Thursday, March 25, 2010

Six Decades Before Robinson

Who was the first black Major League baseball player? Jackie Robinson you say? Actually Moses Fleetwood Walker played Major League Ball in 1884, 63 years before Robinson's debut and many historians name him as the first black Major Leaguer. Robinson's signing with the Dodgers in 1947 had an indisputable impact on baseball and the Civil Rights movement but he was not the first black Major League player.

Fleet Walker wasn't signed by a Major League team like Robinson, rather he was signed by the Toledo Blue Stockings the year before they joined the American Association. When the Blue Stockings joined the Association in 1884, Walker became the first African-American Major League ballplayer. He played 42 games and faced more than your typical heckling from fans and opposing players. At times opposing teams would refuse to play if Walker were on the field. Even some of his own pitchers refused to take signals from their black catcher so it was not unusual for Walker to have broken fingers and ribs from catching a game not knowing the speed or direction the ball was going to be coming at him.

Eventually American Association team owners buckled to pressure of fans and players and agreed to the same unwritten rules as the National League which meant they would no longer sign black players. The face of Major League baseball remained the same for the next six decades.

Walker's demeanor and attitude hardened in the years after he left baseball, surely impacted by the harassment he faced. He struggled with alcoholism, and was arrested for mail fraud and later for attempted murder during a racially charged incident. He was found innocent of murder on the basis of self-defense. Walker also became passionate about race relations. In his pamphlet The Home Colony: The Past, Present and Future of the Negro Race in America he proclaimed that blacks should return to Africa and that blacks and whites could never be fully integrated in society.

I couldn't find a copy of the pamphlet to read in its entirety but I imagine it would scream of the the pain he felt after years of oppression which may have led to internalized oppression. The story of Walker reminds me of the danger of internalized impression and also of how privileged white players were to be able to play for so many years in the Major Leagues while the black players were denied the opportunity. While it may seem that today the playing field is fairly level (both in baseball and in life), I find this document about white privilege to be thought provoking. Fortunately pitchers aren't refusing to take signals from their African-American catchers anymore, but if that catcher gets a cut while playing, can he buy a band-aid that matches his skin tone?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Will You Be a Murray or a Merkle?

The greatest and most dramatic play he'd seen on a baseball diamond, that's how John McGraw described John "Red" Murray's catch at Forbes Field on August 16, 1909. McGraw's description was from an interview at the close of his career, twenty three years after the memorable catch. Had Murray fumbled the catch this story would be entirely different, more like that of Fred Merkle's base-running error. Baseball players sometimes gain fame or infamy from just one play especially in today's media-soaked environment but even in the 1900's the story of Murray's catch spread throughout the country.

Forbes Field was an appropriate background for this dramatic play. It had just opened in the '09 season and the three tiered structure afforded patrons views of Schenley Park, the Carnegie Museum and the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning. On August 16, 1909 John McGraw's New York Giants paid a visit to the field to take on the Pirates. An afternoon thunderstorm was rolling in and the clouds darkened the sky, making the players difficult to see from even the best seats in the house.

The score was tied 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth with two on and two out as a the batter cracked what sounded like an extra base hit. No one is quite sure what it looked like since the dark cloud cover made it impossible to follow the ball. Suddenly a crack of lighting illuminated the field and spotlighted Murray in right field as he lept for the ball. The light revealed him making an amazing one-handed catch high above his head. Instantly, the sky went dark again and the rain started so the game was never resumed and remained a 2-2 tie.

Murray's catch remained a treasured memory for all who saw it. The team often recreated the dramatic scene on train cars by turning the lights down and striking a match. When the match was lit Murray would be posed in the position he had been to make the play. These reenactments and word of mouth helped make Murray's catch a legendary play. Today it probably would have made this countdown of top plays by right fielders.

In baseball your reputation can be earned by just one play. Sometimes that works out well, like it did for Murray and other times it doesn't - think of Merkle and also of Mays. I wonder if a flash of lighting suddenly illuminated a random moment in my life how I'd look. I'd like to think that I would be caught doing something amazing and generous but what if it caught me at a time when I was overly emotional and reacted in anger to someone? What if it caught me gossiping or complaining? Or if I were doing any of the other things I wouldn't want displayed to the world? This story of Murray's catch made me realize that I need to try harder to respond with grace and maturity in all situations because you never know when something you say or do is going to be highlighted and held up to scrutiny. I hope to be Murray, not a Merkle!
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