Baseball is still a civil rights battleground
For over 150 years, the baseball field has been a battleground for civil rights. Bigoted politicians like Texas governor Greg Abbott are still fighting the Civil War— on the wrong side of history.
Gov. Abbott (R) is boycotting the Texas Rangers’ opening game in a protest against Major League Baseball. Abbott is mad at the MLB for pulling this summer’s All-Star game from Georgia. Both Texas and Georgia hold a special place in what we might call the “Jim Crow Baseball Hall of Fame.”
In 1944 the great Jackie Robinson was arrested in Texas by military police when he refused to sit in the back of an Army bus. A rising baseball star at the time, Robinson was a lieutenant at Fort Hood. He faced a court martial trial where, despite perjured testimony from white officers, he was acquitted. Georgia has the distinction for being the only state to specifically ban “amateur colored baseball teams” from playing ball within two blocks of a white children’s playground. Weirdly specific, I know.
Abbott, without a drop of irony, has refused to throw out the ceremonial pitch at the Rangers’ first home game, saying “It’s shameful that America’s pastime is not only being influenced by partisan political politics, but also perpetuating false political narratives.”
What Abbott really fears is that the nationwide pushback against Georgia’s new racist voter suppression laws will spread to Texas. Abbott’s current effort is the “Republicans’ crusade to further restrict voting,” according to the Texas Tribune.
Of course, partisan politics has always been entwined with baseball and every other aspect of American life. Institutional racism has been the bulwark of our country’s cultural, economic, and political system. Abbott knows this, which is why he issued his juvenile threat to “take his ball and go home.”
Historically, Connecticut’s hands aren’t clean, by any measure. It wasn’t until 1970 that voting rights were fully secured by eliminating the undemocratic literacy test. Civil rights advocates challenged race discrimination in jobs, housing, banking, and education well into the 1980s. There is still much work to be done.
But in one way, our state should be cautiously recognized for its fight against bigotry in baseball. Because of courageous athletes of color, local fans and teams were better for that struggle.
In the 19th century, nationally known Black players Frank Grant and Moses “Fleetwood” Walker won praise and admiration when they played for integrated Meriden, Ansonia, and Waterbury semi-pro clubs.
Likewise, Native American baseball greats Louis Sockelexis (Penobscot), Albert Bender (Chippewa), and Jack Meyers (Cahuilla) stunned white crowds each time they led their Hartford and New Haven teams to victory. All three had also played for major league teams.
Asian players made their mark as well: in 1878 the Chinese Educational Mission in Hartford sponsored the successful Celestials ball club. Starting in 1918, Buck Lai and Andrew Yim, both Hawaiian-born Chinese players, were recruited for the Bridgeport Americans of the Eastern League.
New Britain scouted and signed four Cuban players for the local Aviators who played at Electric Field. One or more of them appeared in the starting lineup over five seasons; Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida were eventually picked up by the Cincinnati Reds.
Maybe the most underrated white figure battling baseball’s color line is Bill Savitt, jeweler and self-promoter extraordinaire. His Savitt Gems invited Negro League teams to play at Bulkeley Stadium in Hartford’s south end. In 1934 he hired Black players like the young phenom Johnny “Schoolboy” Taylor, a local kid who struck out 25 opposing batters in one game and racked up a .418 batting average.
Taylor played in Winsted and Waterbury, Mexico and Cuba. He was barred from the majors, but as a 20-year old he struck out Satchel Paige at the Polo Grounds in New York. And when he came back to Hartford, pitching for Martín Dihigo’s New York Cubans, he led the pile-on against his old team the Gems, 11-0.
Almost 30 years after he retired from baseball, Taylor told a reporter “I like to think that what we did in the 1930s and 1940s by barnstorming with the white teams paved the way for the next generation.”
The courage and tenacity of Black ball players beat back Jim Crow. The same qualities will shut out Greg Abbott and his ilk as well.
Steve Thornton has written three books and maintains the website ShoeleatherHistoryProject.com, stories of Hartford’s grassroots. He can be heard starting May 1 on the Connecticut Historical Society’s podcast about Black Baseball.
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