by Pete McDaniel
Teacher’s Comments: Entertaining, but it should have been so much more.
Tracing the story of African American golf from John Shippen to Tiger Woods, Uneven Lies is at a most basic level both entertaining and informative. It is, however, less a complete story than a catalog of names and accomplishments. Nor is it particularly insightful or introspective. McDaniel, with his “gee whiz” writing style just reels off name and accomplishment after name and accomplishment. Caught up in his own excitement with the “heroic story”, he’s more of a cheerleader than the reporter he’s supposed to be.
The basic structure of every section of the book goes like this: There was this black golfer. And he accomplished much in spite of prejudice. And we will never know how good he might have been. And then there was this other black golfer … and so on.
McDaniel’s gee whizzing left me wondering about his scholarship. Too many of his accounts begin in a fashion similar to this: “One of the greatest stories regarding …” Stories? Really? Who told you this story? Or he writes “One newspaper article said …” Which newspaper? When? It would be so much better to write: In a May 1928 article in the Baltimore Sun …”
(As an aside, it’s also something that really bothered me about Ken Burns’ Civil War series. There were far too many grey haired “Civil War experts” saying things like “and there was this story about this soldier who …” Really? Who told you that story? Where did they get it from? Why not say “In his memoirs, Private Charles Townshend wrote …”)
There is other sloppiness. McDaniel at one point writes about a black player making $30,000 playing golf with the UGA, and then in the very next sentence compares this disfavorably with Tiger’s multi million dollar paydays in the 2000s. But he doesn’t tell the readers exactly when that occurred (I looked hard for a marker). If it happened in the 1950s or 1960s, that’s not a bad sum. If it happened in the 2000s, he might have a case. Thirty thousand in 1950 is the equivalent of $250,000 today.
So the book is interesting, and entertaining. But not much more than that.
Still, I learned quite a bit about the general history of African Americans in golf, and encountered stories and names that were new to me. Bill Spiller, Charlie Sifford, Calvin Peete, the Thorpes, and others should be general knowledge to golf fans. Others, such as John Shippen, less so.
Shippen made his mark on history by playing in the 1896 US Open at Shinnecock Hills. While most of the 35 contestants were foreign born whites, two of the US players, Oscar Bunn and John Shippen, were minorities. Bunn was a Native American and Shippen, African American. The foreign born players revolted against the idea of playing with an Indian and a Black, but USGA President Theodore Havemeyer insisted they stay. In the end, the ruse was concocted that Shippen also was an American Indian. And indeed, he had been raised on the adjacent Shinnecock Indian Reservation, where his father was stationed as a minister. Playing with two Indians was apparently less offensive to the foreigners than playing with an African American, so the tournament continued.
Thus, Shippen was permitted to play, and at the end of the first round was tied for first with a 78. He faded in the second, but made a spot in history as the first African American to lead a US Open. Ironically, his feat was not recognized for more than 100 years, as the fiction regarding his Native American ancestry continued. It wasn’t until 1986, when a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter interviewed Shippen’s daughter that the record on his ancestry was finally corrected.
The story of how African Americans persevered in the face of persistent racism is inspiring for us all. And McDaniel offers a nice primer. But there is much more that I wanted to know after finishing the book. The Chapter on golf’s equivalent of Baseball’s Negro Leagues”—the United States Colored Golfers Association, which later became the United Golfers Association—could easily become a book on its own. McDaniel says that the associations and their competitions were often central social events in the black community and gives examples of stars who might have shown up. I wanted to know more about that—the whens and wheres, and whys. I also wanted to know more about the league events, championships, finances, organization, leadership, and whether—unlike the Negro Leagues—they survived integration. McDaniel implies that it did … cryptically ending the chapter with “Now 74 years old, the UGA still provides a haven for young hopefuls and graying diehards relentless in their pursuit of the dream.” But he gives no details.
And then there’s the big question looking over the entire book: Why, after all of the stuggles, is there just one African American on tour today? In the 1970s and 1980s, as the barriers were being broken, as many as a dozen competed on the big tours: Lee Elder, Jim Dent, Calvin Peete, brothers Chuck and Jim Thorpe, Rafe Botts, Charles Owens, Charlie Sifford, Curtis Sifford, Adrian Stills, Nathaniel Starks, Bobby Strobble, Walter Morgan, Howard Brown and Tom Woodard. Today, there’s just Tiger Woods.
McDaniel doesn’t tackle that one either.
So in the end, it’s a nice breezy way to spend an afternoon. But it’s just a starting point for a real historical work.
This review of Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African Americans in Golf originally was published on January 19, 2015