Friday, May 11, 2007

Competition or Discrimination?

I began my educational journey in 1963 at Miss Sylvia’s Kindergarten. It was a private kindergarten; there was no such thing as public kindergarten in my neck of the woods. There were around fifteen children in my kindergarten class. I would attend school with most of those same children for the next six years.

That was because we would all attend the Barnesville city elementary school, Gordon Grammar School. Gordon was a very good small school that included classes in grades one through eight. There were two classes in each grade with each class having around fifteen students. This was in the days of so-called freedom of choice when it came to school assignments. Parents would fill out a form each year indicating where they wanted their child to attend school. The choices for elementary schools in my county were Gordon Grammar School, the county elementary school at Milner, and the other school in the county, Booker T. Washington School, where black students from grades one through twelve received their education. By and large, the white parents in the city sent their kids to Gordon, the white parents in the county sent their kids to Milner, and the black parents in the city and county sent their kids to Booker. I think that I was in the third or fourth grade when a few courageous black families used their freedom of choice to send their children to Gordon.

Everything changed in 1970, the year that I entered the seventh grade. That was the year that the schools in our county entered into the desegregation process in an all-at-once and very traumatic fashion. I, along with all the other boys in Lamar County in the middle and high school years, were assigned to attend what had been known as the Booker T. Washington School but was now referred to rather dully as the Forsyth Road School. The girls in those grades were assigned to attend the Milner school. That’s right—we were integrated racially but segregated by gender. Many of those children with whom I had attended Miss Sylvia’s kindergarten and others were removed from the public schools by their parents. When I walked into the Forsyth Road School in the fall of 1970, I went from attending a school where I was among boys and girls primarily of my own race to attending a school where there were no girls and where I was in the racial minority by a small margin.

Needless to say, I had never had an African-American teacher before that year. The first teacher I met at my new school was Mr. Robert Myles, a black man who was my homeroom teacher and my math instructor. Mr. Myles was a good man who, like many of our other teachers, tried hard in a very difficult situation. I admire him to this day. He and I shared a love for sports and talked about them a lot.

How I was looking forward to the spring of 1971 and the arrival of the Little League baseball season. I played for the Mets. Our season the previous year had been a good one; we finished second in the four-team league to the Cubs. But most of the best players from that Cubs team were now too old to play while we were bringing back most of our best players. I was confident that we were going to win the title. I had heard that the league was going to expand to six teams but, being twelve years old, I gave no thought to why that was beyond the obvious reason that more boys wanted to play. Still, expansion teams being expansion teams, I figured that those two new teams would provide easy wins for the mighty Mets.

I was explaining this to Mr. Myles one day. I was telling him how excited I was about the upcoming season. I said that we should have the best shot by far at the title. “Who do you think will be your strongest competition?” he asked. “The Braves,” I answered quickly. The Cubs would be down, I knew, and the Yankees would be young. The Braves would be pretty tough, though. “What about the new teams I hear they’re going to have?” he asked. “Oh, I don’t see them being much competition. I mean, how could they be? All the boys on those teams will be new and our team will have a lot of players who are in their fourth year.” Looking back later I realized that Mr. Myles had a playful look in his eyes when he said, “So you’re not worried about the Cardinals?” “No, sir,” I declared, “there’s no reason to be.” And that was the end of the conversation.

The new boys had to go through a draft. Our roster was already full. The new teams would get most of the new players.

The day of our first game arrived. Mr. Myles asked me who we were playing that night. “One of the new teams,” I replied, “the Cardinals.” I think he said something like “Oh.”

I was scheduled to pitch that night. When I arrived at the ball field I looked over at the other team. I saw a team made up of mostly black players, most of whom I knew from school. There were a couple of white players on the team, but the roster was 90% African American. And standing there in the dugout was the coach of the Cardinals—Mr. Myles. It had never occurred to me that the reason for the league’s expansion was the accommodation of the black kids in town. It had never occurred to me that our community’s recreational facilities and opportunities had been just as segregated as our educational institutions. It had never occurred to me that over on the other side of town young black men loved and played baseball with just as much dedication and fervor as the young white men with whom I lived and played.

And it never occurred to me that I was going to get the stuffing kicked out of me that night, but I did. Willie Green hit a home run off of me. Peter King hit a home run off of me. I don’t remember who all hit home runs off of me. I gave up eighteen runs in six innings. This being Little League, we did come back from an 18-8 deficit in the top of the sixth inning to tie the game, but we lost it 20-19 in extra innings. I was flabbergasted. I don’t think that Mr. Myles rubbed it in the next day or any other day, an act of kindness that I never forgot and from which I learned much. For that matter, I don’t remember those Cardinal players giving me a hard time about it, either. We played them tough the rest of the season but we never beat them. Not once. We finished in second place again.

My consolation prize was my winning of the batting championship. For that accomplishment I received my one and only athletic trophy. It was inscribed “Best Batting Ave.”—which of course would stand for “Best Batting Avenue.” Oh well.

Each year following the regular season an all-star team was chosen that would compete in the tournaments that could lead ultimately to the Little League World Series, although no team from Lamar County ever progressed very far in those days. The practice had always been to select a roughly equal number of players from each team. So, in the previous year, when there were only four teams in the league, four players were chosen from three teams and three players from one team to make up the fifteen-man roster.

After the 1971 season, certain players from each team were told to be at the Little League field on a particular day for the beginning of all-star tryouts. That was new. The best players from each team were there. When the team was chosen, the old practice of having each team equally represented was abandoned. I don’t know why. Mr. Myles was the all-star coach because his team had won the regular season championship. If my memory serves me correctly, over half the all-star roster was made up of Cardinals. Three players from my Mets made it, including me. When our first tournament game against the team from Thomaston arrived, our starting lineup included mostly Cardinals. I started in right field and got to play the entire game, for which I am still grateful, because I hit a home run in my last at-bat in the sixth inning. The next batter, James Roach, who was the Cardinals’ catcher, also hit a home run. We lost 9-2 and our march to the Little League World Series was over.

I remember thinking that some of the players on the Braves, the Cubs, and the Yankees had been the victims of reverse discrimination, although I’m certain that I didn’t actually employ that term in my processing of the situation. It did occur to me, though, that something unfair happened in the selection process for the all-star team. I chose to believe that if bias was exhibited in the process it was toward the Cardinals and against the other teams rather than being toward the black players and against the white players. I chose to believe that Mr. Myles wanted to put the team on the field that would stand the best chance of winning and all that he did was to pick the best players available. And looking back on it, I think that is in fact what he tried to do. If he was really trying to win, though, he should have started Ronnie Silva at pitcher rather than Joe Culpepper (neither of whom was African-American; I just think that Ronnie was a stronger pitcher than Joe was), but that’s another story.

There were of course possible aspects of that Little League baseball situation that occurred in the midst of the most traumatic social upheaval ever to hit our little community that I did not ponder for many, many years. For example, while I don’t know this for certain, I am pretty sure that up until that year those young black athletes had worked with equipment and facilities that were not on a par with those that we white players enjoyed. Also, I suspect that whatever if any postseason experience they had available to them did not give them even the very remote hope for a Little League World Series championship that we harbored.

Still, I don’t believe that Mr. Myles was trying to make up for wrongs or to redress grievances. I believe that he was trying to reward the best players by putting them on the all-star team. And the truth is that there were no better players in our league than Willie Greene, Peter King, James Roach, and some of their other Cardinal teammates.

So now it is 2007. The other day representatives of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow-PUSH Coalition met with General Manager John Schuerholz and other management personnel of the Atlanta Braves to voice their concern over the lack of African-American players on the team’s roster. As of today, there is one African-American player on the Braves’ team—Willie Harris, who, somewhat poetically, is from Cairo, Georgia, the birthplace of Jackie Robinson. The Coalition representatives believe that the Braves could and should make a concerted effort to recruit more African-American players. While the situation may be more pronounced on the Braves, less than 10% of major league baseball players are African-American. Around 70% of National Football League players are black while about 75% of National Basketball Association players are black.

I doubt seriously that the Braves or any other team intentionally tries to exclude people of any race from playing in their organization. The bottom line in professional sports is putting the best product available on the field or floor so that the team will have the best chance of winning and thus of drawing more fans, selling more merchandise, getting better television ratings, and generally bringing in more money. If it could be shown that a team did have a policy of practicing such exclusion, that would be very problematic and I would hope that they would be called on it.

In the case of the Braves, though, I think they’re just doing what Mr. Myles did all those years ago when he put a primarily African-American team out there to play those kids from Thomaston—playing the players that will give the team the best chance of winning.

Dr. Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” That’s a dream the realization of which we’re still striving for. I suspect that there is room in that dream for the hope that we will one day live in a time when athletes will be judged by the content of their character and the development and display of their skills—and not by the color of their skin.


Anonymous said...

I think that you have laid out some ideas and avenues of thought that only come from someone who has actually taken the time to do so. Oh that we would all do that on a daily basis. Things are what they are, much of it depends on our perception of the "thing". God bless you and those who think and live out their lives with a good heart. Good things to remember as we travel our on own "Jericho Road".

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