Me and Baseball
This year I have renewed my interest in baseball. Over the years, I have found myself interesting in this wonderful American pastime, which also has also had a long and nation wide history within Canada
I can still remember my first visit to the Maple Leaf Baseball park in Toronto. It was 1954. I was particularly impressed with Elston Howard
who went on to to play for the New York Yankees as the first Black player on that team, some 8 years after Jackie Robinson, integrated professional baseball in the US, after having spent a year in Montreal playing for the Montreal Royal in preparation for joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. Canada for years had welcomed Black and Latin players to play alongside white players in the many minor professional leagues across the country.
The Maple Leaf baseball team
had a long history in Toronto going back to 1896. It was the second effort at forming a professional club which was first founded in 1885. They were part of the International league which had teams on both sides of the border. They often had a working relationship with teams in the US such as the one with the Yankees which had Elston Howard assigned to them so that he could learn to play the catcher position, which the Yankees had in mind for him. He was the MVP player that years in the International League. He could not be denied. The Yankees were reluctant to allow black players to wear the pin strips but the were shamed into it in 1956. One of the owners just a couple of years earlier was quoted as saying “Boxholders
don't want them. They would be offended to have to sit with niggers" This was not unusual. Many owners were deeply racist such as Coney
Mack and the Griffith Family. Casey Stengel, who was no racist although a man of his time remarked about Howard, "“When I finally get a nigger, I get the only one that can't run.” . These first black players were expected to take without response the racial insults and the segregation in the US. As a young Canadian, I was unaware of all the social and political ramifications of the integration of baseball in the US. I was there that day watching a lovely baseball game and being impressed by the greatest player on the field Elston Howard.
This is the Maple Leaf Baseball Clubs stadium at the foot of Bathurst Street on the lake shore. Across the western gap is one of the Toronto Islands where the Billy Bishop Airport is today and where there once was an earlier ball park at Harlan's Point.
Professional Baseball disappeared for a few years when the Maple Leaf Club folded in 1967. The Toronto Blue Jays were founded in Toronto in 1977 as an expansion team in the American League. The National League had expanded earlier into Montreal with the Montreal Expos
club. (mismanaged which saw it finally moved to Washington DC as the Washington Nationals. (They would have like the name Senators except the Griffith Family held the rights to that name).
In those early years, I, like so many in Toronto, followed the Blue Jays, first when they played at Exhibition Stadium in all kinds of weather and then when they played indoors at the iconic Skydome
with it retractable roof. The high point in those years was when the Blue Jays won back to back World Series. 1992-93. I still remember and feel the emotion of jumping into the air along with Joe Carter
as he hit a home run to win the '93 World Series. Those were heady days for baseball in Toronto.
One Christmas, Parker gave me as a present the boxed set of Baseball
, the film by Ken Burns on the history of the game. For two days the two of us watch all 10 videos (22 hours in all) and relished in the many aspect of the history of the game, I was particularly interested in the video on the Negro League for I had lived 10 years in two different black communities in the US and had become very interested in the black community, it's history and modern problems. The history of women's baseball was interesting for many of those players came from Canada. I guess we all remember the film "A Game of their Own" I have since viewed the whole collection a second time and revisited a couple of videos more than once. I recently gave this collection to one of my grandchildren in the hope he will watch it. There is now an eleventh video which covers the history of the last 20 years. There are birthdays coming so . . maybe someone might like this as a gift and I will be able to view it myself.
Ken Burns PBS film on Baseball
When I lived in the US I showed little interest in baseball. It seems I was too busy trying to transform the World. Lynne keeps saying she cannot believe that I lived in Boston and never went to Fenway Park. I used to see it regularly, as I drove by. Looking up the Street from Boston University I could see the entrance to the ball park. Perhaps worst still for a Canadian I never went to see the Boston Bruins play hockey at North Station. I never did get to see Bobby Orr play hockey. My wife even had a school mate, Ken Hodge, from her high school that played on the team so we might have gotten some special treatment.
Lynne has recently suggested we might go to Boston this Fall, a city she has never visited and I know well.
Perhaps taking in a game at Fenway might be in order.
When I lived in New Haven, a friend of mine who worked at the local mental health center introduced me to her co-worker, Rachel Robinson, who was the widow of Jackie Robinson. I wish I had not been so star struck that I did not arrange an opportunity to talk with her a little about her husband and particularly their year in Montreal. Ironically, I had carried around in my head and heart the name of Rachel for a daughter I might some day have. Here I was actually meeting a Rachel Robinson.
Over the years, I have enjoy a lot of baseball on the radio, which I think is the best way to listen to the game. Announcers of baseball are legendary, many ball club have had iconic announcers, closely identified with the game and team. I can still hear the distinctive voice of Joe, Joe Chrysdale
who announce the Maple Leaf Baseball games. The wonderful Blue Jays play by play announcer was Tom Cheek
, who announced uninterrupted home and away games of the Blue Jays, from day one, for 27 years, 4,306 games. I remember him with his side kick colour commentator .Jerry Howarth
. Their knowledge of the game and players enriched the game broadcast and kept one interested and focused during the slower parts of the game.When Tom Cheek retired due to ill health, Jerry Howarth
continued on seamlessly. He now has Alan Ashby as his partner and colour commentator. Ashby had played as a catcher with the Blue Jays. I am listening almost every day these days to the Blue Jays games. It is addictive.
Years ago, I remember my mother, who had showed no interest in baseball decided she would follow the World Series one year. By the time it was over she knew all about the players and could quote their stats. Oh, how she was addicted and enjoyed it all. But the next year she was again no longer following baseball. It was short lived but thrilling for her that one post season series of games.
While listening recently to baseball I found on my book shelf the book about the The Homestead Grays, a Negro League team in Washington. "Beyond the Shadow of the Senators" by Brad Snyder.
I don't know where or when I acquired this book. It may have been a gift or I bought it on an impulse. I long ago had a professor who said if I saw a book I fancied I should buy it even if I could not read it at the moment. If I did not have it handy I might never read it. I had a better chance to read it if it was on my shelf. I am not sure in the age of the Internet this is still the best advice. I have been thoroughly enjoying it. Between baseball games on the radio I can get my baseball fix by reading it's history. In this case, my interest in the history of the American Black community, was also being fed.
This book is a exposition of the time before and during the last of segregation of Washington and the integration of baseball. It is the story of the all white Senators and the black Homestead Grays.
The Senators were owned by the Griffith family and the Grays were the local black team in the Negro League. These two teams like the black and white communities of Washington interacted with each other in the prescribed ways of the segregated city. While the Griffiths would not have dared have a black player on their team and didn't understand why "niggers wanted to play the white man's game", they were not adverse to renting Griffith Stadium to the Grays at high rates while the Senators were out of town. The blacks of Washington loyally went to the ball park to watch the Senators, often to the neglect of the Grays, sitting in the seats everyone know they could use without the necessity of the signage for such designation found in more southern communities. The Washington Black community was centered adjacent to Griffith Stadium. This community which included all classes of black citizens had a rich social and cultural life in those years. Howard University was intellectually at it's best, preparing the black elite for an ivy league education and positions in the federal bureaucracy. At the time, the local black high school, Dunbar, was an excellent private school, I imagine comparable to Boston Latin School in Boston. All up and down seventh avenue there were clubs and bars an other venue which enriched the community. It was the peak of the cultural life of black Washington. Desegregation, like the integration of baseball would weaken and dilute the quality of life in black Washington. The middle class and elites moved out of the community and the central social institution of the black baseball teams disappeared. In many ways the black community paid the price for integration and yet it was a price that had to be paid for the country as a whole and future generations. I enjoyed this analysis of the black community and the changes which happened very interesting while it put into context the central story of baseball in Washington.
The book focuses on the Senators and its owners, the Griffith Family and the struggles of the Homestead Grays. The Grays were an excellent team with several stars who were equal to or better than those on the white Senators. Over the years, there were efforts for the Grays to play the Senators but it never happened. The Griffith Family had too much to lose to allow such a game and losing. They also for years dragged their heels on integrating the team. The were finacially benefiting from segregated baseball.It was 8 years, after Jackie Robinson has integrated baseball before a black player played for the Senators, by this time the Griffiths had moved their team to Minnasota to play were there were "good hard working white people" and only a few blacks. The Griffiths were not the only racist owner of baseball, most were. It would be 12 years before the Boston Red Sox team found a black player good enough to play in that racist city (it was still racist when I lived there)
The story is told with a focus on the life and career of two residents of the Washington black community., Buck Leonard, a star for the Grays and Sam Lacy, a local boy who went on to become a sports writer who spent his career arguing for the integration of baseball. They both are now in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Leonard was considered the "Lou Gehrig" of black baseball who many considered was a better player than Jackie Robinson. He never got to play on an integrated team. He felt he was too old when a belated invite was offered. Leonard loved baseball but he was most devoted to his family. He became the breadwinner when he father died when he was a teenager. For all his accomplishment in baseball he was most proud that he made it possible for his brothers and sisters to get a good education.
This book is a rich treasure house of stories and personalities during this period of American social history and the integration of baseball. Baseball and the United States continue to have their histories intertwined. Both will always be fascinating to me.
These day, Black baseball players are numerous in baseball. These days I take delight in learning about the Canadians who play in the big leagues. It is a disappointment that professional baseball has not expanded to more cities in Canada and the Blue Jays have not located some of their farm teams in Canada. They are in Las Vegas, New Hampshire, Dunedin, Lansing as well as a few other rookie player leagues in Appalachian, Gulf Coast the Pacific North West. I hope Canada has a long history and expanded history in Canada, yet.
Time to cook some hot dogs, make some popcorn and pour a coke in preparation for listening to tonights game on the radio. Play ball!