brewers baseball and things

something gotta die for something to be born


I’m not sure when major league baseball first embraced Jackie Robinson with so much marketing in mind; when they mixed his legacy in a delicate recipe with american democracy as if the two were always such a dynamic duo carrying a beacon of light. From what I’ve read, it seemed more like a torch to chase non Aryans off the diamond.

Walter Lanier “Red” Barber was hired by Larry Macphail to broadcast Cincinnati Reds games and when Macphail took over the Brooklyn Dodgers, he brought Barber with him. Barber was born in Columbus, Mississipi and never denied his attitudes about race and keeping blacks and white separated. He was not interested in broadcasting games in which a black man-Jackie Robinson played beside whites. But he warmed up to the idea, apparently with the help of a few martinis. (from Barber’s book When All Hell Broke Loose)

It’s a testament to Barber’s willingness to change. What a hell it must have been as views entrenched as truths were rattled and imploded. Hollywood tends to leave out the psychological transformation whites were forced to undergo. They are portrayed as either righteous mahatmas like Branch Rickey or loud mouthed, trailer trash racists. The struggle seems missing.

Barber did more than call the game. He invented phrases that resonated with a radio audience. I’m too young, was born after Red hung up his voice but the picture is clear from lists; walking’ in the tall cotton, easy as a bank of fog, can of corn, rhubarb, tearing up the pea patch and one specially made for the locals, the bases are FOB-full of Brooklyns.

The original radio broadcast of The Brooklyn Dodgers hosting The New York Giants from  Ebbets Field-April 22, 1950 is available on Youtube. Barber has the call. Here’s what I do. Download the video which is just a still photo of Red, convert it to MP3, upload to my portable player and walk around town. Instant Time warp for two hours and forty-three minutes. Catch a breeze and a phrase or three. And when I walk, I’m attacked by smells. My memory revives.

I once met a guy at a Milwaukee football field who said he was a cousin of Lee Lacy. We talked about the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates and joked about the Sister Sledge song being about sisters, not brothers. We also discussed the flat lines Negro Leagues suffered after Jackie crossed over. Players understandably followed in Jackie’s footsteps. Great triumph, but doom for maybe the most profitable African-American run institution at the time.

It’s in the nature of a corporate monopoly like Major League Baseball to gobble up everything in sight and integrate newly acquired resources into its family. The Roman Empire did it. So did McDonald’s. Why would baseball be any different?

wikipedia-Borchet Field

wikipedia-Borchert Field

I met Lee Lacy’s cousin a long time ago, but the memory lingers. What was it like to play baseball for the Milwaukee Bears; the only Negro League team to pass through Brew City. They played at Borchert Field in 1923. Lacy’s cousin knew about that team and he mentioned a name-Percy Wilson, a first baseman. He knew it from a family heirloom, a photograph.

I looked Wilson up on baseball reference. He was a first baseman for the Bears in 1923, hit .314 with a .350 OB%, 7 triples. I didn’t know the Negro Leagues kept such detailed statistics. Wilson only played one season in Milwaukee, moved onto Baltimore where he played one more and that was it. End of career.

Yes, a long time ago I met Lee Lacy’s cousin, but the day dreams linger. I imagine the Milwaukee Bears riding around local towns barnstorming by bus, sleeping beside rivers, cooking up grub, making up songs, being together, surviving and who knows….maybe looking out at the night sky and remembering Ancient Egypt space travel and looking up at the same sky and dreaming of future space travel. Being outside themselves and their supposed “difficult” condition.

Living day-to-day, playing baseball and escaping the way they were supposed to feel as inferior victims and entering into self-reliance, toil, strain, and satisfaction.

The Bingo Long Traveling AllStars & Motor Kings book and 1976 movie do just that. It’s not in Milwaukee. There’s no discussion of space travel, but there is living and togetherness, pride, and happiness long before Jackie Robinson’s number was retired; long before the Negro Leagues were retired.


Author: Steve Myers

I grew up in Milwaukee and have been a Milwaukee Brewers baseball fan for as long as I can remember.

13 thoughts on “something gotta die for something to be born

  1. Man, can you flat out write! (I first heard that term, “he can flat out hit”, when Tim McCarver joined the Mets broadcasting team. I had not yet lived in the South, and was unaware of this expression. Actually, West Virginia, where I lived, isn’t that far south, but they’re all Southerners there, allright.)

    I’ve heard Red Barber. Also, my father grew up listening to him, and, although he was a Yankee fan growing up in Da Bronx, he grudgingly says that he liked Red Barber better than Mel Allen, although he loved Allen, too.

    My father has also always told me that there is such thing as shades of grey. In the movies, it’s always black and white. What I mean is “good” and “bad”, but no in between. That’s not reality. That’s Hollywood. And I dig what you wrote about that—-

    “It’s a testament to Barber’s willingness to change. What a hell it must have been as views entrenched as truths were rattled and imploded. Hollywood tends to leave out the psychological transformation whites were forced to undergo. They are portrayed as either righteous mahatmas like Branch Rickey or loud mouthed, trailer trash racists. The struggle seems missing.”

    You left out Barber’s most famous thing that he said, though. “The Dodgers are in the catbird seat” and also talking about a “rhubarb” going on on the field, meaning a fight.

    I don’t believe that Barber coined the phrase “can of corn” meaning an easy fly-out. Maybe he did. Who knows? It’s been widely used.

    I seem to recall that Lee Lacey began his career with the Brewers. I didn’t realize that he had family in Milwaukee, as well. Was Lee Lacey FROM Milwaukee? Lee Lacey. A great baseball name. Another great baseball name, a guy who played with the Brewers— Von Joshua. I love that name.

    Another nice piece of writing. Jeez, I hate to lop on praise, but in your case, the shoe fits. Now, don’t be embarrassed, but I think you write sports as well as Red Smith and guys like that.

    Honestly. Because if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t say it. I’m honest to a fault.

    Your writing is amazing.

    Okay. I’ll stop praising you now. At least for THIS post.


    • That name Von Joshua became an actual word in our family. I don’t know how it literally translates but my brother and I still insert it into sentences.

      Lacy never played for Milwaukee, but he did show up there as a member of the Orioles. He was from Texas. You know how families from the south moved north; to Chicago and Milwaukee and all over the place/ Well, I guess his cousin did the same.

      I’m glad you liked this one Glen. Now, I’m off to hear Red Barber. I wasn’t bullshitting. It’s warm today and I got the MP3 of that 1950’s game and these feet were made for walking. I’m heading back to your borough of Brooklyn on a Red Barber flight.

      • I also spelled Lacy’s name wrong. Oh, well. Ya know why I thought that he played for the Brewers, I guess? Because I got confused with the OTHER guy with the great baseball name, Von Joshua, who DID play for the Brewers, and also confused by the fact that they both played for the Dodgers around the same time.

        There’s a co-worker of mine, a black guy named Troy Walker. As soon as I met him, I realized that THAT would be a great baseball name. Something about it. So when I see him, I often intone, in the clipped kind of way that the public address speaker announced batters coming to bat at the old Arlington Stadium (such as “Right Fielder, Mike Hargrove!”), and I say to him in that manner, “Center Fielder, Troy Walker!” in the same way. I sense that he’s getting sick of it, though, so I think I’d better stop it, before I get a knuckle sandwich.


        • Except one thing. Mike Hargrove never played right field. He never had that kind of arm. Had to play Left field, first base, DH….but he is the world’s greatest impersonator of molasses falling on pancakes in slow motion.

  2. Just have to say it Steve, your writing is brilliant.
    And your point about missing the nuance of transformation that goes on continually in any culture is spot on. Not all, but most movies, just as the media likes to do, love to show the heroics of the struggle, glorifying those who “got it right,” through impuning those mean. bad, nasty people, portrayed as static figures incapable of transforming.

    • Thanks Debra. Maybe it’s tough for a movie to show transformation in such a short time, but I agree with what you say. That glorifying kind of turns the whole damn thing into an us versus them scenario. Rah rah rah,

  3. Great piece! I’m stealing your idea. I like to take long walks around downtown L.A. staring at the suits and weirdos…I think an old game from the 50’s is the perfect soundtrack.

    • Alright!!! Henderson on the prowl. Be on the hear out at 36:00 when Barber paints a picture of the right field wall of Ebbet’s. Gives pumping Citgo at Fenway some context.

  4. “…The struggle seems missing…”

    I’m going to tell you that I found the paragraph from which that comes acute and wise. Please don’t go and scrub it out because I said ‘wise’.

    Current ‘common’ wisdom paints this socio-psychological change as a simple, what-the-hell-you-talking-about, Damascene change, where white folk simply start seeing self-evident things right, or racists shut up and slunk away. It’s part of the way we kid ourselves about ‘progress’ while problems regroup and clobber us from another direction. But take a step back and look at what was going on in people’s heads and in society, and – wow! – it was something.

    Thank you.

    • Ok. You’re welcome. I was talking specifically about Red Barber and could only do that because he seemed aware of the inner changes he endured in terms of dealing with black people. He never hid his feelings, never disguised them with intellectual explanations, complicated them with legal or poetic speak. He was scared like everyone else and he let us know in his books.

      He never tried to be a hero or a saint or a forward thinker. He was like everyone else; imperfect, honest and maybe most importantly….willing to change. I’m sure there were others like him.

      Blatant racists who scream nigger this and coon that are easier to trust (if you ask me) than self righteous folks singing we are the world rhetoric….saying what everyone wants to hear or what they think they’re supposed to say. They don’t wear poker faces and don’t take pride in cunning. They seem to be more like lumps of clay in a good way.

      Geez Louise, I done sparked some master’s thesis vernacular in you and Debra (Ptero9). Very interesting and I learned a few new words. Might come in handy if if I ever play scrabble, with a smiley face of course.

      • And along those lines, I think that it’s the so-called “politically correct” people that are slowing down progress. Why should white people be deciding what black people should be called? If they want to be called something, so be it. The white political correct insist on “African American”. Meanwhile, I have found it very rare to find a black guy who could give a damn whether he was called “Black” or “African American”. I’ve lived in almost all-Black neighborhoods. I’ve lived in apartment buildings that were all-Black (except for myself.) It’s the white politically correct, limousine liberals, the NIMBYs (Not In MY Back Yarders) who are slowing down progress between the races by clouding everything up with political correct terms. They concentrate on the picayune, and they neglect the important stuff. I sometimes think that the politically correct limousine liberals are actually the people who, deep inside, are the ones who want to get in the way of relations between different races.

        I have a friend who is Chinese. He describes himself as being “ABC”, which is what Chinese-Americans use to describe themselves as being “American Born Chinese”. He’s first-generation American. He’s very sensitive about what he refers to as “Asian-Bashing”. And he makes it clear how much he hates being referred to as “Oriental”.

        A Korean-American friend of mine has told me the same. He is one of the coolest guys I know, but he makes it clear to people, when he hears it being said, how much Asians despise being referred to as “Oriental”.

        When the person who is OF the race that is being referred to objects so heavily to being referred to as something, then THAT is the time to stop referring to them as that. You must RESPECT that. Not when some white politically correct “liberal” says that you MUST call a person of a certain race a certain thing, but when the people OF that race demand it.

        That’s the difference. To me, it is NOT political correctness if the person from that ethnic group or race makes it clear that they want to not be called a certain thing, but prefer to be referred to as ANOTHER name.

        Political correctness is when OTHER races and ethnic groups decide for people of OTHER people of races and ethnic groups what those people should be called.

        The main thing is to call people what THEY want to be called, not what some pseudo-liberal tells everyone what they SHOULD be called.


      • “…Blatant racists who scream nigger this and coon that are easier to trust…”

        I hear you, and I know what you mean; but having been on the wrong end of stuff not dissimilar to that…

        • At some point, yeh, great. Congratulations for being honest, but if I’m on the wrong end of that situation, those nice honest racist folk are still gonna have to pay for it. Sort of like, “hey I appreciate your opinion and honesty. It’s a free country you can say what you want” and then kick him in the balls and poke his eyes out or whatever it takes to shut him up.

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