Black Men And Baseball

My dad taught me to love the game, but for him a big part of the attraction was the idea that the pioneering stars of his generation offered a glimpse of what equality in America might look like.

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David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox with son D'Angelo celebrate Father's Day at Fenway.

My father went home to his glory months before the election of Barack Obama as the first black president. In the difficult days before his death, there was little opportunity to even consider such a possibility, but I have vivid memories of his reaction to another black first.

It was the fall of 1974, when the Cleveland Indians broke one of the last color barriers in professional baseball by naming Frank Robinson their manager. My father’s joy was palpable—one of the lasting memories that I have of him—and indeed so many memories that I have of my father are tied to his joy of baseball and love of the black men who played it.

Two years earlier another Robinson, the legendary Jackie Robinson, had thrown out the first pitch before a world series game between the Cincinnati Reds and Oakland Athletics. Jackie Robinson, of course, broke Major League Baseball’s infamous color barrier in 1947, becoming the first black to play in the league since Moses Fleetwood Walker was effectively banned from the American Association and National League (precursors the current league) in 1889.

Robinson took the opportunity that day in October of 1972 to announce his hope that one day he could attend such a game and see a black manager in one of the dugouts. It would be Jackie Robinson’s last public appearance; He died on October 24, 1972 at the young age of 53. I can remember my father, trying to get his 6-year-old son, oblivious to the Jim Crow segregation that defined his father’s existence, to understand the significance of Jackie Robinson’s life and death.

My father was never much of a race man, but his sense of racial accomplishment was intimately tied the black men he watched play the game. Born in 1935, my father was of a generation of black men who clearly smelled of freedom in ways that their fathers could never have imagined, but they were still reigned in by very real social constraints.

In men like Frank Robinson, Jackie Robinson, Juan Marachial, Henry Aaron, Elston Howard, Bob Gibson, Roberto Clemente and especially Willie Mays—the first generation of black superstars—my father saw the possibilities of that freedom, even if it could only then be realized on the playing field. Indeed Mays’ boyish swagger—the way he loped to the batter’s box, the casual style he brought to his signature basket catch, the way his cap always came off as he ran the bases—was an inspiration for many a boy, regardless of race.

It was my father’s love of Mays, who starred for the New York Giants from 1951-1957, before the team moved to San Francisco before the 1958 season, that essentially made me a baseball fan. My father could barely contain himself when Mays was traded from the San Francisco Giants to the New York Mets in May of 1972. After that, If I was gonna be a baseball fan, I had little choice but to be a New York Met fan, despite the fact that Yankee Stadium was less than 10 minutes away from our Bronx tenement building.

In the early 1970s, the New York Mets had few black ball players and none that could be called major stars, but the names of Cleon Jones, John Milner and Tommy Agee, became part of my everyday vocabulary. Though Mays was well past his prime when he came back to New York, he was still a marquee name for a team that would never quite escape the shadow of their cross-town rivals, The Yankees, who until George Steinbrenner took over the team in 1973, seemed to relish the whiteness of their legacy.

It was during this time that my father and I began our Sunday ritual; a morning spent listening to the music of Gospel groups like the Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Pilgrim Jubilee Singers and an afternoon of watching Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy and Ralph Kiner announce Met games. The most important memorable times though were the Sundays when we could head out to Flushing, NY and see games in person. At the time I couldn’t fully appreciate what it meant to see Willie Mays in the flesh, despite his diminished talents.

It was much the same at the 1973 game that my father and I attended where the Mets played the Atlanta Braves and Hank Aaron hit two-home runs during what was his last push towards Babe Ruth’s career total of 714 homeruns. It was with my father that I watched Mays’ last hurrah, during the 1973 World Series, when the great player’s age finally betrayed him in ways that could no longer be ignored.