Black athletes faced a very different America before Civil Rights Act of 1964
WEDNESDAY, 26 MAY 2010 21:30
BY EVAN WEINER
Intentional or not, Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Dr. Rand Paul has opened the door to a new discussion over the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This column is not about Dr. Paul, his candidacy and his beliefs. He will have a thorough chance between now and November's election to go over every issue. This though is about people who played sports before the legislation was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The names of two African-American basketball players, Lebron and Kobe, today rank right up there with the Babe as in Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees in the 1920s and 1930s. Lebron James is the focus of sports and business journalists everywhere as they try and figure out what National Basketball Association team is the perfect fit for him as he mulls what contract offers may come his way on July 1. Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers teammates are trying to win another title. But back on the Fourth of July, 1947, when Larry Doby was heading up to the Major Leagues there was trepidation. Whether Doby liked it or not, he was going to be a civil rights trial blazer.
The then 23-year-old Doby from Paterson, New Jersey was about ready to join the Cleveland Indians and would break the color barrier in the American League just three months after Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Today, a 23-year-old African-American player joining a Major League Baseball team is not big news. It happens a lot but in 1947, Larry Doby made history.
Doby and a good many "Negro" or "black" or African-Americans who went through both the college and professional ranks have a lot of stories about their pre-Civil Rights Act of 1964 America and not being able to stay with their teammates in the same hotels or motels or eating in the same restaurants or even using the same water fountains. They may have been sports heroes but that didn't mean a thing off the field in some areas of the country, particularly the South. Major League Baseball though was not a "Southern" sport and a lot of the problems happened in the North as well. There was not much to distinguish between spring training in the South and playing in the North during the season.
Major League Baseball owners didn't want black players nor did the National Football League. Boston's George Preston Marshall entered the NFL in 1932 and moved the team to Washington five years later. Thirty-nine years later, 1961, Marshall still had not hired a black player.
Doby was "selected" by Indians owner Bill Veeck to join the Cleveland team because he was a good Negro League player and attended Brooklyn College. Veeck saw Doby as more than just a talented player and Veeck ended up having a lifelong baseball relationship with Doby as a player in Cleveland then in Chicago and eventually Doby coached and managed Veeck's White Sox in the 1970s.
Doby might have been a great baseball prospect when he was 18 in 1942 but both the American and National League and a predecessor called the American Association along with minor leagues like the International League had a color barrier between 1890 and 1946. There was never any formal decree banning African-Americans from "Organized Baseball" but African-Americans were clearly not wanted on the field or in the stands. African-Americans ended up in the Negro League or barnstorming or in Mexico or Cuba. Officially the American Association's Toledo Blue Stockings catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker was the last African-American to be in the "Major Leagues' in 1884. It was Toledo's only season in the American Association.
In 1945, the Brooklyn Dodgers' President and General Manager signed Jackie Robinson and assigned him to Montreal of the International League. In 1946, Robinson officially became the first African-American player in "Organized Baseball" since 1890 although there were whispers that some players were of "mixed" race. Baseball wasn't the only sport denying opportunities. The National Football League stopped hiring black players after the 1933 season. A new football league, the All-America Football Conference, signed black players in 1946, the same year as the NFL but the only reason black players were allowed in the NFL had nothing to do with the league.
When the Cleveland Rams moved to the Los Angeles Coliseum, the lease agreement between the team and the stadium required the Rams to hire Negro players. The new Los Angeles Rams signed Woody Strode and Kenny Washington. The AAFC's Cleveland Browns signed Marion Motley and Bill Ford because Coach Paul Brown wanted football players.
There was a professional basketball league in the Midwest, the National Basketball League, which employed African-Americans but the new Basketball Association of America that started in 1946 did not. The merged National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America became the National Basketball Association in 1949 and did not hire black players until 1950.
College football teams like Penn State and the University of San Francisco turned down games and bowl bids because they were asked to leave their black players home. Penn State did play SMU in the 1948 Cotton Bowl and brought with them two African-American players, Wally Triplett and Dennie Hoggard played in that game but the team stayed at a naval air base near Dallas because local hotels refused to accommodate the Penn State squad if Triplett and Hoggard were part of the team.
It was in this environment that Doby made his debut.
Doby was a Negro League player with the Newark Eagles. He hit .341 in 1946. Veeck bought his contract from Newark and he was the first player to go straight from the Negro League to Major League Baseball.
"Mr. Rickey, Mr. Robinson and Mr. Veeck gave me an opportunity to be in the American League," said Doby in an interview in March 1997. "So I have to say that Jackie had not made it, I probably would have not been given the opportunity. When you talk about what goes through your mind 50 years ago, you first have to think of Mr. Rickey, who had the courage to do it and you think about Mr. Robinson, who had the courage to do it, and you the think about Mr. Veeck, who had the courage to do it and me who had the opportunity to do it."
It seem rather strange that Doby used the word courage three times in describing his chance at playing in "Organized Baseball" yet from all accounts it seemed to take a lot of courage to play a simple game back in the 1940s, 1950s and into the 1960s.
"A lot of people ask me, Jack gets a lot of the headlines and you don't get too much headlines," said Doby in the 1997 interview on the pressures he had to succeed. Both Robinson and Doby were in the same boat. They both were verbally abused and had to live a separate life on the road from their teammates, almost always in the poorer side of town in certain cities.
"When the guy is first, he should get the headlines," he said. "I know myself, my friends, my friends know I was involved in the same type of thing he was involved in. I am not going to be going around asking for publicity, politicking for publicity but I know what I have done and I know I have helped some people to accomplish what they have done in terms of coming into the American League and it makes you feel good being a part of it, that is one thing nobody can take away from me.
"I think a lot of people think because I was 11 weeks behind Jackie, it made it easier for me and that is not true. We (Robinson and Doby) talked about it. I would not say we were close from a social standpoint but we barnstormed for about four years for 30 days, I would see him at certain functions but we stayed away from the negatives. The only thing we talked about there were certain guys who gave him a tough time and I had certain guys in the American League that gave me a tough time. You see the focus was trying to be the best ballplayer you can be and you had to be because when you are talking about eight teams (eight in the American League and eight in the National), you know, you get hurt and you might get back. You had to concentrate on playing the game as well as you can.
"And one of the other things and I think he felt the same way I felt. Why stir up things, it is tough enough going through the summer going through what you are going to go through you don't want to go through to talk about the same thing during the winter. Let's talk about something positive, let's be comfortable, let's be happy."
Robinson and Doby faced segregation.
"They say Mr. Robinson and you were picked because you could deal with the segregation. I had a situation growing up in a town where there were mixed neighborhoods. I know that on that side of the track, it was better than my side of the track to a certain degree, people say could I deal with it better or could Jackie? Of course we had both been to college and we were never separated from our teammates during the college time we played," Doby stated. "When you say that he could or I could handle it better than Satchel (Paige) or Josh (Gibson), I sometimes question that because I feel this way about that.
"If you have never been on the other side, you don't know what it is like. But once you have been on the other side and you see it is more comfortable over there than it is over here and all of a sudden you are going to transfer from that side other here while the guy who has never been over there and doesn't know what it is over there. So it was just as easy for him to deal with the situation as have as segregation is concerned."
Doby, a member of Baseball's Hall of Fame, passed away in 2003 six years after this interview. He said nothing changed in baseball during the 11 weeks between Jackie Robinson's April 15, 1947 debut and Doby's first game on July 5 and that in his opinion, there were still racial problems that existed 50 years after Robinson's debut.
Dr. Paul gave recent two interviews on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one in a Louisville newspaper and another on a cable TV news channel. The dialogue has opened up a new discussion on an old subject that was supposed to have been settled 46 years ago. The issue has not faded from the American conscience. In July 2009, the college sports' Atlantic Coast Conference pulled the 2011, 2012 and 2013 conference baseball championships from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina because the Confederate flag flies at a soldier's monuments near the state capital in Columbia.
The NCAA has had a moratorium on awarding predetermined championships to South Carolina since 2001, the year after the NAACP began a boycott of the state because of the Confederate flag flying issue. Both the Atlantic Coast Conference and the South East Conference have followed the NCAA's lead over the years. Sports and politics go hand in hand even if people view sports as the sandbox of society.
Evan Weiner is an author, radio-TV commentator, lecturer on the "The Politics of Sports Business" and can be reached for speaking engagements at email@example.com
LAST UPDATED ( THURSDAY, 27 MAY 2010 07:22 )