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?
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 All–Stars & 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.