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The Slow Integration of Major League Baseball

Jackie Robinson Shaking Branch Rickey's Hand

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Back in 1947 Branch Rickey told Jackie Robinson, “Jackie, we’ve got no army. There’s virtually nobody on our side. No owners, no umpires, very few newspapermen. And I’m afraid that many fans will be hostile. We’ll be in a tough position. We can win only if we can convince the world that I’m doing this because you’re a great ballplayer, a fine gentleman.”

My friends, last week pitchers and catchers reported to their teams for the 2016 Baseball Spring Training, and it is time to reflect again on how Branch Rickey’s signing of Jackie Robinson helped advance the Civil Rights of Blacks in the United States. What Rickey did was a watershed, and though it took time for every team in the Major Leagues to integrate, the last being the Boston Red Sox in 1959, a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

Branch Rickey shook the foundations of America when he signed Jackie Robinson to a Major League deal in 1947, a year before President Truman desegregated the military and years before Jim Crow laws were overturned in many states.

Robinson and the early pioneers of the game did a service to the nation. They helped many white Americans see that Blacks were not only their equals as human beings, and as it was note about Ernie Banks and others that soon “little white boys wanted to grow up and be Ernie Banks.” 

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Charles Thomas

But for Rickey the crusade to integrate baseball began long before 1947. In 1903, Rickey, then a coach for the Ohio Wesleyan University baseball team had to console his star player, Charles Thomas when a hotel in South Bend Indiana refused him a room because he was black. Rickey found Thomas sobbing rubbing his hands together and repeating “Black skin. Black skin. If only I could make them white.” Rickey attempted to console his friend saying “Come on, Tommy, snap out of it, buck up! We’ll lick this one day, but we can’t if you feel sorry for yourself.”

Thomas, encouraged by Rickey was remembered by one alumnus who saw a game that Thomas played in noted that “the only unpleasant feature of the game was the coarse slurs cast at Mr. Thomas, the catcher.” However, the writer noted something else about Thomas that caught his eye: “But through it all, he showed himself far more the gentleman than his insolent tormentors though their skin is white.”

Baseball like most of America was not a place for the Black man. Rickey, a devout Christian later remarked “I vowed that I would always do whatever I could to see that other Americans did not have to face the bitter humiliation that was heaped upon Charles Thomas.”

In April 1947 Rickey, now the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers had one African-American ballplayer at the Dodgers’ Spring Training site in Daytona Beach Florida. The South was still a hotbed of racial prejudice, Jim Crow was the law of the land and Blacks had no place in White Man’s baseball. That player was Jackie Robinson.

The Dodgers had been coming to Florida for years. Rickey moved the Dodgers from Jacksonville to Daytona Beach in 1947 after Jacksonville had refused to alter its segregation laws to allow an exhibition game between the Dodgers International League affiliate the Montreal Royals, for whom Robinson starred.

That was the year that Rickey signed Robinson to a minor league contract with the Royals.  When Rickey called up Robinson 6 days prior to the 1947 season, it was  Robinson broke the color barrier for the Dodgers and Major League Baseball. However it would take another 12 years before all Major League teams had a black player on their roster.

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It is hard to imagine now that even after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier that other teams did not immediately sign black players. However Rickey and Robinson broke the color barrier a year before Harry Truman had integrated the Armed Forces and seven years before the Supreme Court ruled the segregation of public schools illegal. But how could that be a surprise? The country was still rampant with unbridled racism. Outside of a few Blacks in the military and baseball most African Americans had few rights. In the North racism regulated most blacks to ghettos, while in the South, Jim Crow laws and public lynching of progressive or outspoken Blacks.

But Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey helped bring about change, and soon other teams were following suit.

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Roy Campenella

The Cleveland Indians under their legendary owner Bill Veeck were not far behind the Dodgers in integrating their team. They signed Larry Doby on July 5th 1947. Doby would go on to the Hall of Fame and was a key player on the 1948 Indian team which won the 1948 World Series, the last that the storied franchise has won to this date.

The St. Louis Browns signed Third Baseman Hank Thompson 12 days after the Indians signed Doby. But Thompson, Robinson and Doby would be the only Blacks to play in that inaugural season of integration. They would be joined by others in 1948 including the immortal catcher Roy Campanella who signed with the Dodgers and the venerable Negro League pitcher, Satchel Paige who was signed by the Indians.

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Willie Mays and Monte Ervin

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It was not until 1949 when the New York Giants became the next team to integrate. They brought up Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson who they had acquired from the Browns. In 1951 these men would be joined by a young, rookie Willie Mays to become the first all African-American outfield in the Major Leagues. Both Mays and Irvin would enter the Hall of Fame and both are still a key part of the Giants’ story. Despite their age have continued to be active in with the Giants and Major League Baseball.

The Boston Braves were the next to desegregate calling up Samuel “the Jet” Jethroe to play Center Field. Jethroe was named the National League Rookie of the Year in 1950. In 1951 the Chicago White Sox signed Cuban born Minnie Minoso who had played for Cleveland in 1949 and 1951 before signing with the White Sox. Minoso would be elected to 9 All-Star teams and win 3 Golden Gloves awards during his illustrious career.

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Ernie Banks

The Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Athletics integrated at the end of the 1953 season. The Cubs signed Shortstop Ernie Banks who would go on to be a 14 time All-Star, 2 time National League MVP and be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977 on the first ballot and sadly he died a year ago. The Athletics called up pitcher Bob Trice from their Ottawa Farm team where he had won 21 games. Trice only pitched in 27 Major League games over the course of three seasons with the Athletics.

Four teams integrated in 1954. The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Second Baseman Curt Roberts from Denver of the Western League as part of a minor league deal. He would play 171 games in the Majors.  He was sent to the Columbus Jets of the International League in 1956 and though he played in both the Athletics and Yankees farm systems but never again reached the Majors. The St. Louis Cardinals, the team that had threatened to not play against the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson in 1947 traded for First Baseman Tom Alston of the Pacific Coast League San Diego Padres. Alston would only play in 91 Major League games with his career hindered by bouts with depression and anxiety. The Cincinnati Reds brought up Puerto Rican born First Baseman Nino Escalera and Third Baseman Chuck Harmon. Harmon had played in the Negro Leagues and had been a Professional Basketball player in the American Basketball League. Harmon who was almost 30 when called up played just 4 years in the Majors. Both he and Escalera would go on to be Major League scouts. Escalera is considered one of the best First Baseman from Puerto Rico and was elected to the Puerto Rican Baseball Hall of Fame. Harmon’s first game was recognized by the Reds in 2004 and a plaque hangs in his honor. The Washington Senators called up Cuban born Center Fielder Carlos Paula from their Charlotte Hornets’ farm team in September 1954. Paula played through the 1956 season with the Senators and his contract was sold to the Sacramento Salons of the Pacific Coast League. He hit .271 in 157 plate appearances with 9 home runs and 60 RBIs. He died at the age of 55 in Miami.

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Elston Howard

In April 1955 the New York Yankees finally integrated 8 years after the Dodgers and 6 years after the Giants. They signed Catcher/Left Fielder Elston Howard from their International League affiliate where he had been the League MVP in 1954. Howard would play 13 years in the Majors with the Yankees and later the Red Sox retiring in 1968. He would be a 12-time All Star and 6-time World Series Champion as a player and later as a coach for the Yankees. He died of heart disease in 1980.  His number 32 was retired by the Yankees in 1984.

The Philadelphia Phillies purchased the contract of Shortstop John Kennedy from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League at the end of the 1956 season. Kennedy played in just 5 games in April and May of 1957.

In 1958 the Detroit Tigers obtained Dominican born Utility Player Ozzie Virgil Sr. who had played with the Giants in 1955 and 1956. Virgil would play 9 seasons in the Majors with the Giants, Tigers, Athletics and Pirates and retire from the Giants in 1969. He later coached for 19 years in the Majors with the Giants, Expos, Padres and Mariners.

The last team to integrate was the Boston Red Sox who signed Infielder Pumpsie Green. Green made his debut on 21 July 1959 during his three years with the Red Sox was primarily used as a pinch runner. He played his final season with the New York Mets in 1963. He was honored by the Red Sox in 2009 on the 50th anniversary of breaking the Red Sox color barrier.

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It took 12 years for all the teams of the Major Leagues to integrate, part of the long struggle of African Americans to achieve equality not just in baseball but in all areas of public life.  These men, few in number paved the way for African Americans in baseball and were part of the inspiration of the Civil Rights Movement itself.  They should be remembered by baseball fans, and all Americans everywhere for their sacrifices and sheer determination to overcome the obstacles and hatreds that they faced. It would not be until August of 1963 that Martin Luther King Jr. would give his I Have a Dream speech and 1964 that African Americans received equal voting rights.

Spring training for the 2016 season is about to begin in Florida and Arizona, in what are called the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues. It is hard to believe that only 68 years ago that only one team and one owner dared to break the color barrier that was, then, and often today is still a part of American life.

However in those 69 years despite opposition and lingering prejudice African Americans in baseball led the way in the Civil Rights Movement and are in large part responsible for many of the breakthroughs in race relations and the advancement of not only African Americans, but so many others.

We can thank men like Charles Thomas, Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey for this and pray that we who remain, Black and White, Asian, and Latin American, as well as all others who make up our great nation will never relinquish the gains that have been won at such a great cost.

Today we have a Black President who has the same kind of racial epitaphs thrown at him every day by whites who as they did to Charles Thomas, Jackie Robinson and so many other pioneers, Frankly such behavior can only be called what is it, unrepentant, unabashed, and evil racism. The fact is that such people don’t think that any Black man should hold such high an office, just as they did not think that Blacks should be allowed to play integrated baseball. It is anathema to them, and that is why their unabashed hatred for Obama runs so deep. They may disagree with his policies, but I guarantee if Obama was white, their opposition to him would be far more civil and respectful. But because he is half-black, and has a funny name they hate him with a passion, a passion that scares me, because words and hateful beliefs can easily become actions.

Racism still exists, but one day thanks to the efforts of the early ball-players as well as pioneers like President Obama, and the undying commitment of decent Americans to accept people regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or even sexual orientation, we will see a new birth of freedom.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Cheaters and the Baseball Hall of Fame: The Hypocrisy and Arrogance of the Baseball Writers of the BBWAA

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“Cheating is baseball’s oldest profession. No other game is so rich in skullduggery, so suited to it or so proud of it.” Thomas Boswell

I love baseball. Everything about it. The good, the bad and the ugly. It is a game that to me represents the human condition better than any other game. I am amazed by the feats of ballplayers of today and yesterday. I am also a realist and know that like the rest of us, that baseball players are human. I believe that God speaks to me though baseball and there is no other place in the world that I feel more at peace than watching a ballgame in a ballpark. It is an elixir for my soul.

However baseball, despite its perfection as a game is a game played by, written about and watched by a very imperfect cast. Including me. I know a lot of ball players, men who have played in the Majors and Minors and I admire them. I admire their dedication and the sacrifices that they make to be the best. I admire the fact that many toil in the obscurity of the Minor Leagues for years before even getting a chance to play “in the show.” Not many actually get careers in the Majors, and a decided minority have the lifetime performance to even merit being honored in the Hall of Fame.

The Baseball Writers who decide on the election of baseball players into the Baseball Hall of Fame decided that this year, that no players should be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It was due in part to their interpretation of the rules that allow for the writers to consider issues of character can be considered in the voting process. It was the first time in four decades that no players were elected to the hall.

The vote was seen as the writers judgement on the players of the steroid era, an era that until it became unpopular was heralded by many of the same writers as a time of revival in the sport. The same writers that reveled in the domination of Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling on the pitchers mound, the great home run race between Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa, the massive home runs of Barry Bonds or the stellar performances of so many other players of the era. The cheerleaders became the morality police. Not that the use of PEDs was right by any means but the moral indignation of the writers that chose to use their vote or lack of a vote as a means of punishment seems to me to ooze hypocrisy.

I am sure that is the case.

Not that I am in favor of cheating or cheaters. However that being said, the bar that these players are being held to is higher than that of baseball cheaters of previous generations, of which some are honored in the same Hall of Fame that the writers exclude those of the steroid era. It seems to me to me that the writers are being just a bit hypocritical and cynical concerning the history of the game and the Hall of Fame.

That is easy for them to do because we Americans, possibly more than any other people love to tear down our heroes and those that excel at what they do. We are one of the most moralistic peoples on the face of the earth, and nowhere more does that moralistic tenor show up than in baseball. Football and basketball, cheating is not so bad, but cheating in baseball that is somehow a greater sin than almost anything in our society. Tax cheats, adulterers, academic cheats and plagiarists as well murderers and other stellar members of society, including lawyers and politicians find it easy to damn baseball players for cheating.

However, the Hall of Fame membership includes many of the best in baseball as well as some pretty lousy human beings who just happened to be great baseball players. It is a place of history where the disgraced members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox have a place, though not as members. It is a place that has enshrined admitted cheaters of previous eras. It is a place that has enshrined racists, bullies, wife beaters drunks philanderers adulterers and even an accused murderer.

It is also an institution that for decades excluded some of the best ballplayers who ever played the game because they were black and had to play in the segregated Negro Leagues. It’s greatest snub was to the legendary Negro League, player manager and later Major League Coach and scout Buck O’Neil, who it never admitted.

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Buck O’Neil Out, Ty Cobb in

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Ty Cobb was a violent man and as racist as they come. He once assaulted a fan, a fan with no arms for jeering him. He attacked a black groundskeeper for attempting to shake his hand and then attempted to strangle the man’s wife when she came to his aid. Babe Ruth would show up drunk for games and slept around with any attractive woman of the female persuasion. There are a host of unsavory characters in the Hall of Fame besides the admitted cheaters and suspected cheaters of bygone times. Hell, Hank Aaron and admitted to using amphetamines what were then known as “Greenies” and players testified under oath that Willie Stargell, another first ballot Hall of Famer not only took amphetamines but dispensed them to team mates. They used them to perform better and they were not alone. Thus to me the self-righteous indignation of the writers against the players of the Steroid Era and that of some fans is just that.

The cheaters didn’t just include drug users although the fact that players have been juiced for decades was known in early 1970s. The Mitchell Report on the use of performance enhancing drugs made this comment:

“In 1973, a Congressional subcommittee announced that its staff had completed an “in depth study into the use of illegal and dangerous drugs in sports” including professional baseball. The subcommittee concluded that “the degree of improper drug use – primarily amphetamines and anabolic steroids – can only be described as alarming.”

That was 1973. But cheating hasn’t been limited to performance enhancing drugs. The were men who threw illegal pitches or altered baseballs. Managers and organizations that specialized in stealing the signs of opposing teams, corking bats and many other tricks and sleights of hand designed to help them win games.

When Sammy Sosa was exposed for his use of a corked bat then Chicago Cubs General Manager Andy McPhail said: “There is a culture of deception in this game. It’s been in this game for 100 years. I do not look at this in terms of ethics. It’s the culture of the game.”

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Rogers Hornsby, the amazing Second Baseman of the St Louis Cardinals who batted over .400 three times in his career said “I’ve been in pro baseball since 1914 and I’ve cheated, or watched someone on my team cheat, in practically every game. You’ve got to cheat.”

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Pitcher Gaylord Perry wrote in his autobiography before he was elected to the Hall of Fame “I’d always have it (grease) in at least two places, in case the umpires would ask me to wipe one off. I never wanted to be caught out there with anything though, it wouldn’t be professional.” Mind you that the “spitball or grease ball” had been illegal for decades when he made his admission.

Yankees great Whitey Ford admitted his cheating. “I didn’t begin cheating until late in my career, when I needed something to help me survive. I didn’t cheat when I won the twenty-five games in 1961. I don’t want anybody to get any ideas and take my Cy Young Award away. And I didn’t cheat in 1963 when I won twenty-four games. Well, maybe a little.”

Hank Greenberg, one of the premier power hitters of his day discussed how the stealing of signs helped him. “I loved that. I was the greatest hitter in the world when I knew what kind of pitch was coming up.”

Hall of Fame managers like Leo Durocher and Earl Weaver, have been quoted, even if they meant it in jest, advocating cheating. Durocher said “Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.” and Weaver reported told a pitcher “If you know how to cheat, start now.”

To me election to the Hall of Fame should be a place of history where the greatest performers in the game should be enshrined. It should not be a place where writers, many of whom no longer actively cover the game sit as modern Pharisees pointing out the grain of sand in the eye of the accused players while ignoring the logs in their own eyes.

The use of the drugs probably has harmed the health of those that used them. The records set in the era will be debated. But there are so many other things that affect records. The 154 game versus the 162 game season, the Dead Ball Era, the segregated era, the war years where greats like Ted Williams missed their best years because they were serving in the military all affected the game and influenced who was inducted and who was not inducted into the Hall of Fame.

In baseball records are also kind of fuzzy because of changes in the game. Additionally characteristics as innocuous as the differences in baseball stadiums, their dimensions, geography, turf and weather conditions on hitting and pitching play a huge part in any players career.

Baseball fans and players will make their own judgements about the character of individual players as well as the historical significance of the Steroid Era. The era was not good for baseball despite the records set because it brought to light a culture that existed for at least a century. A culture that is not just a baseball culture but part of the American culture, a culture that honors liars and cheaters in politics, law, banking and a host of other professions including religion.

Well that is enough for tonight. Let him who is without sin throw out the first ball.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Quiet Achievement: Jim Thome Hammers Two Home Runs to join Elite 600 Home Run Club

Jim Thome Hits Number 600 (AP Photo)

“Not only is he a great player, but he’s a great individual… I think he was a little apprehensive about passing me up. I said, ‘Jim, I passed a lot of guys up myself along the way. I hope you hit 100 more.'”  Harmon Killebrew on Jim Thome passing him on the home run list with 574 Home Runs in 2010.

There was little build up or fanfare leading up to the Twins and Tigers game tonight. There should have been as one of baseball’s “good guys” did something that only 7 other Major leaguers had ever done, hit 600 home runs.  Maybe it is because he now plays for the Minnesota Twins who are in the midst of one of their worst seasons in recent memory.  Minneapolis is not exactly the center of the sports media universe like New Yorkwhere almost every at bat of Derek Jeter was covered in his quest to reach the 3000 hit mark.  However to me it doesn’t matter. I have been a Jime Thome fan for a long time and while I may be in North Carolina I was watching live when ESPN switched from the Giants-Braves game to the Twins-Tigers game to cover Thome’s at bat in the 7th inning.

A Smile and a Handshake (Getty Images)

Thome came to the plate after hitting home run 599 a two run shot off of Rick Porcello during his previous at bat in the 6th inning.  He was facing Tigers pitcher Daniel Schlereth and with a 2-1 count and two runners on base Thome hit Schlereth’s pitch over the Left Field fence for number 600.  He rounded the bases at Comerica Park in Detroit to a standing ovation given by the Tiger fans as well as his teammates and his family who were also in attendance who also greeted him on the field. On the scoreboard the home team congratulated Thome’s achievement;Detroit does recognize great baseball achievement’s even when it comes at the bat of an opponent.

It was a special moment that all baseball fans should celebrate and that non baseball fans should also take note of because Thome accomplished this huge feat, a feat even great than Jeter reaching 3000 hits Out of the 17,000 plus players that have played in the Majors only 8 have hit 600 or more home runs while 28 players have over 3000 hits.

Thome Honored by Teammates and Opposing Fans

Thome has struggled with injury this year and has not had his best year. He is beginning to show his 40 years the oldest player to reach the 600 mark, the previous being the then 38 year old Sammy Sosa in 2007.  Despite this he was the second fastest player to reach 600 home runs reaching it in at bat 8137 games as opposed to Babe Ruth who by far reached it faster than anyone else needing only 6921 at bats to reach 600 on his way to 714.  In reaching the 600 mark Thome joins Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa in the 600 club.

Thome reached the mark without a lot of fanfare or for that matter controversy. He was never tainted by the steroid controversy and is one of the nicest people in baseball, not hesitating to talk to children that come up to him in public or people that knew him in his early days.  His teammate Michael Cuddyer said “He is the nicest, gentlest, kindest guy you will ever meet … When he walks in a room, everyone watches everything he does. It’s the way he treats people, it’s the way he respects the game….”

His manager Ron Gardenhire said “He’s like Babe Ruth around here…The fans here get all mad at me for not playing him every day.”

Thome is known around the league for his work ethic and will to win.  He worked hard at his craft initially beginning as an outfielder before being converted to Third Base.  Unassuming he once said “I always had to work to be good, because I never was very good. I mean, I always had to work to get where I wanted to be. It was never easy. It still isn’t. It still isn’t.” He is called by some today’s Harmon Killebrew, a complement by any standard of measurement.  I’m sure that Harmon is looking on now cheering and probably telling Saint Pete stories about just how big of an achievement that Thome’s feat is because Thome won’t do it when he meets Saint Pete.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Remembering the Men of the Negro Leagues: Carl Long Appreciation Day

Carl Long Night: L-R  James “Spot”King, Hubert “Big Daddy”Wooten, Dennis “Bose”Biddle and Carl Long  at Historical Grainger Stadium

Friday I had the privilege of being invited to spend a portion of the day a number of former Negro League players, Minor League players and a couple of former Major Leaguers including one veteran of the 2004 Boston Red Sox World Series Championship team, Trot Nixon.  In addition to the ballplayers I met Carl’s lovely wife Ella as well city officials from the City of Kinston and regular folks, baseball fans and parents with their children.

Carl and Ella

It was a day to honor one of the few remaining veterans of the Negro Leagues.  Carl Long played with the Birmingham Black Barons alongside Willie Mays and Country and Western singer Charlie Pride. He played against Hank Aaron and spent time in the minors with Willie McCovey and Roberto Clemente.  He was the first black to play in the Carolina League and still holds the record for the most RBIs in a season inKinstonwhich has also seen such sluggers as Jim Thome, Alex White and Manny Ramirez play at Historic Grainger Stadium.  Carl did not have a long baseball career, he injured his shoulder and his wife of over 50 years Ella, a local Kinston girl stole his heart.  In Kinston he became the first black commercial bus driver in the state, the first black Deputy Sheriff in North Carolina, and first black Detective on the Kinston Police Department. Carl was presented with a certificate from the Mayor of Kinston during the

That evening the Kinston Indians hosted Carl Long Appreciation night.  Carl as well as Dennis, James “Spot” King and Hubert “Big Daddy” Wooten and a number of local Negro League era players took the field near along the third base line as their names were announced.  A local television station filmed the event and Carl made sure the members of the “Field of Dreams” Little League team each got a copy of his signed baseball card. It was a night of emotion, appreciation and history.

Carl broke barriers wherever he went and credits his father with ensuring that he got his education, a mantra that he repeats to every young person that he meets.  I met Carl earlier in the season and knew that I was in the presence of a pioneer and a great American.  When I am in Kinston there is nothing that I enjoy more that listening to Carl’s stories of life in the Negro Leagues and breaking the baseball’s color barrier in the Deep South.

Hubert “Big Daddy”Wooten” 

It is hard to imagine now just how deep the poisonous river of racism ran in 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s America.  Then it was a fact that segregation was not only acceptable but widely practiced in much of this country.  Institutionalized racism was normal and violence against blacks and whites that befriended them was commonplace.  We like to think that we have overcome racism in this country but unfortunately there is a segment of the population that still practices and promotes this evil.  Even this week there was a Ku Klux Klan attack on the home of a black pastor in the South.  His offense….supporting a white candidate for county sheriff.  While we have overcome much there is still much work to be done.  I think this is why I believe it is so important to remember the men and women of the Negro Leagues.

One of the men at today’s events was Dennis “Bose” Biddle who played for the Chicago American Giants in 1953 and 1954.  He was in the process of having his contract purchased by the Chicago Cubs when he suffered a devastating injury to his leg and ankle going hard into Second Base.  When he couldn’t play in the Majors he went to college and became a Social Worker.  Dennis said to me “you know that “take out” sign at restaurants? We started it” referring to how black players would have to get their food at the back of a restaurant or eat in the kitchen out of sight of white customers.

Dennis “Bose”Biddle autographing a baseball 

The truth of the matter is that the players of the Negro Leagues were torch bearers in our society.  The men and women of the Negro Leagues barnstormed and played against white teams when baseball was still segregated.  When Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson it was a seismic event with great social connotations.  A barrier had been broken and I dare say that without the men of the Negro Leagues that the work of other Civil Rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have had a less fertile audience in White America and probably a even less friendly reception than they had as they worked to fulfill the vision of a better America where men and women of every race, color and creed could aspire to great things.

Carl Long giving a baseball and good advice to a young fan

Men like Carl Long are responsible for this.  Some made their impact at a national level while others like Carl and Dennis on a local and regional level.  Like the men and women of the “Greatest Generation” this fellowship grows smaller with each passing year. Hubert “Daddy” Wooten was one of the last Negro League players; he played for and later managed the Indianapolis Clowns in the years where they barnstormed.  During that time he managed the legendary Satchel Paige. “Big Daddy” Wooten  is the youngest of the he surviving Negro League players a mere 65 years old.  Most are in their mid-70s or in their 80s.  It is important that their friends and neighbors write down their stories so they are not forgotten.

Baseball in particular the Negro League Hall of Fame and Museum has done a credible job of trying to preserve the contributions of these men to baseball and the American experience. Yet many more stories are still to be told.  I hope that as I continue to visit with Carl, Sam Allen in Norfolk and other players that I will be able to help them tell more of those stories.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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3000 Plus 3: Jeter Goes 5 for 5 to Join Elite Club

3000  Photo credit: Barton Silverman/The New York Times 

http://sports.yahoo.com/video/player/mlb;_ylt=Aqi43ZhEeJLoj3clzah_58ypu7YF

Derek Jeter joined the elite 3000 hit club going 5 for 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays.  It was a remarkable performance. Jeter has struggled at the plate this year and spent a number of weeks on the disabled list.  It was the last chance before the All Star break and the beginning of a long road trip for the Yankees that he had to get 3000 hits. Had he not done so today it a place where he is loved and a part of an enduring legacy of great Yankees, none who ever had 3000 hits he would have done so on the road. It would have been like Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s record in San Diego, Cal Ripkin Jr. breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game record in Oakland, or Pete Rose breaking Ty Cobb’s hit record in Montreal, which according to some he did in Chicago the game before he broke the record in Cincinnati, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But such records are meant to occur at home. Somehow they just seem more magical when done at home.

Today Jeter not only reached 3000 hits mark he did it with aplomb going 5 for 5 with a Home Run and a double and two RBIs.  His 3000th hit was a Home Run on a 3-2 count to deep left field with one out in the bottom of the 3rd inning against Ray’s ace David Price. Price in his career has held Jeter to 6 hits in 25 at bats with only 2 extra base hits and 3 RBIs, not a bad record against Jeter who has a career .312 batting average. Only one other play hit a home run for his 3000th hit, Wade Boggs who did it in 1999.

There are only 28 players in this club and they include 24 Hall of Famers.  The only ones of the club not yet in the Hall of Fame include Jeter who is still active, Craig Biggio who will soon be eligible to be voted in to the Hall of Fame, Rafael Palmeiro who is tainted by the steroids controversy and the all time hit leader Pete Rose who is banned from baseball for life for betting on games.  The 3000 club is truly remarkable. It includes Rose with 4256 hits, Ty Cobb-4191, Hank Aaron-3771, and Stan Musial with 3630 hits.  Also on the list are greats like Cal Ripkin Jr., Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente.

The rest of the men on this list are also remarkable. All had amazing careers that spanned many years frequently with the same team. Their longevity, consistency and ability to get hits were simply remarkable but even more remarkable for Jeter was that he was the first Yankee to reach the 3000 hit mark.  The next nearest is the legendary Lou Gehrig with 2721 and Babe Ruth with 2518.  It is conceivable that had Ruth not pitched his first four years in the Majors or had Lou Gehrig not been forced to retire due to ALS or as some now posit numerous significant concussive injuries that either of them might have been the first Yankee to reach this lofty plateau.

However that feat belongs to Derek Jeter, the Captain of the Yankees and a man who will by his on-field performance, consistency, work ethic and leadership on and off the field will be in that elite group of Yankee legends.  He will also be remembered as a baseball great something that even Yankee haters have to admit.  Someday, hopefully after he has added much more to his legacy and retires he will be become part of the panoply of immortals in the Hall of Fame and have his monument added to those that grace Monument Park at Yankee Stadium along with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Miller Huggins, Casey Stengel, Reggie Jackson,  Lefty Gomez and so many more.

It was a good day for Derek Jeter and his family, the Yankees, baseball and all that love this most magical game.

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An Evening in the Minor Leagues with Carl Long

Me with Carl Long

On Friday, after a long and stressful week at work I decided to head to Kinston to see a ball game.  It was a rough week, my staff and I dealt with the death of an 11 year old girl that came through our ER on Monday morning.  I found that a Marine that I had served with while serving with 3rd Battalion 8th Marines in 2000-2001.  Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman was killed around Memorial Day with 7 of his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan. His death hit me hard.  I remembered the great Marine and wonderful young man that I knew back then.  That night I went out and sat in the light of the half moon and cried. Some other things went on and I finished work Friday caring for a family that lost their unborn baby and knowing that I was going to have to come in during the early morning hours Saturday for another still-birth.  I needed something and for me that “something” is baseball.

So when I was done with work I loaded up my trusty 2001 Honda CR-V and drove from LeJeune to Kinston. The trip across rural Eastern North Carolina was relaxing, there was little traffic and despite a passing thunder shower was uneventful, not even a driver doing well less than the speed limit in a no-passing zone to annoy the spit out of me. Eastern North Carolina has its own charm, small towns and settlements dot the farm fields and forests of the area. It is not uncommon to drive by a former plantation or to pass gas stations and country stores that seem to have stopped in time.

Kinston is one of those towns that have seen better times, the outsourcing of the garment industry to Central America and Asia has hit the town hard.  While a budding aviation industry promises better times many of the poorer and less educated people in the city have little opportunity.  While there are some very nice areas in town the central part of the city, especially downtown shows the real effect of what economic damage has been done to our country by the actions of industries to relocate overseas and actions by successive administrations and congresses to help them abandon Americans in order to increase profits.

However Kinston has had a team in the Carolina League for years and Minor League Baseball has been in the city continuously since 1937, with a four year break between 1958 and 1962 when the Kinston Eagles became part of the Coastal Plains League.  Grainger Stadium was built in 1946. The team became part of the Carolina League in 1956. Over the years the Kinston team has had various affiliations with Major League teams as well as various names.  The Team was called the Eagles until 1982 when they became the Blue Jays until 1986 when they again became the Eagles. Then in 1986 they became the affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, a relationship that they maintain until this day. Before the 2011 season it was announced that the team had been sold and was being moved to Zebulon North Carolina to replace the Carolina Mudcats which are moving to Pensacola Florida. The team owner is seeking to bring another team to Kinston in time for the 2012 season.  It will be a sad day if a team cannot be found to bring to Kinston which has one of the nicest parks in Class “A” ball.

I got to the game and was able to relax talking with new friends and moving around the ballpark to take pictures. When I moved back to the first base line I saw a man that I had watched a game with earlier in the year in his season ticket box. John is a retired Navy Supply Corps Officer and really nice to spend time with. This particular evening he was sitting beside a heavy set older African American man wearing a Negro League cap.  I came up and John invited me to sit with them and I got to meet the man, Carl Long.

Carl had played ball in the Negro Leagues with the Birmingham Barons and played with Willie Mays and for legendary manager Buck O’Neal and he was the first black player in the Carolina League playing with the Kinston Eagles when they were with the Pittsburgh Pirate organization.  In 1956 he led the team in home runs with 18, hit .299 and had 111 RBIs a season record that still stands in Kinston.

It was really nice just to be able to listen and to spend time with one of those great men of the Negro Leagues and pioneers of baseball integration. He played with Mays, McCovey, Clemente and against Aaron and even country and western singer Charlie Pride.  He played on a number of minor league teams until the end of 1957.  He was 22 years old and had a lot of good years left in him but he had married the woman of his dreams and he elected to settle in Kinston with her.  They are still married and went on to become the first black deputy Sheriff and first black Detective on the Kinston Police Department and even the first black commercial bus driver.

Carl is part of the Living Legends of surviving Negro League players and makes many appearances, the most recent at Rickwood Field in Birmingham the oldest ballpark in the country and home of the Barons.  He will be honored on July 22nd in Kinston with other Negro League players, including Sam Allen who I know from Norfolk.

I plan on visiting more with Carl as I enjoyed the man immensely. When he found my interesting in baseball history and the Negro Leagues he gave me an autographed baseball card.

I drove home through the night feeling much better even knowing that I would be called in to deal with sad situations at the hospital, but once again I was blessed to have the opportunity to spend time with Carl and John and to meet some other really nice people.

Thank God for baseball and the Church of Baseball, Grainger Stadium Parish.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Most Exciting Play in the Game- The Electricity of the Inside the Park Home Run

three run homer by fiorentinoJeff Fiorentino Connects in July against Charlotte

There is nothing in the world like a home run.  From the crack of the bat there is a sudden silence and then, if you are the home team a deafening roar as the crowd reacts to the ball sailing over the fence.  Now home runs like this happen every day in baseball, but the “in the Park” home run is something special.  You don’t see many of them. Thus when they occur, the effect on the team and the crowd is electrifying.   I saw my first inside the park home run tonight as Jeff Fiorentino of the Norfolk Tides hit a tailing line drive to left field which eluded Syracuse Sky Chief’s Left Fielder Jorge Padilla. The ball then went to the wall where it was picked up by Padilla .  Fiorentino raced around the bases nearly overtaking Tides Second Baseman Justin Turner and easily beating the relay in to catcher Jhonatan Solano.  Fiorentino also scored a run in the first and singled in a run and later scored what turned out to be the winning run in the 8th giving him 2 hits, 4 RBIs and 3 runs scored and took his average up to .330 on the year moving into third in the International League.  The Tides won the game against the Chiefs 8-6.  The highlights of the game including Fiorentino’s home run are here:

http://web.minorleaguebaseball.com/media/player/mp_tpl.jsp?w=http%3A//mfile.akamai.com/14668/wmv/mlb.download.akamai.com/14668/2009/aaa/nor/video/080109_syrnor_august1.wmv&type=v_free&_mp=1

In the park homers are rare and most of the ones hit in baseball history came during the 19th Century Era or the “Dead Ball Era” between 1901 and 1919 during which ballpark outfields were much deeper and more spacious than today’s parks meaning that if a ball got by an outfielder there was a good chance that a batter could get around the base paths and score.  In the modern era Hank Aaron had only one.  A few players have hit them, but they are so rare as to be called “the most exciting play in baseball.” Just to give an example of players in the “500 Club” who have hit inside the park homers, Babe Ruth has ten, Willie Mays six, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Junior three each, Sammy Sosa two while Harmon Killebrew and Hank Aaron each have one.  Other players to have hit them in recent years include Emilio Bonafacio who hit one on opening day,  Howie Kendrick of the Angels who hit one on May 9th and Carl Crawford hit one in Tampa Bay on July 20th.  Only one has been hit in an All-Star game and that by Ichiro Suzuki in 2007 at AT&T Park in San Francisco.  Roberto Clemente has the only “walk off” inside the park grand slam.  The last by a Norfolk player was in 2005 by Anderson Hernandez.

Here is a video link to Tigers Curtis Granderson’s 2005 inside the park homer against the Yankees:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcRaYNtbANA

As I said this was the first inside the park home run that I have ever seen and it was simply an amazing thing of beauty to watch. Patently the Deity Herself ensured I got to see one of these just as I had seen a no-hitter back in 1975.  I had been up talking with Elliott the Usher about strategy, players and baseball trivia when Jeff Fiorentino came up to the plate in the bottom of the 6th.  I told Elliott that I had to go down to get a picture so I went down by my seat and crouched down in a good catchers stance to stay low and balance myself behind the screen at home plate as I always do when talking my shots.  The first pitch was a ball so I readied myself for the next. When Fiorentino hit the ball I knew it would drop for a hit, when it got by Padilla I knew that it was extra bases and when I looked up and saw how fast Jeff was running I knew this was something special.  I went back up to Elliott the Usher and we did our high five.  We had a scare in the 7th when the Sky Chiefs score two that were charged to starter David Pauley, but somehow, despite losing the lead I knew that the Tides would come back.  In the 8th they did. Blake Davis had an infield single and advanced to second on a throwing error by shortstop Ian Desmond.  He advanced to third on a passed ball.  Fiorentino came up again and singled to drive in Davis to tie the score.  With Brandon Snyder at the plate Chiefs pitcher Jack Spradlin attempted to pick off Fiorentino but threw wide of the base, Fiorentino alertly advanced all the way to third.  Snyder then doubled to score Fiorentino to give the Tides the lead.  Melvin Dorta hit a sacrifice fly to right field scoring Snyder.  Alberto Castillo came in to close the game sealing the Norfolk win.  Sunday evening Radhames Liz (0-2, 6.00) will make his first start for Norfolk since being promoted from Double-A Bowie where he had been sent down to work on control issues in June.  Liz has the distinction of being the only current Minor Leaguer to be in the Major League Baseball 100 mph club having done so when called up by the Orioles in 2008. It should be an interesting game.

Peace, Steve+

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