Desegregation was the law in the 1970s, but it wasn’t always the reality.
I grew up in the midwest and by the late ‘70s, most people thought, “It’s all good. Life is fair. There is no need to carry a chip on your shoulder anymore.” It was a time when people were willing to help you . . . that is, until you advanced further than they intended. You may have heard the saying: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” That may be true. But how do you feel when he succeeds and ends up owning more fishing boats than you do?
Back in the seventies, I was a black athlete in junior high, high school, and college. Each level gave me a new perspective on the life of sports. As I matured as an athlete, I became aware that because you were black you were expected to be the best. At least, you had to be the best at the popular sports, such as football, basketball, baseball, and track. With regard to the less-popular sports—such as swimming, golf, and tennis—as a black athlete, there were zero expectations. In fact, you were discouraged from participating at all.
What I witnessed was this. At all levels, there were usually several black athletes who would try out for teams in the various sports. But if you weren’t the best player—or the second- or third-best—and you were black, you didn’t make the team. Until I arrived in college in 1978, rarely, if at all, did you see a team that would have a black player sitting on the bench.
College! What a wonderful experience getting an education was! And it was now (in the late seventies) an opportunity theoretically open to everyone. However, while some black students in the Midwest were able to take advantage of this marvelous opportunity, most were not encouraged to do so. The majority were left in the dark, with no clue about the mysteries of the college application process.
I was one of the lucky ones. I played baseball for a small college in the Midwest. Winters in the Midwest being what they are, it was not feasible to play outdoors. This meant that our team used to travel to the Deep South to play baseball where it was warm. Having grown up in the Midwest, I hadn’t been to the South before. Therefore, the prospect of this trip was exciting to me. I was a freshman, I started at third base every game, and I was the only black player on the team (there were only a handful of blacks in the entire college).
That trip was unexpectedly eventful—an awakening, in a sense. We drove all through the first night and arrived late on the second night at a small college. The air was warm—short-sleeve weather in January. How great was that! Snow was on the ground when I boarded the bus, and when I got off, it was so warm I wondered if snow even existed.
The majority of the dorms were empty; many students were still on Christmas break. We unloaded the vans and headed for our makeshift hotel—the dorms. Blissfully unaware of my circumstances, I got in line to get my room key. Our coach told us we would have the “buddy system”—you must always have your buddy with you. So, two to a room.
When my roommate (buddy) and I approached the table, the gentleman from the host college passing out room keys got up and walked over to our coach. After a brief discussion, he returned and handed my buddy and me each a different key. He also told me that my room was in the other direction, away from the rest of the team. As you might imagine, I thought this was strange. Remember, this was in 1979.
The next day we ate in the school cafeteria. There were still quite a few students on campus. After getting through the food line, we walked into a fairly large lunchroom. It was clear that the room was divided, blacks on one side, whites on the other. The rest of the team was out in front, with only a few of us stragglers behind. The team members out in front made the decision to sit on the white side, as did the coach.
My fellow stragglers and I had a tough decision to make. As luck would have it, there was an empty table in between the two groups. A “gray” area, you might say. When we decided to sit down at that table, both of the other groups looked very surprised. I felt like a castaway on an island—the black group wanted no part of me because I was with a white team, and the white group, well, as far as they were concerned, I didn’t exist.
Later that day, we were off to the game. We were going to play a double-header. The first game was pretty normal, nothing stood out. However, I did notice the other team also had one black player, who didn’t play. (That was a little weird—my theory was not working out.)
The fifth inning of the second game, he came to the plate. I was playing third base as usual, and he swung and connected with the first pitch. It was a hard shot off the left centerfield fence, a triple. He ran like the wind, sliding into third base just ahead of my tag. I could see his excitement and love for the game, but we said nothing to each other.
His team took the field. It was our turn to get some runs. He went to play center field, a position which requires speed, agility, a good glove, and most of all, good judgment.
One of our players hit the ball to right center field. In ordinary circumstances, this was a sure-thing base hit at least. This young man covered an enormous distance and made a diving catch. He came up throwing, just as we were all taught to do, but rarely did. We could see he was a fundamentally sound player. The throw was amazing—absolutely perfect!
A couple of innings later he came up to bat again. Again he wasted no time and hit the first pitch. It was another huge hit off the right center outfield fence. It made everyone take notice. This player was something special.
Watching him that day, I remembered something. My Little League baseball coach always told me, “Get your work done early, you may not get another chance.”
The second game was over. I don’t remember who won—that became secondary to what I had just witnessed. The teams shook hands and we headed back to the dorms.
We had dinner and I returned to my room at the end of the hall, away from the rest of the team. Later that night I hear a knock at my window!
I wasn’t sure why someone would be at my window at this hour (it was very late). To be honest I was a little scared. I ignored it as long as I could, but the soft tap continued. The only thing I could think was, the Klan perhaps?
Being the brave soul that I am (not), I got up and started to head out the door, prepared to sprint down the hall where the rest of the team was sleeping. But something made me go to the window instead.
I was somewhat relieved, but totally freaked out! Though it was dark, I could make out that it was the lone black player from the other team—and he wanted in. I cautiously unlocked and opened the window (being from the Midwest, doors were used as doors and windows as . . . well, you get the point). He hopped in. I honestly didn’t know what to think. He sat down without introductions and began thanking me profusely. I was taken aback. He told me that he only got to play at all because I started and played both games that day and his coach felt like he had to play him. He left right away, still excited.
Looking back, I see now that it wasn’t really about me at all. It wasn’t necessarily even about about him, or his coach, or his team. It was the about the power to lead by example in the hope that others might do the right thing. My team’s trip to the Deep South turned out to be about something much bigger than baseball.