Monday, May 9, 2011

Baseball's Mobile Connection

Note: This weekend baseball turns its attention to civil rights with a game and other festivities in Atlanta. What better time to look at the legacy of one Southern City and its impact on the big leagues?

Maybe it was the era, or maybe it was just coincidence, but two of my favorite players growing up (and to this day) came from the same place: Mobile, Ala. And Hank Aaron and Billy Williams aren't the only stars who joined the majors from that Southern city.

In fact, there are five Hall of Famers from there: Aaron, Williams, Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey and Ozzie Smith. All are black and the first four all were among the first wave of players after Jackie Robinson to break the color line. Aaron was the last player to move from the Negro Leagues to the majors and be voted into the Hall of Fame.

And there are other prominent players from Mobile, including Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee who shared the outfield on the '69 Miracle Mets team, and Amos Otis a star on the Kansas City Royals teams of the 1970s. That's quite a distinguished roster of players.

Why one city developed into a pipeline for baseball stars is a bit of a mystery. Howard Bryant discusses it in his biography of the Hammer, "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," but reveals no answer, other than to note that the city was known for baseball back into the 19th century. (I've read similar accounts about football in Green Bay, which helps explain why the tiny city was able to hang on to the Packers while every other team fled for a bigger market.)

For anyone who thinks the color line was erased when Robinson broke the barrier in 1947, "The Last Hero" provides a sobering account of the difficult path blacks had to integrate baseball.

I was surprised a few years ago to learn that McCovey wore No. 44 in honor of Aaron. I had always thought of them as part of the same era, not realizing that though just four years younger than Henry, Willie would look up to him as an idol.

And so did I. And Billy Williams was another. hero of my youth After the Braves left Milwaukee, the city was left to root for the nearest National League team, Chicago. Cubs games were shown on TV, with Jack Brickhouse's famous "Hey! Hey!" home run call flashing on the screen as every Cub rounded the bases. That was the height of high-tech graphics at the time.

The Cubs had a lot of great players: Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins. I loved them all. But Williams was my favorite. I remember clearly when he set the NL record for consecutive games played. I always liked those players who went out every day and played well no matter the nagging injuries or bad weather.

Paige, obviously, was well before my time, but his legend and quotes lives on. He and the other Mobile natives enshrined in the hall form a group that gives the city one of the proudest baseball legacies in the country.

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