A Saturday Evening Post cover I shamelessly ripped off from Kevin’s Baseball Revisited site, a site you should visit
Back when I played youth baseball the system was a little different from the one they use now. Oh, yeah, we still used bats and there were gloves and balls and there were four bases and all those kinds of things, but once you got on a team you stayed four years. Age six was a one year event to get kids to understand where first base was located and where the shortstop stood. Then from age seven through age 10 you were on one team (and after I moved, the next town used the same system). At seven you were still learning and if you were lucky you got to bat occasionally and generally got an inning in the outfield. By eight the guys who were able to pick up on how the game worked started getting decent playing time and the age nine and 10 guys were the fulltime players.
I started at seven on a team coached by a member of the local police force. He was a good enough guy. He knew my grandparents, knew my aunts and uncles. Because that was so he took particular time to work with me. He taught me how to stand on the field, told me I needed a better glove than the wretched thing I wore when I showed up. I learned how to hold a bat with the knuckles aligned, how to slide away from the throw, just all those great things that you need to really have a sense of how to truly play the game right. By eight, I was the part-time left fielder and by nine and 10 had settled in as the full-time center fielder. I was fast enough to track down balls and keep them from becoming long triples to the gaps and could, with some frequency, actually get my glove on the ball. I didn’t always catch it, but I could knock it down and I understood the concept of the cutoff man. Life, baseball speaking, was good.
Then the town decided to integrate the youth baseball program. It was a small Oklahoma town in the late 1950s and nothing was integrated. There were white schools and there was a black school. There were water fountains for each race, the bathrooms at the train depot and the bus station were both segregated. So into this segregated world they decided to experiment with the youth baseball program. At the time it struck me as strange to start with sports, but then as I aged I remembered that Jackie Robinson came before Brown v School Board.
The entire idea created a huge stir in our town. There were people who knew it would ruin the community and people who figured it wouldn’t hurt anything. I remember my grandparents sitting down to talk about whether I should play or not. I had big ears, so I managed to hear a conversation I wasn’t supposed to hear. They were worried about white and black kids playing together in a public setting (rather than the more private setting I was used to), about black and white kids using the same helmets and bats, about where the black parents would be allowed to sit. There weren’t a lot of bleachers at the ballyard but a new small set was built just for the black families (theirs were well down the left field line while the white folk got to sit up by the backstop). Ultimately they decided that, well, the kid loves the game, and I guess it couldn’t hurt, and, well, why not? So I got to sign up for my age 10 season. So too did three black kids. And sure as taxes, my coach drew two of them for our team. The rules stated that once you drew a kid for your team, you were stuck with him whatever you thought.
So the opening day of practice came. Every parent, or in my case grandparent, showed up along with all the kids. It’s the only time I ever saw all the kids and all the parents at the same time; that’s how important it was to them. The two black kids and their folks were standing a little way off from the rest of us, but they were there. I’d played a little with black kids (see my post The Field in the Middle of Town dated 25 February 2014 for the story), but I didn’t know either of these two.
Then Coach announced (all conversations approximated after 50 years) “We got two black kids this year. Any of you parents who want to quit will get your entry fee refunded.” He didn’t use “black” in the sentence, but another word. That I do remember.
At the time I didn’t understand the absolute awfulness of saying that in front of the two black families, but I knew that three of the kids and their parents turned and left. Now that made no sense. It was baseball, for God’s sake, and I knew all three guys and I knew they loved to play and now they were just walking away, escorted by their parents, from the game. Well, as I said, that made no sense.
But we practiced with what we had left. A bit later we got a kid from another team (to make up for the three we lost) because the league wanted all the teams at approximately the same strength. Neither of the black kids had ever played organized ball before so they needed all the coaching help they could get. They got none. Coach simply ignored them. Occasionally he’d let one of them swing a bat (then he’d wipe off the bat with alcohol before the next white kid could swing it) or he’d stick one out in right field where they stood around totally unaware of what they were supposed to do. Now, me, I’d gotten all the help Coach could provide, but they weren’t getting a thing. I have to admit I didn’t think much about it at the time, because Coach was busy with the whole team and well, maybe he just didn’t have time to get to them.
The season started and I was back in center field. Back then the rule was simple: every kid had to play one inning in the field. Batting was optional because sometimes the last inning was a top of the inning and your team didn’t bat in the bottom of the inning or the new guy’s position in the lineup didn’t come to the plate. We did six innings, so Coach would stick one of the black kids in right field (where you always put the kid who couldn’t play) for the fifth inning and the other got the sixth. I gotta admit that Coach treated them alike there. The kid who played the fifth inning in one game generally got the sixth in the next game.
Which brings me to game one and the fifth inning. I don’t remember if we were ahead or behind. Frankly I don’t remember if we won or lost. What I remember is Coach pulling me aside and telling me, “Look, that black kid (and those aren’t the words he used) doesn’t know how to play right field. So I want you to shade over toward right center and be ready to take anything hit his way.”
“Sure thing, Coach.”
So out I went and did as I was told. We got through the game OK and the fifth and sixth inning instructions became common, “Shade over toward right center and be ready to take anything hit his way.” The problem was that we were beginning to leak runs in the fifth and sixth innings. I was over in right center, the left fielder was where he was supposed to be, and occasionally a liner got through that big gap and rolled to the fence. I don’t think it ever actually cost us a game (maybe so, I don’t remember), but it did cost us a run a few times.
So I went to the source of all baseball wisdom so far as I was concerned. “Coach, you gotta let me move back to dead center in the last innings. I can get to those balls and hold the batter to a single.”
“Do what you’re told. That black kid (again not the coach’s choice of words) doesn’t know anything so you keep playing where I say.”
“Yes, sir.” By now it was beginning to dawn on me that a lot of the reason the black kids didn’t know anything was because Coach wouldn’t teach them anything. You’re not helping here, Coach.
So back to right center I went, having decided I was going to have to do Coach’s job. I started trying to get the black kid (One was named Ronny. I have no idea the other kid’s name after all these years.) to move a little toward center, leaving the line open and letting me get back toward center field. I wasn’t going to catch that many (Hey, I wasn’t that good), but I could get to them and hold the runner at first. It actually worked and I was feeling pretty good about helping the right fielder. All that helping of Ronny and his pal got me a talking to.
“Quit telling that kid (again, wanna guess what word was actually there?) where to play,” Coach told me. “You’ll make him start to look good.”
And at that point the light went on. Coach was willing to give up runs in order to keep a kid from looking like he knew what he was doing. I’ll admit I wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier so it took another game or so to realize that the problem was Ronny and his cohort’s skin color. Here I was trying to win and the coach wasn’t helping because he wanted those two off his team. I should be clear that my problem was with losing, not with equal rights. It took a while to realize which was more important. In partial defense, I was but 10.
For almost all my youth baseball career I had two coaches: one I revere to this day, the other I’m of two minds about. My second coach taught me not just how to play, but how to play well, how to play fairly, and in some degree how to grow up. The first (the one referenced above) taught me quite a different lesson. On the one hand he liked me, taught me how to play the game right. What he didn’t teach me was how to grow up to be a person my wife and son could be proud of, a person who judged another on who they were, not what they looked like. It’s sad, because he was a good man in most things, but he did have this blind spot and to this day it taints the way I view a man I should otherwise like and admire. Damned shame, isn’t it?