Traci Sorell and Arigon Starr on their children's book about two Native baseball stars
MILES PARKS, HOST:
OK, picture this. It's 1911. You're at the World Series. The Philadelphia Athletics and the New York Giants are dueling it out for the title. It ends with the Philly A's winning a thrilling six-game series.
PARKS: Two of the star players are Charles Bender of the A's and John Meyers of the Giants. Before the 1911 series, they posed on the field together, prompting The New York Times to print this offensive line. Maybe they wish they had tomahawks in their hands instead of a bat and a baseball. It's just one example of the racism that these two star, Native athletes endured. But Bender and Meyers dominated the series, and that's the story of "Contenders," a picture book for young readers by Traci Sorell and Arigon Starr. They join me now.
TRACI SORELL: Hi.
ARIGON STARR: Hi.
PARKS: And happy baseball season.
STARR: Oh, yes (laughter).
PARKS: So I guess let's just start with these two characters who your book centers on. Traci, can you tell us about Charles Bender?
SORELL: Charles is an Ojibwe young man who is moved from his home reservation in what is now northwest Minnesota to boarding schools in the Pennsylvania area, first in Philly and then later to Carlisle. And that's where he learns the game of baseball and develops into an amazing pitcher. He's the inventor of the slider pitch, and he's in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
PARKS: I know. That blew my mind when I saw that he was the inventor of the slider, which is a pitch now that's thrown by, you know, a number of pitchers in the majors.
SORELL: Yeah. Every game - right? - someone is throwing a slider pitch. And I was like, why don't young people know this? You know, this is a key part of today's game.
PARKS: Yeah. Arigon, tell me a little bit about John Meyers.
STARR: Oh, he's a local boy done good. And I say that because I'm based here in Los Angeles. John was from the Cahuilla reservation out near Riverside, Calif., just one of many Indian kids that love to play baseball. As a scrappy youth, he went around to some colleges. They found out he hadn't even graduated high school. But there he was, playing for Dartmouth. But he gained attention. The scouts saw him. They found him. And, you know, he joined the game a little bit later than a lot of the kids do these days. But there he was.
PARKS: I have to say, I consider myself kind of a student of baseball history. I had - when I was a kid, my mom got me a book that was, like, the hundred greatest baseball games of all time. And I read it front to back, like, 15 times. And yet I'm embarrassed to say I had not heard of these guys who played a really prominent role in early baseball history. Can you guys talk to me about how you came to this story and then, also, how you researched it to be able to put this book together?
SORELL: Sure. My husband is also an ardent baseball fan. And so he was reading this book and he said, have you heard about the Indian-against-Indian World Series? - 1911. The press labeled at the Indian against Indian. And I said, who played? What was this? So I started reading about it. And then I immediately wanted to know, OK, where did these two men come from? What's their backstory? It was just fascinating to me.
So as much as I wanted to share the story of young readers and the accomplishments of these men, they also have very different paths that they get to the game by. At that time, there's not a lot of in-depth interviews with either one of them. So it was piecing it together with what interviews there were about their childhoods - so very different realities. And yet they both rise to the highest level in the sport and play against each other.
STARR: As far as, like, doing the research, it was a lot of fun to dive into history and especially, like, the history of New York baseball because there were so many teams and - sharing the polo grounds, and then the whole history of the polo grounds about, it burned to the ground. Yet months later it came back, which I thought was fantastic. And our Native people were there. That impresses me to no end because people always think, you know, it ended in 1890 or something, and, oh, they rode off into the sunset, and it's the end of the trail. However, we have always been there, and we have been on the forefront. We're inventing things. We're in it. We're in the mix 0 always in the mix.
PARKS: Well, and you all really honestly paint the racism and obstacles that these two men went through to get to the highest point in this sport. But this is a children's book, right? I mean, so how did you kind of weigh including some of those really heavy topics in a book that's aimed at young people?
SORELL: Well, I mean, the reality is young people see that and experience that all the time. And I think it's very much in their face today. So in that part, it's like, well, just understand, this is a continuation. Like, you can go to a Braves game today, and you see that. You can go to the Chiefs games today, and you see that these athletes today are still playing in those kind of environments where our culture is mocked.
PARKS: Does that come into conflict as you - you're sitting here talking to me wearing a San Diego Padres shirt. You're drinking from a Kansas City Royals cup. You clearly love the game still. How do those two things interact with each other?
SORELL: My hope is that by exposing this and helping young people to see that that we can grow more awareness of respecting all of us as humans and by helping young people to know that we have always had a presence in the game. You've still got Ryan Helsley, Adrian Houser, you know, Jon Gray, who are all right-handed pitchers, like Bender, in the game today - that they deserve to be able to play with the respect and be able to do their jobs just like any other athlete out on the field.
PARKS: The art in this book is is so gorgeous. And I think about - a key part of Native heritage is storytelling. And yet I have to imagine you guys did not grow up with a lot of children's books that were about this sort of stuff, that looked like this. How important was it to make something like this?
STARR: It was incredibly important to bring this story to our Native kids because they see the outside world, and they don't see themselves in it, in these kids books. And if they do see themselves in the books, it's highly stereotyped and certainly not, you know, what they see at home. And a lot of the misconceptions about our Native people, too - are, oh, they're all, you know, have horrible lives and live in poverty and da, da, da, da. And, you know, however, that's not always the case. Some of us actually had two parents and grew up and went to school and did amazing things.
And I was so thrilled to be able to bring these incredible lives to light because we are forgotten. Everybody thinks of the lovely Jackie Robinson, and that is a well-told tale. And we - I love Jackie 'cause I love the Dodgers, but these guys were there way before that.
PARKS: Well, while I have you guys here, I have to ask, what do you make of the new rules? Any thoughts?
STARR: I'm liking the new rules. There's something more exciting about seeing those ground balls go through the hole. You know, like, they used to be, ah, the shift; ah, they're going to hit there; ah. It was so, I don't know, mechanical or something. But now it's darn exciting.
PARKS: I feel the exact same way. I feel like that's a ground ball that should have gone through. And for a while...
PARKS: ...We had a couple of years where it was like, oh, no, why is that?
PARKS: And now we're back.
PARKS: Now it's like, ah.
PARKS: It feels like...
PARKS: ...Baseball again, right?
SORELL: Yeah. Yeah.
STARR: It sure does.
SORELL: Yeah. No. I'm definitely over the shift. But I just don't feel like someone should be on second base if they haven't done the work to get to second base.
PARKS: Fair enough.
STARR: Yes, fair enough (laughter).
STARR: What about those big bases? Ooh.
PARKS: Yeah, exactly. I like the shorter games. I like the shorter games, though.
PARKS: That's Traci Sorell and Arigon Starr. Their new book is "Contenders," and it's out now.
Thank you both so much for joining me.
SORELL: Thank you for having us.
STARR: (Non-English language spoken). My mother thanks you. My grandmother thanks you. And what a pleasure to be on your show, Miles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.