Integrating Youth Baseball

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a small town raised by grandparents. It was a time when social change was just beginning. The civil rights movement was in its infancy. Brown vs School Board was law of the land, Rosa Parks had decided she was tired, and of course Jackie Robinson was in Brooklyn, but most of the rest of it hadn’t occurred yet. In my little town I first ran across it in baseball.

I played little league baseball (I don’t capitalize it because I don’t know if we were associated with Little League or not). Now no one was going to mistake me for Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio and certainly not for Jackie Robinson. I was a decent fielder and had been put in center field because I was fast and could catch. I didn’t have much of an arm and my batting was suspect, but I usually led off because I could tell a strike from a ball and almost never struck out. Of course the team was all-white.

Then somebody decided it was time to integrate the schools and the summer league baseball teams. That came as a shock to the town. My grandparents weren’t sure how good an idea that was, but as there were only a handful of black families in town, they decided it probably wasn’t worth worrying about. 

So when baseball season came around I signed up again. We had different rules then.  You played four years at the same level (instead of the two years that is common around here) and once you were put on a team you stayed there the entire four years. That was supposed to help you develop friends and learn from the same coach every year. (Of course that works better if you like the coach and your teammates.) So I knew where I was playing before the teams were set up.

A total of three black kids signed up and sure as taxes our team got two of them. After the first practice, when it became evident that there were black kids around, we lost two or three players. Their parents weren’t about to let them play on an integrated team. The coach was a problem also. He spent almost no time working with either kid, let them play as sparingly as the rules allowed, and pinch hit for them if he could. At least he didn’t call either one “boy.”

 The rules required each player to be in the field one inning of of six inning games. Generally, the coach put one black kid in right field in the fifth inning and the other replaced him in the sixth. My job, according to coach, was to play toward right field so I could make the plays if necessary. That was a good idea, especially if the right fielder, black or white, had gotten as little training as the coach gave the two black kids. 

My reaction to all this was mixed. On the one hand I knew it was causing problems for the team. We had, after all lost a couple of players because of integration. On the other, I was, as I’ve mentioned before, a huge Jackie Robinson fan, so I didn’t mind playing with the two black guys. I thought they might make us better and I wanted to win bad enough I didn’t care what color they were. Not the noblest of reasons to support integration but at age nine you don’t think much beyond things like that.  

We finished about the same place in the league standings we did the previous year, third or fourth.  I moved before the next season started so I don’t know what happened to either the team, the coach, or if the black kids played the next year or not. In another post I’ll keep this theme going.

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