Sunday, April 18, 2010

St. Louis Baseball in Black and White

I've been working my way through Ain't But a Place, Gerald Early's anthology of African American writings about St. Louis. I just read excerpts from the autobiographies of Curt Flood and Bob Gibson, both of which are quite illuminating about Cardinal racial dynamics, as well as the economic realities of professional sports at the time.

Flood sued Major League Baseball over its reserve clause, which kept players bound for life to a single team unless they were traded. His case went before the Supreme Court, and he lost. Early notes, however, that Flood's case "was the central event that helped the players become more determined to break the reserve clause," which they ultimately did through protracted negotiation.

Flood (along with his co-author Richard Carter) paints a grim picture of a professional ballplayer's life in the pre-free agency period, a picture he says was shared by nearly every player he knew, except for mega-stars like Willie Mays and Stan Musial.

Flood's portrait of Musial is particularly amusing:

Stan was one of the outstanding players of all time. He was so exceptionally talented, popular and durable that he played for twenty-one seasons, amassed substantial wealth and became a member of the Cardinal management. As an authentic superstar, he lived remote from the difficulties encountered by lesser athletes. Like Mays, he saw the world entirely in terms of his own good fortune. He was convinced that it was the best of all possible worlds. He not only accepted baseball mythology but propounded it. Whereas the typical player all but choked while reciting the traditional gibberish of gratitude to the industry, and whereas Bob Gibson, superstar of another hue, would simply change the subject, Musial was a true believer. Gibson and I once clocked eight "wunnerfuls" in a Musial speech that could not have been longer than a hundred words.

"My biggest thrill is just wearing this major-league uniform," Stan used to say. "It's wunnerful being here with all these wunnerful fellas."

On such occasions, Gibson would hang his head in embarrassment and mutter, "Shitfuckpiss." We admired Musial as an athlete. We liked him as a man. There was no conscious harm in him. He was just unfathomably naive.

To Musial's credit (and Gibson's), Gibson notes that during spring training Musial and Ken Boyer gave up their private beachfront accommodations in order to move in with the team at a hotel in St. Petersburg in order to help break the racial segregation practiced there at the time.

Gibson (who wrote his book with Lonnie Wheeler) also relates a great story about the young Tim McCarver, who'd grown up immersed in racism in Memphis and carried his prejudices with him in the early part of his career before making what Gibson calls a 180-degree turn in his racial attitudes.

After a ballgame in Bradenton one really hot day in the spring of 1960, McCarver got on the bus eating an ice-cream cone. I was eyeing him as he sat down and then I nodded at Flood, who was sitting next to me, and said, "Hey, Tim, can I have a bite of that ice-cream cone?" McCarver didn't know what to do. He looked at me, then he looked at Flood, then he looked back at me, and finally he mumbled, "I'll, er, I'll save you some." Flood and I just exploded in laughter.

In this year when the Cardinals roster includes not a single African American, it's interesting to read of a time when St. Louis baseball was an institution where racial issues could play themselves out, sometimes even with encouraging results.

1 comment:

Dan Davinroy said...

I think it is interesting that the presence of African American players has declined in the LaRussa era. However, there seems to be a trend that African Americans are not embracing baseball as in years past.

That said, I am puzzled by Torii Hunter of the California Angels who called players from the Dominican Republic and other Central American players as "impostors" and not black. Those players share a common African heritage especially given the fact that the majority of slaves were in the Caribbean Islands and South America.