This essay was written for the September, 2003 issue of Filthy
Beaning Jim Crow
The contrived spectacle of baseball—engaging and graceful as it may be—can goad us into thinking that life, or even history, is just a series of cataclysmic events. The regular course of human events will give us maybe once or twice a century a moment as rich in symbolic and literal importance as the moon landing or the fall of the Berlin Wall. But we see an entire new segment of such dramatic and charged moments every night on ESPN, sandwiched by commercials for weight-gain supplements, weight-loss supplements, and vitamin supplements.
At no time is the gulf between the reality we live and the reality that sport makes us envision wider than during periods of social change. With a distance born of hindsight and history, we marvel at the audible POOF! and cloud of dust that accompanied the complete end of racism in baseball following Jackie Robinson’s first at-bat. Sure, that’s a gross oversimplification, but such measured reason is hardly the stuff of memory. The reality, of course, is that in baseball—as in Western society in general—the role, scope, and power of race have become subtler since those days, and certainly less pronounced.
Nowadays, the most racist word in sports—for my money—is “articulate.” It is a struggle to recall the last time that any of us heard this modifier applied to a white player or coach. The connotations of this word, one which is almost exclusively applied to black athletes, go beyond saying that someone can express themselves well, oftentimes suggesting that they comport themselves in a manner consistent with mainstream, white America. The old advertising catchphrase “will it play in Peoria,” no doubt used when marketing athletes as well as consumer products, brings along the clear implication that we are not talking about the “other part” of Peoria.
This word, and its underlying unwritten rules about how an African-American athlete should present himself, came along with the racial integration of baseball in the middle of the 20th century. Social change is never immediate, and while much of America was warming up to the idea of equality in all arenas of public life, a certain subset of those people were only truly comfortable with a certain image and identity for black American celebrities and role models. This group certainly included my grandfather. And as he was nonetheless some measure more open-minded than his father, the value of equality was better integrated into my father’s view of the world (and better still, I would hope, in mine).
My family is not exactly from Peoria, but in a certain sense, Brookfield, MO – a small and shrinking former farm town, sitting in silty flatlands which stretch to the east into Illinois and to the north into Iowa – is quintessentially American: traditional and close-knit, with a Rockwellian look and feel. Aside from church and Friday-night high-school football there is no passion or activity that is as common and essential to the residents of this little town as St. Louis Cardinal baseball. It was often that the single personality who appealed most to this town – and to my dad, a boy there in the 50’s and 60’s –was whoever had hit the most relevant home run, or thrown the most recent shutout: Stan Musial gave way to Roger Maris gave way to Bob Gibson. And here our story begins.
There has always been much made of the symbolism in baseball. Even on the surface this distinctly American national pastime – this brilliant, dynamic interplay of monotony and drama can be timeless in more than one sense of the word – would seem to say something about our lives. With Three Strike Laws, Ballpark Franks, and the eternal adolescent desire to get to third base, its lexicon lies at the heart of our national idiom. But beyond that, beyond the ties to our material culture, language and dreams, baseball’s colorful and vividly documented progression through time has neatly signposted our own broader shared history.
As the nation went to war in
An institution as ubiquitous yet ambiguous as baseball, with its ever-changing demographic of players and fans, can be helped along in times of social change by the fact that it is not fixed in geography. Integration is easier to achieve when its tools are more readily available. As in the case of my father’s home town of Brookfield, a small, agricultural town in Northern Missouri, and countless like it, integration proved exceedingly difficult due to a certain shortage of people to be integrated – it was almost all white.
No one can deny the significance of a generation of black kids growing up with Jackie Robinson as a role model – one the first black role models with real access to mainstream America; nor Caribbean or Latino kids with Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda; nor Jewish kids with Sandy Koufax. But how did it come to be that a generation of white kids grew up with a black hero? Somehow, it seems to me that this may be just as important a part of the story.
That “black hero,” by the way, is
Bob Gibson. During a time when the
Maybe it was just the medium. KMOX (1120 on your AM dial) beamed Cards
games out of
My first real important memory of the broadcasts is from '64 when Harry Cary said "The Cardinals win the pennant! The Cardinals win the pennant! The Cardinals win the pennant!" following their win on the last day of the season. I can still tell you the starting infield - McCarver, White, Javier, Groat, Boyer with Brock, Flood and a platoon player in right.
They would sit in the well-shaded brick breezeway of the house that my grandparents still live in, those days having come before air-conditioning was cheap and readily available in those parts. In both of their recollection, these average summer days spent lying around listening to the game seem to eclipse the occasional and much-anticipated actual visits to Sportsman’s Park. And in neither of their recollection is skin color particularly relevant on the radio. By the time the Cards won the pennant in ’64, the indignities of segregated washrooms and water fountains were largely gone from the second-class reality of black ballplayers, but with Buck and Caray calling the games none of that ever tempered the mental picture developed for or by the listener.
Our tendency to find, and love of finding, personalities and events in baseball that mirror our own lives and times may reveal a certain assumption: that baseball is itself simply reflecting changes in society. My own beloved grandfather, with words and thoughts that demonstrate that he nonetheless represents a bygone and racist time, first made me question that assumption when he surprised me with a statement along the lines of “that Bob Gibson is one black person that I can like.” What began as an illogical statement shedding light on the ridiculousness and arbitrariness of racism later blossomed in his mind – years and years later, mind you – into a real understanding of the unjustness of segregation. He came to the table with his opinions formed, and had them rocked by reality, but that new reality only made it in the door because of baseball.
It has been assumed that a black star’s appeal could cross racial boundaries because mainstream, white culture sensed a certain sameness – “whiteness,” if you will – and if that person bought into the unwritten rules about how African Americans should present themselves, and how they can act around white people. Quite the opposite, I discovered, is the case. In fact, Bob Gibson became a hero to small town after small town of newly post-agrarian white people not because he would smile if he saw you crossing the street, but because he would knock you on your ass if he saw you crowding the plate.
What this demonstrates is nothing less than the single most important trait that these agrarian Midwesterners shared: independence. Make no mistake, by all accounts Bob Gibson is a learned and cordial man off the diamond, but on the mound he was hardly defined by a good-spirited penchant for compromise. There may never have been a pitcher who was more fearless, more assertive of his space, or more willing to strike a blow (or a batter) on behalf of a compatriot. Cardinals fans had no choice as to whether they would like Bob Gibson, because he exemplified their core values every day.
was born in the depression-era
It was not by being submissive, but by being relentless, – he once asked "Have you ever thrown a ball 100 miles an hour? Everything hurts. Even your ass hurts.” – competitive, – he once said of playing games with his daughter, "I've played a couple of hundred games of tick-tack-toe with my little daughter and she hasn't beaten me yet. I've always had to win. I've got to win." – and successful – he averaged over 19 wins a season, and Tim McCarver once said of him, "Bob Gibson is the luckiest pitcher in baseball. He is always pitching when the other team doesn't score any runs." – that Gibson was able to gain respect previously not afforded to any black public figure in the region since George Washington Carver.
wasn’t just his understanding of daily struggle that proved familiar to rural
Midwesterners whose reality had also been forged by the War and the
Depression. Gibson also understood the
value of community. Even before his
retirement he owned and invested in businesses in
To my dad, Gibson’s greatness was best illustrated by his selfless and unquestioned commitment to his team. He would pitch on insufficient rest, and he invested more time in his hitting than most pitchers, with good results. Most significant, however, Gibson was punishingly liberal with the bean ball. This went beyond his famous brushback defenses of the inside of the plate. If you were going to hit a Cardinals player with a pitch, you were going to face an unhappy dugout of potential batters. Bob Gibson thought nothing of getting ejected from a game in which he had a shutout going; protecting his teammates was always paramount.
But to dwell on the reasons that Gibson’s personality was embraced is, perhaps, to miss a larger point: He was a god-damned good pitcher. And that can’t be glossed over or ignored. Bob Gibson appealed to a generation of kids brought up with Jim Crowe and George Wallace not because they were effected by large numbers: 400 years of slavery, millions of disenfranchised families, billions of dollars of infrastructure built with stolen labor, but because of a much smaller number: 1.12. In 1967, Gibson had possibly the best season for a pitcher, and certainly the best ERA, in the modern era. He received the respect he deserved.
Perhaps, it is in this way that
baseball most effectively serves as a symbol for American ideals. Baseball is a true meritocracy, and once
unnatural, institutional controls over what skin color was needed to play Major
League Baseball were eradicated, no amount of prejudice or social privilege
could slow down Bob Gibson’s fastball.
Americans like to believe that the cream will naturally make its way to
the top, and Bob Gibson played an opus of chin music for all who would