Celebrating Black History Month
Last August 24th during the 2013 Civil Rights Game festivities in Chicago, ESPN’s Michael Wilbon (pictured above), who grew up on the South Side, gave the keynote address at a luncheon the day of the game. He touched upon a variety of subjects including his youth, baseball in Chicago, the Negro Leagues and the Civil Rights movement. It seems appropriate, in light of Black History Month, to revisit his words with you here:
Good afternoon everybody…people always associate me with basketball because I cover a lot of basketball and talk about it a lot for ESPN. But baseball is my first love. I grew up here on the South Side. If nobody else knows that, my mother, who is here with me today, 87 years young and back in Chicago after a lot of years away, (does). I am thrilled she is here. She was my first catcher, so she knows my first love was baseball.
I am thrilled to be here. Anytime I am in a room with Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson, I get a little jittery and it just becomes a little bit overwhelming in addition to all the other great ballplayers, many of whom I have gotten to know over the years. I started out wanting to get in this business to be a baseball writer — that was the goal. Once I realized I wasn’t going to be Ferguson Jenkins, then I wanted to be a baseball writer and that’s how it started.
Memphis, Cincinnati, and Atlanta have given the Civil Rights Game a weekend, a wonderful foundation through six seasons for which I am sure Major League Baseball is thankful. But the event is now where it belongs, in Chicago. More specifically, on the South Side of Chicago, and even more specifically than that, 35th Street where Negro League Baseball thrived for decades–and just a few blocks from Bronzeville, which was the center of Chicago’s Civil Rights struggles.
It’s the South Side of Chicago and Comiskey Park that were home 27 times to what in my house was called the Negro League All-Star Game. I know that wasn’t the official name but that’s what it was called by my parents. It was home for most of his 102 years to Ted Double-Duty Radcliffe, who said his finest moment of a great many came in the 1944 game–and the White Sox honor Ted, of course, every year. It was even home to Rube Foster, the father of black baseball, who in 1920 finally got Negro League Baseball, essentially as we knew it, off the ground and really running. Before that began the league gave the South Side the Chicago American Giants. Just last week, the youngest player to ever play in the Negro Leagues, Marvin Price, passed away in Chicago. He was 14-years-old when he showed up for a tryout with the American Giants. The manager thought he was looking at the team’s new bat boy.
A lot of young men have played a lot of baseball in Chicago, but 99.9% of it nowhere near what Frank Thomas, Bo Jackson, Ferguson Jenkins, and so many other people that we associate with Chicago produced when they played here. I grew up playing baseball on the South Side. I was pretty unhittable at 14 or 15 years old, I thought. Until this tank of a kid, he was like 5’6, 200 pounds at 13,14-years-old. He crushed a pitch I threw about 370 feet. Again, he was like 14 and I asked after the inning, “Who the hell that kid was?” And somebody said, “You don’t know him? His name is Puckett, Kirby Puckett.” I said “So, okay let’s keep track of him.” When I was covering baseball for the Washington Post 10 years later, I walked into the Minnesota Twins locker room, and Puckett extends his hand and was like, “Don’t I know you? You look familiar.” And I was like, “Nah, that’s got to be somebody else. It can’t be me. We’ve never seen each other.”
I should probably detour a little bit to explain. I grew up on the South Side with a father who rooted exclusively for the White Sox. He vowed he would never set foot in Wrigley Field after being shooed away from the box office on the occasion of Jackie Robinson’s very first game in Chicago. Fairly early on I rooted for both teams, and I became a Cubs fan. Uh, this growing up on the South Side but rooting for the Cubs isn’t nearly as complex as most Chicagoans want to make it. A good chunk of my Little League in West Chatham Park, which is still there, was sponsored by Ernie Banks Ford. That in and of itself was a reason enough for me to root for Ernie Banks which also meant rooting for the Cubs. We had Ernie Banks Ford on the back of a lot of our uniforms.
In the segregated Chicago that I grew up in, in the 60s and 70s, black ballplayers regardless which of the teams they played for, lived primarily on the South Side. They were my neighbors and they came to neighborhood Little League parades on Opening Day. I have home movies to prove it. They bought our uniforms. They told us to get the hell off the corner well after dark and go home when they were done driving to their own homes after day games at the ballpark.
Baseball, not basketball, not football, was the first choice for children then. Yes, black children. We didn’t need back then the RBI program, Amateur City Elite Program, or the Urban Youth Academies. Those have been so wisely and necessarily conceived, and efficiently executed programs by Major League Baseball, which connect urban kids to all kinds of marvelous baseball opportunities now. It was a different time. Before African-American boys fell in love with basketball to the exclusion of virtually everything else. It was a time when we wanted to be the next Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson or, in my case, Ferguson Jenkins. Baseball just a few miles south of here, in my case, was a daily escape from the very adult news of marches, riots, of clashes between protestors and police, or lynch mobs. It felt with most of it happening in Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama to be somewhere else, but nothing was ever very far from the reach of Chicago, not ever. Certainly, not in any stew of sports, race, and conflict.
You could go all the way back to July 4th, 1910, to the great Jack Johnson, who lived in Chicago and was buried here in the Graceland Cemetery. He beat Jim Jeffries in the first and most important fight of the century. It was that important because it probably was the only time a prize fight caused race riots, which it did in approximately 50 cities, including this one, New York, Kansas City, Philly, Houston, and New Orleans.
Jeffries, the first real great white hope, had lost to Johnson and all hell broke loose. People were shooting and stabbing folks for walking down the street and being the wrong color. Johnson stalked then champion Tommy Burns around the world, literally, and down to Australia for two years; he wasn’t just ahead of his time, Johnson was in a time warp. This was 1908, when lynching a black man was so common. It helped drive 6.5 million black people out of the South over the next 60 years in a phenomenon called “The Great Migration” and into places like the South Side of Chicago. Jack Johnson, of course, couldn’t have cared less or feared any of it. He was ahead of his time.
Likewise, sports were almost always ahead of its time, too, when it came to race relations. As sad as it was that black ballplayers, talented men, had been driven from professional baseball and football early in the 20th century. The fact is that Jackie Robinson desegregated baseball a year before President Truman ordered the desegregation of U.S. Military as Commissioner Selig reminded us earlier. Five years before the first black character Louise Beavers as “Beulah” starred in a television series. Seven years before the Supreme Court declared the segregation in public school unconstitutional. Eight years before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Ten years before nine black students, under the watch of Federal Troops, integrated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Seventeen years before President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 24 years before the U.S. Supreme Court got rid of laws banning interracial marriages. That’s how ahead of its time Jackie Robinson’s desegregation of baseball was. Ballparks had turned out to be the first public places where blacks and whites could, without much effort, sit together and eat popcorn and root for the home team, whether it was the American League White Sox or the Negro League American Giants.
While finding out in the process that neither black ballplayers nor black fans were demons. Nobody would make that case aloud that desegregating baseball was as important as desegregating public schools. Except that athletic progress just about always preceded progress anywhere and everywhere else in our culture. And then, there was a matter of winning and losing that suddenly — as the former became lucrative — trumped everything else.
As a Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist wrote about then Redskins owner George Preston Marshall refusing to have a black player in the early 1960s, quote, “Drafting blacks is not an argument for social equality. It’s a matter of practical football policy. The Redskins were spotting their rivals the tremendous advantage of exclusive rights to a whole race containing excellent football players.” It’s impossible to argue with that. Still, the Redskins owner would not relent until the Kennedy Administration threatened to kick the Redskins out of their taxpayer supported stadium. Very, very fortunately that sort of inhumane thing never played out here in Chicago, though, plenty else did.
Not talked about nearly enough was the role sports columnist Wendell Smith played in baseball desegregation. His agitation in favor of Jackie Robinson and his subsequent move to the Chicago Herald American, then the Chicago Sun-Times, and ultimately WGN-TV, as one of, if not the first black sports anchor in America. I didn’t realize it at the time when I was watching him on Channel 9 every night, but he would impact my professional life more than that of anybody I grew up idolizing. Smith was on the front line of civil rights movements in sports. More than a half dozen years before Jackie Robinson was allowed to join the Dodgers, it was Wendell Smith who was agitating behind the scenes, whenever possible, for Jackie to lead the “great experiment” as it was called at one point.
I had the privilege during a recent trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, of seeing the letters he and Jackie wrote each other at the end of that historic, dramatic, stressful season of 1947. I wish Wendell Smith had lived long enough to cover not just Jerry Reinsdorf’s selecting Kenny Williams to be general manager of the White Sox without any outside agitation, but Kenny Williams doing exactly what Jackie Robinson did when given the opportunity – win. The only baseball winner in this town that’s been seen in nearly a 100 years was built by a man, for who the first 120 years of this game’s existence would never been given a chance, and ultimately that is what the Civil Rights movement is about.
My five-year-old son, Matthew, asked me the other night, “Dad, what’s Civil Rights?” He’s too young at this point to understand it’s the long, non-violent struggle to achieve cultural and racial equality under the law. So, I told him the struggle for Civil Rights is about inclusion. That’s all it’s really about. Inclusion on fields, in dugouts, front offices, sidelines, press boxes, training rooms, and roles that are large and small in any and all areas of our national life. It’s appropriate also that we are commemorating Dr. King’s speech here in Chicago, which is one of several cities where he used the “I Have a Dream” theme in a speech. Dr. King actually used it here, two weeks before he arrived in DC for the march on Washington. During the first decade of his public life, he visited Chicago all the time, seeking support for his agendas, which thankfully turned into national priorities. To annually celebrate that effort, to which so many people devoted their lives, is one of the noblest things Major League Baseball, the City of Chicago, and all of us could possibly do.
And for that, again, and for having me, I’d like to thank you, Commissioner Selig, and I want to thank Jerry Reinsdorf and Kenny Williams. It’s an honor and really a prideful day no matter where you’re from, but I think particularly if you’re from Chicago and you know the struggles of both Civil Rights and how far baseball has come, as (the Commissioner) reminds us all the time as a social institution.
Here’s Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and Sox President Ken Williams at the 2013 Civil Rights Game celebration.