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Friday, May 6, 2016

The "Breaking Barriers In Baseball" Story

It was an ordinary day.  Just finished watching Ken Burn's two-night documentary "Jackie Robiinson."  I had seen a few other shows about Jackie Robinson and his breaking the race barrier in baseball, but I just had to watch one more show about perhaps the most important black player who ever played professional baseball.  It was in 1947 that he took the weight of American racism on his shoulders when he broke into professional baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The death threats, racist names and chants and even resentment from his own teammates was unbelievable.  The President of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, wanted to end racial discrimination and needed an outstanding player with strong character, great skills and the ability to withstand the onslaught of criticism that he was bound to receive.  
No. 42, Jackie Robinson
Faith helped Jackie get through the tough times.  What bothered me the most after watching and reading many of the accounts of his journey through those first few months was the incredible blatant racism that was poured on him from my favorite team, the Philadelphia Phillies.  Some of the most crude comments came from those 1947 Phillies when he visited the city of "Brotherly Love" for games against the Phillies.  Then, when the Phillies played in Brooklyn that year, the Phils manager, Ben Chapman, led the players on his bench in calling out insults and threats to Robinson.  Later in the season that year he was denied a room at the Philadelphia hotel where the rest of his Dodger teammates were staying.  And remember, this, as I stated before, is allegedly the city of "Brotherly Love."  The experiment that he and Mr. Rickey tried that year turned out to be a huge success winning the hearts of most of the fans who came to watch him that year.  Jackie ended up with an outstanding 10-year baseball career and won the very first "Rookie Of The Year" award in 1947.  He played in six consecutive All-Star Games and won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949, naturally the first black player to do so.  He played in six World Series and contributed to the Dodgers 1955 World Series Championship.  He died October 24, 1972.  In 1997 Major League Baseball retired his uniform #42 across all major league teams and in 2004 initiated "Jackie Robinson Day" where every player on every team wears #42 on April 15.  Robinson's character, his use of nonviolence, and his unquestionable talent challenged the traditional basis of segregation which then marked many other aspects of American life. He had an impact on the culture of and contributed significantly to the Civil Rights Movement.  Then in 1969, Curt Flood challenged Major League Baseball, after having played for the St. Louis Cardinals for 12 years.  
No. 21, Curt Flood
In 1968 he was traded to Philadelphia with three other players and he refused to go, even though his contract had a "reserve clause", which had been in place since the 1880s, that bound players to their teams even after their contracts had expired, which was the case in this situation.  On December 14, 1969, Flood sent a letter to baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn telling him that "I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes."  Curt Flood, by doing this, wanted to be declared a free agent, capable of signing with whomever wanted him or whom he wanted to play for at the time.  Well, Kuhn denied the request and it ended up in 1972 with the U.S. Supreme Court allowing the clause to stand and denying Curt his wish.  But, the stage was set for the Player's Union to gain free agency in 1975.  Flood stood alone against baseball and even though he never benefited from what he started, baseball players on the whole gained the right to, after a set amount of years, change teams if they wished.  It was said that while Flood championed Civil Rights issues, race never entered his suit against baseball.  He still was accused of making his quest for freedom a Civil rights issue.  After he filed his complaint he was bombarded with multiple death threats each day.  His alcohol addiction grew and he finally was admitted into a psychiatric hospital.  Curt Flood was supported in his initial quest by a man named Jackie Robinson.  The Jackie Robinson who wore #42.  It only seems fitting that in 1992 Curt Flood was given the NAACP Jackie Robinson Award for contributions to black athletes, and in 1994 he gave a speech on solidarity to the players as they prepared to go on strike where the players gave him a standing ovation.  He died at the age of 59 in 1997 from throat cancer.  My love of baseball began as soon as I could wear a baseball glove and throw a ball.  I have gained many friends through the sport and appreciate my ties to the sport. And, I appreciate all that both Jackie Robinson and Curt Flood did to enhance my enjoyment of the game of baseball; America's Game.  But, I must admit, my favorite all-time player was, and still is, Willie Mays.  Anyone who can make an  over-the-shoulder catch in dead center at the 420 foot sign, turn around and throw it back into the infield to keep the two baserunners from scoring is the greatest player in my mind.  I can still remember it as if it was yesterday, an I was only 10 years old at the time which means I was it on Black an White.  Kind of like a Civil Rights catch!  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy.

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