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Invisible players


1619-1918, 194 pp. $29.95

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1919-1945, 497 pp. $39.95

SINCE 1946, 571 pp. 39.95

A friend of Arthur Ashe's said of him that he is a man who exhibits little passion but ``he sure was passionate about this book.''

He is passionate enough to have spent more than one-quarter of a million dollars of his own money writing it. Thus far he has recovered only ``slightly less than one-fifth of that,'' or about $50,000, in an advance from his publisher.

With a sparse, functional narrative style, Ashe takes readers sport by sport through 300 years, then supplements the narrative with an encyclopedic reference section that takes the breath away - player records, black college conference records, black league and black team records, and list upon list of when and with whom professional and major college sports were integrated. The work is a treasure - long-overdue, essential American history, a book destined to be pulled off library shelves and cherished by readers who may remember only faintly that its author once won at Wimbledon and Forest Hills.

The story of blacks in America is the story of opportunities thwarted and potential stifled by racism - whatever the theater of American life, whatever the era. It is particularly graphic in American sport. Jackie Robinson's breaking of the major league color barrier in 1947 is one of the most dissected and discussed events in modern history - and justly so, for it presaged and in many ways made possible the broader civil rights gains of Brown v. Board of Education and Martin Luther King Jr.

Perhaps the saddest awareness that comes from Ashe's saga is the realization that the segregation Jackie Robinson broke down was not merely the antediluvian status quo, naturally slow to change because change comes slowly. No. Blacks weren't merely excluded. They were thrown out. Major league baseball had let blacks play between 1884 and 1889, but not thereafter. The National Football League threw the blacks out in 1933, after 14 years of black participation.

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``You don't exactly get dulled to it [the racism],'' Ashe said in an interview. ``But you see so much of it that only exceptional examples jump out.''

The history of the black turf jockey jumped out at him, as it jumps out at the reader. In the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, 15 horses went to the post and 14 of the 15 jockeys were black. Blacks dominated the field in the 19th century, many of them earning as much as $25,000 a year. By 1911 they were all gone. ``The Jockey Club was formed in 1894 to license riders, and they systematically denied the relisting of blacks,'' writes Ashe.

``In retrospect, the sport of horse racing is the only instance where the participation of blacks stopped almost completely while the sport itself continued - a sad commentary on American life.''

As he talked to this reviewer, Ashe noted the shameful treatment of the black jockey. ``It's as if - today being 1988 - by the year 2000 the NBA was completely white. That's an exact analogy.''

Bringing forth these forgotten or nearly forgotten nuggets of history and presenting them in a context that compels the reader to react - with outrage, with sadness, with shame - is the book's forte. Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, and Muhummad Ali have their places here, of course, but they are not the book's stars. The arresting figures in Ashe's history are the athletes whom writer Don Rogosin called ``invisible men,'' the men whose heroics took place in the shadows of American life, unwitnessed by white eyes, unrecorded by white journalists or historians - heroics, that for all white America cared, never happened.

But they did happen, of course, and thanks to Ashe and his assistants - Kip Branch, Ocania Chalk, and Francis Harris - now we know it. If the book has a flaw, it's that even these three weighty volumes can't contain it all. ``More,'' you find yourself saying as the stories skip by. More on jockey Isaac Murphy, and cyclist Major Taylor, and baseball player John Henry (Pops) Lloyd. More on the New York Renaissance basketball team; more on those football games between Howard and Lincoln universities in the 1930s; and more on Cleveland Abbott and the incomparable athletic program he built at Tuskegee Institute.

``Sports history books now have to be reevaluated and revised,'' Ashe said at his home in early December, in the midst of a week in which he was beset by press attention that must have reminded him of his days as a tennis pro. ``No question about it. The books you find at the Fifth Avenue Public Library [in New York] are not complete. Too many superlative efforts are left out. And here's the evidence.''

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