Thursday, February 11, 2010

Weekend Sports Edition: Black History Month, Part 1

February is Black History Month. It is time for some revisionist history in the sporting arena. More specifically, baseball. Jackie Robinson is held out by the mainstream media as the driving force to integrate baseball in the late 40’s. The hagiography is almost universal and unchallenged. However, the image is distorted and simplistic. If you scratch beneath the surface, what you find is a lot more interesting than what passes for conventional wisdom. Robinson was the first African American to play in major league baseball. Every major league club retired his number 42. I always felt he received a disproportionate amount of credit for bringing integration to baseball. It is probably unavoidable that he did so given the publicity his signing entailed and the laziness of the media in not looking for the deeper story. It is as if Robinson singlehandedly opened the door through which hordes of black baseball players walked and then treated as equals. Such was not the case. Not by a long shot. Jackie Robinson was but the tip of the iceberg. There were thousands of black minor league baseball players who suffered worse indignities than Robinson did while struggling to make it in the big time. Names like Bob Gibson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Bill White, Frank Robinson, and Vada Pinson are some of the better known players who cut their teeth in the lower echelons of baseball before making it in the majors. And equally as important were the unknown and not so talented ones who laid the foundation and never made it to the big time. The late David Halberstam, one of the most underrated American authors of all time, lays out the struggle of the black baseball player post Robinson in two books: "The Summer of 1949" and "October, 1964." The former is advertised as a history of the Red Sox/Yankee pennant race of 1949 and the latter a rendition of the 1964 World Series. But anyone familiar with Halberstam's work knows it is always much more than what the title infers. Bill White, the former Yankee first basemen, talks of going to spring training and having to stay in separate hotels in the early 60's. We hear stories about the dangers of playing minor league baseball in small Southern towns in the 1950's. As bad as getting cursed in Philadelphia in 1948, imagine playing in some crackerjack town in Georgia in 1955 and having to walk to the parking lot alone after the game. Not a pretty sight. The upshot is that Robinson may have been the first but he was not the only one who deserves credit for pushing the ball forward. Halberstam brings up another interesting point that shows the free market at work. The Yankees had the best farm system in baseball from the 1930's through the 1950's. Starting in the late 40's, they refused to recruit black players. This decision cost them dearly. Halberstam argues it was the main cause of their decline from 1965 through 1975. Ditto the Red Sox but on a smaller scale as they were never that good to begin with but they had some horrible teams from 1950 up to 1967 and not many black faces in their lineup. Not so the St. Louis Cardinals. They went after Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, and Bill White. In 1964, they added Lou Brock. Gibson, a proud man, suffered in silence. He was an angry man and bitter over the way black players were treated. This anger manifested itself in his pitching style. I remember watching him pitch in the mid-60's. He always had a look in his eye that elevated the pitcher/hitter duel to a life and death struggle. Hank Aaron once advised a young hitter on how to handle Gibson: don't crowd the plate because he will knock you down. But don't stand too far either because he will hit the outside corner. If you hit a home run off of him, don't run too fast around the bases because he will give you some chin music next time up. And don't run too slow either. He will hammer you next time because of that too. So here is a salute to the thousands of black players who played professional baseball on all levels in the 1950's and early 60's. They should not be forgotten.

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