission. The panel is scheduled to meet next weekend to review the final ballots.

When it became apparent that Peterson’s health would not allow him to attend, he offered to leave the panel. But the other members insisted he vote in absentia.

On the day Peterson died, the Hall of Fame sent confirmation to his family that his ballot had been received.

In addition to his wife, Peterson is survived by a son, Thomas; a daughter, Margaret; and two grandchildren.