Friday, May 13, 2011

Baseball's Civil Rights Struggle

This weekend is baseball's annual Civil Rights Weekend. Besides the game, there's a roundtable discussion and awards given out. It's a chance for the sport and its fans to consider how much has been accomplished and how much needs to be done.

In my recent post on the fabulous group of players that came from Mobile, Ala., I alluded to the fact that for many the story of the desegregation of baseball begins and ends with Jackie Robinson. In that telling, once the color line was broken blacks were accepted and, except for a few who couldn't see the light, everything was fine.

Of course, the truth was a lot more complicated. And although blacks could play alongside whites and share the same locker room, many areas of the sport remained segregated into the 1960s. Nowhere was this more stark than in spring training in Florida.

While the white players would be put up in hotels, often with their wives and kids, the black players were sent to boarding houses in the "colored section" of town. Players were reluctant to bring their families to the hostile South under these conditions.

It took until 1961 for the inequity to be addressed. Led by Wendell Smith, a crusading journalist at black newspapers, baseball finally had to confront the problem in 1961. That's 14 years after Robinson first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Smith had been pushing baseball's boundaries for decades. It was he who suggested to Branch Rickey that Robinson was the right man to be the first black player in the majors. Smith's prodding and the courage of players to stand up for the rights brought changes.

One of the leaders among players was Bill White, who was a star for the St. Louis Cardinals and later became the National League president. In his new book, "Uppity: My Untold Story About The Games People Play," recalls reaching the breaking point in St. Petersburg, Fla., and speaking out. His words sparked talk of a beer boycott, which Anheuser-Busch, owner of the Cardinals, wanted to head off. The black and white players stayed in the same hotel together from then on and other teams followed suit.

There were other battles that had to be fought. As baseball moved South into Atlanta and then Houston, issues the larger society was dealing with continued to dog the national pastime. Civil Rights Weekend is a good way to bring to light the obstacles that were overcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment - MLB