According to Charlie Vascellaro, in the third or fourth inning of the September 1st, 1971 game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies, Pirates third baseman Dave Cash looked out of the dugout, observing to first baseman Al Oliver: You know, we got all brothers out there, man. Oliver says both men chuckled at what to them seemed like no big deal: We really had no idea that history was being made.
In later years, Oliver grew to fully appreciate the symbolic importance of the game. When reflecting on the days of the Negro Leagues, Oliver remarked: “In the ’30s, it would have been totally impossible in most people’s minds to believe what happened in 1971. If you were living in the ’40s, you wouldn’t have believed it.”
On Sept. 1, 1971, twenty four seasons after Jackie Robinson officially broke baseball’s color barrier, Cash and Oliver were part of the first Major League franchise to field an all-minority starting nine.
Witnessed by just 11,278 fans in attendance, the game did not receive a great deal of recognition at the time. On Sept. 18th, the Sporting News briefly noted the event: What is believed to be the first all-Negro starting lineup in major league history turned back the Phillies on September 1. Manager Danny Murtaugh’s combination of American and Latin Negroes pounded out 13 hits en route to a 10-7 victory.
Sadly, according to George Skornickel, there was more to the story:
An air of speculation surrounds the issue of why the event wasn’t recognized more prominently at the time. Some local sports writers felt perhaps race was an issue to the extent that fans weren’t coming to the games because of the racial and ethnic make-up of the team. As Phil Musick, a Pittsburgh sportswriter, wrote, “Baseball at that time, in my opinion, had a whole lot of racial division and I think it went around inside baseball and angered some people … There was also some hostility in the city. Pittsburgh is a conservative city and there were a lot of snide remarks made privately. I’m sure there wasn’t a major reaction in the media other than to observe that it had taken place and it was a first.”
Another writer, Bill Nunn, had a blunter viewpoint. “It’s always been a problem of management. How many blacks will the fans take?”
I went down to Joe Brown’s office not long after that game, and he had a stack of mail, and he said, ‘You can take out any letter you want and it will be negative.’ Some of the most derogatory letters, and he had stacks of them, were from white fans.”
If the racial backlash against the Pirates fielding an all black team was relatively under the radar, two years later the animus became full blown when Henry Aaron was chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record. Too many fans were openly angry that a black man was eclipsing baseball’s baseball’s most storied figure — although the Babe never had to face the greatest pitchers from the Negro Leagues.
In 1971, Cash and Oliver knew all too well that race — and racism — was always a factor in baseball. But for them the event didn’t seem like such a big deal as the 1970’s marked the peak of African-American players in the major league. According to Mark Armour and Daniel R. Levitt, the figure reached 18.7 % in 1981.
Today the problem is not too many African-Americans in the major leagues, but too few. Today the number stands at less than 8%.
Many factors contribute to the decline of black participation in baseball. The generations for whom Jackie Robinson was a cherished hero are passing away. It has been 70 years since Jackie broke the color line in Rochester at Red Wings Stadium. For several generations now, young black men have gravitated to football and basketball. Without enough players, there are not enough of the superstars who drive fan interest.
When revisiting my baseball card collection from the 70’s and 80’s I realized anew how many of my favorite players were African-American.
[The collection comprises all the playoff teams from 1969 – 1983, including the ’84 Royals and ’85 Royals and Dodgers. The era of the great dynasties. The Orioles made 7 postseason appearances; the Yankees 5; the Royals 7; the A’s 6; the Phillies 6; the Pirates 6; the Reds 6; the Dodgers 6]
Both MVP winners, I loved Jax and Vida Blue who clashed with Charlie Finley over salary. And Willie — whose card Rollie Fingers signed at Frontier Field — brought me into the game during the 1973 World Series.
As a baseball fan who closely follows RCAC high school baseball (see Congratulations East on a magical season. So Jefferson and Rocky DiPonzio’s 1980 mark still stands.), the decline in popularity of baseball among young African-American young men is disheartening.
When in RCSD classrooms, I rarely hear African-American boys (or girls) talking about ESPN baseball highlights. As seen in The Roberto Clemente Men’s Hispanic Softball League is back!, the baseball tradition in the Hispanic community is strong. But in the RCSD football and basketball are king.
As seen in 250 years of calling you out, my friend James Quinn has become a baseball ambassador encouraging young men to discover the game he loves. But it’s an uphill battle.
However, a recent New Yorker article “The mission of a black baseball team”, describes the slow but promising renewed interest in baseball at historically black colleges and universities.
As John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro explain, the decline in popularity among African-Americans impacts HBSCU:
Sports fans know that black participation in Major League Baseball has dropped precipitously in the past few decades. According to a report published last year by USA Today, less than eight per cent of major-league players in 2015 were African-American; that figure was nineteen per cent in 1986. And the decline can be seen at every level of the game: Little League, the minors, high school, college—even H.B.C.U.s. Thirty years ago, it was virtually impossible to find a white player on an H.B.C.U. team. Today, Winston-Salem State, Florida A&M, Prairie View A&M, and North Carolina Central all field teams in which the majority of players are not black. Only a few schools — Clark Atlanta, Morehouse College, and Lane College — regularly fill their rosters entirely with black players.
Florio and Shapiro point out one major factor is economics. As the late Clark Atlanta’s head coach Kentaus Carter said; “Baseball is an expensive sport. Some parents are fortunate enough to get their kids personal lessons, but, in reality, more white kids get personal lessons than blacks.” A limited pool of black players makes recruiting difficult. When Carter “stumbled upon a talented black player from an affluent family—one who has played on travel teams, taken personal instruction, and acquired the skills needed to excel at the college level,” he ended up competing with deep-pocketed white schools.
Nonetheless, some H.B.C.U’s are enticing more less-privileged, less-polished black players to their campuses. Black baseball high school players who haven’t had the luxury of travel teams and personal instruction are increasingly seeing H.B.C.U’s as option, an option that includes all the positive educational benefits H.B.C.U’s offer.
Most RCSD baseball players do not have those luxuries. And — as seen in HBCUs are alive and well in Rochester — H.B.C.U’s are popular in the RCSD. Maybe the day is coming when an RSCD African-American boy will take a look at baseball with an eye on playing in college. And then after him, his younger brother will take a look.
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