Cumberland Times-News

February 28, 2010

Wells hits grand slam with ‘Talented Tenth’

FSU Hall of Famer leaves no stone unturned in telling courageous stories of African American athletes

Mike Mathews
Cumberland Times-News

February 28, 2010 — Bob Wells was a stickler for details during his years as the Frostburg State University baseball coach.

Bob Wells, the author, is no different.

A reader finds that out in the first chapter of the legendary coach’s recently published book, “Sport and the Talented Tenth,” which concentrates on African American collegiate athletes in the Northeast from 1879-1920.

Several of Wells’ lifelong interests — history, sociology and athletics — not to mention his admiration for Jackie Robinson as a youngster, led Wells to the subject matter.

Through research, on and off that spanned more than three decades, Wells discovered nearly 150 African American athletes who participated in collegiate athletics in 13 sports at 39 colleges in the Northeast.

“I didn’t start out with the idea of writing a book,’’ said Wells, a native of Rhode Island. “It began as a dissertation project in graduate school at the University of Maryland.

“I started collecting information a little bit at a time, and each time I went to New England I’d go to a few more colleges and get more information. I enjoyed doing it. I had fun doing it,’’ he said of scouring through archives, yearbooks and anything he could get his hands on in the libraries of the colleges he visited. 

Wells said he wrote every day, off and on, for about seven years once he decided to write the book.

Robinson, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis are well known by most today. Wells gives life to those who came before and helped pave the way for the African American athlete, chronicling their struggles to overcome the blatant acts of discrimination and racism of those times.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the lengthy subtitle or 548 pages, which Wells said he never envisioned. The compelling stories and strong writing make the book a real page-turner.

Think Robinson was the first African American to play major league baseball? Think again. Wells provides evidence that Robinson was probably the fourth. That information, likely a revelation to many, is expertly provided in Chapter 1, encouraging the reader to want - perhaps insist - more.

And much, much more is provided. From Bill Lewis, the first African American first-team football All-American in 1892 and also author, politician and coach who was appointed Assistant Attorney General by President Taft, to Fritz Pollard, the second African American first-team football All-American, the first to play in the NFL and the first to be a head coach in the league, too.

Pollard, at age 86 in 1980, was one of several athletes Wells was able to interview.

Among the many other awakening stories Wells sheds light on is how an entire campus at Wesleyan College discriminated against two baseball players, a story learned through the discovery of a letter written by a teammate more than 50 years later; the story of the left side of the offensive line of the 1916 Tufts football team that upset mighty Harvard; and the incredible story of Paul Robeson, “unquestionably the most famous of all our black college athletes,” Wells writes.

From the outside, to some the book may have the look and feel of a college textbook. Don’t be fooled. When opened, the subjects, their stories and Wells’ writing are far too interesting for the book to carry the label of textbook.

“The book is not for just anybody,’’ Wells said. “I imagine those who primarily would be interested in it would be academics, historians, African-American historians, and general sports fans.

“It wouldn’t be a main text for a college course, but it could be used in some classes in history, sociology, athletics, African-American studies, and physical education. We’re going to push it to faculty and see if it might be used as a recommended reading.

“I’m glad it’s done and just want to let people know it’s out there,” Wells said.

Several copies of the book are available at the Frostburg State bookstore, Main Street Books in Frostburg and The Book Center in Cumberland. It can also be purchased at Barnes and Noble.com and Amazon.com.

Wells, a member of the Frostburg State, Maryland State Baseball Coaches, and University of Rhode Island halls of fame, built FSU into a baseball power and retired with a 600-327-3 record over 29 seasons. The Bobcats finished fifth in the NAIA World Series in 1972. Washington Nationals manager Jim Riggleman was one of the stars of that 1972 team.

Mike Mathews is a Cumberland Times-News sportswriter. He can be reached at <i>Contact Mike Mathews at <a href=mailto:mmathews@times-news.com>mmathews@times-news.com</a>.</i>