Monday, January 19, 2009

It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life...

I watched MLB Network’s “Pride and Perseverance” about the Negro Leagues this evening. If that’s the quality of programming we can expect to see from MLB Network, I may never leave the couch again. Really great stuff. I had tears in my eyes, which has happened quite a lot this weekend – tears of joy, tears of rage, tears of hope that we can put all of this skin color nonsense behind us forever. I suppose nonsense is too weak of a word.

One thing I found fun about the Negro Leagues is all of the great nicknames the players had. My favorite was Peach Head. There was Mule, Buck, Bobo, Chico, Double Duty, Cool Papa, Mack the Knife, Whip, Slim – it seems like everyone had a nickname, and not just had a nickname, but were known by their nicknames. Today we have weak names like A Rod and K Rod and Big Z. There’s The Big Unit, The Rocket, Big Puma, and a few others, and then more localized names like Adam “Donkey” Dunn, Voltron, Johnny Cuest, but no one calls them that outside of their markets. I think Chris Berman killed nicknames.

In the 1920s, black teams used to play Major League teams in exhibition games. It was said that Major League players loved these games because the competition was so tough, as the black teams often beat the Major League teams. Babe Ruth was a big champion of these games. Ohio’s own Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned these games in 1929. I remember driving past the sign in Millville that read “Birthplace of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, First Commissioner of Major League Baseball” on trips from Miami U. to Cincy. The sign stood so proudly. I think they should take it down. Bigots deserve no place in history.

Do you ever wonder what you would have been like had you lived in another time period? I’m convinced I would have been ostracized for eccentricities if I had been born any earlier. I know I would have gone to Griffith Stadium in DC to see Josh Gibson play, and I would have gone alone if no one would have gone with me. A single white woman going to a black baseball game? In some cities you’d probably be killed for that. Like Cincinnati. I would have been screaming my head of for Josh Gibson, my answer to the question, "If you could see any ballplayer play ball, who would it be?" Josh Gibson, the greatest baseball player who ever lived, a guy who was said by some to hit over 900 home runs in his career, a guy who was said by others to have hit a homer out of Yankee Stadium, tragically died of a stroke at age 35, three months before Jackie Robinson made his Major League debut. Sometimes, fate is a cruel mother.

I am very proud that baseball was a catalyst for the civil rights movement. True American human heroes emerged from the dark shadows of segregation, heroes like Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, Larry Doby, and the others who followed. It's just unthinkable to me that these stories are real, that those signs they showed on the documentary, the ones that said "We do laundry for white people only" and "White Entrance/Black Entrance" couldn't have existed. But they did. I know they did. I just can't wrap my head around it.

It we could realign the stars, I would love to see the 1931 Homestead Grays play the 1976 Reds in a series. The ’31 Grays went 163-23 that year. Josh Gibson hit 75 homers. The roster had five Hall of Famers: Oscar Charleston , Jud "Boojum" Wilson, Smokey Joe Williams, Willie Foster, and Gibson. Man, what a series that would be. Well, someday, when I get to that cornfield in Iowa, maybe I’ll be able to sit in the bleachers eating my hotdog and see that series. And yeah, I’ll root my heart out for the Reds, but when Josh comes up and hits a 500 footer into the waving green beyond the outfield, I will stand up and clap.

Those guys must be sitting up there beaming at America right now.

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