Winter and I don’t really get along well. I enjoy a good mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows or whipped cream (after I take my lactaid), and I do miss careening head-first down a hill, plunging toward the gully below that might, or might not, have water – or ice, then turning around, grabbing the string, trudging back up the hill to go again. Even then, winter was not fun for me. I was afraid I might have trouble °posting on Wednesdays this month, especially this week. Still, can’t spend all day in bed playing Clash of Clans† – gotta have time to build up resources, so it gets boring just sitting and watching them mill around, purposeless, pointless, lost.
So since winter in general and February in particular are so difficult for me, especially this year when we actually have winter, I have to find another way to make myself post. Lucky me, February is Black History Month, giving me LOTS of subjects to choose from.
In 1869, Cincinnati had the first all-professional baseball team. It’s kind of a big deal. Every Opening Day game (yes, it deserves the capitals) is played at home. Most of the time, anyway. For decades, the Reds played the first game of the season – no one else threw out a pitch in the regular season before the Reds. Opening Day was an event – still is – when fans would take the day off work, or at least a half day if they worked downtown, and head for the ballpark to watch the first game. Sometimes it was sunny and warm, sometimes it snowed. Baseball, even with a team that can be very disappointing, is important here.
I’m gonna let you in on a little secret – my hometown has a little problem with embracing diversity. There are plenty of people who couldn’t care less what color a person is, people who recognize another human being regardless of sexual orientation, and the neighborhoods within the city are more integrated than they were when I was a kid. Get outside of the city limits and it’s another story altogether. That’s not what this is about; this is about baseball, a game that boys and girls play in the street with a regulation bat, ball, and glove on a diamond, or a stick and a tennis or raquet ball, bases painted on the street, play interrupted by cars. It’s about a game that gives us a festival day, an extra-long lunch if you’re along the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade route, a reason to wear a ball cap at work, or at least a red tie. It’s a warm May afternoon, hot dog (or brat) in one hand, cold beverage in the other. It’s a sultry August night, hair pulled back in a ponytail, sweat rolling down your back, waiting for the fireworks to start. It’s a tense late September, if you’re in The Hunt, a tough ticket to get, especially for a game that matters. If you’re lucky, it’s an October (and November) of pride, wearing your colors every chance you get, a knowing smile shared with with the others in your club.±
Now what’s a game without its players? Everyone knows their favorites. In case you’re wondering, yes, I do believe Pete Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame. Now, on the diamond, there’s a range of men from different countries, men with different melanin levels, men who are just there to play ball. It wasn’t always that way. although, it sorta started out that way. In 1884, for instance, Moses “Fleetwood” Walker was the first black player in the major leagues. He wasn’t the only one, either. That all changed in 1890, though, when there was an official ban against black players on the books, until 1946. Everyone knows what happened in 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson. There was just a movie about him. If you don’t know who he was, I will assume you aren’t American or a fan of baseball, and consider it tragic. Look him up – you might find a little information about him. Slowly every team in the major leagues at that time began integrating their teams. Cincinnati had two – Nino Escalera and Chuck Harmon, both starting on April 17, 1954. Now these two men – still living as of this post – weren’t huge names, weren’t setting the baseball world on fire, but they were making history. Mr. Harmon says he was just playing ball, didn’t really think much about it, that “… You don’t realize when you’re actually making history.” I suppose that’s part of what makes it easier, when you’re allowed to think that. Jackie Robinson didn’t have that choice, when he was called up from the Negro Leagues.
Where did the Negro Leagues come from. Well, obviously there was a need going unfilled. There were black men that wanted to play ball, and teams that weren’t willing to let them. The first known professional all-black team was formed in 1885, just a year after “Fleetwood” Walker joined Toledo. Six years before that, though, a child was born who was destined to change history for these players. Andrew “Rube” Foster – who won his nickname by out-pitching Rube Waddell of the Philadelphia A’s,ˆ would grow up to make successful something that had been attempted when he was only eight or so. The first Negro League was formed in 1887. It failed after only a couple weeks, due to lack of interest. Andrew Foster was a pitcher on an all-black team – since he could not join a major league team – and spent a lot of time on the road, as many of them did. While there were plenty of teams to play, it was disorganized, as each team was out for itself. In order to get a more consistent game, he decided he would get all the owners together, and force them into a league with the same rules and requirements. In 1920, the Negro National League was born. After his passing, it failed, for whatever reasons such things do. Revived again in 1933, now that there was a demand, and the knowledge that it could be done, and done successfully, the new owners were a bit more – colorful than Walker might have preferred, but again, it thrived.
This winter has been difficult for me, as I mentioned. But the Reds’ pitchers report to spring training tomorrow, and Opening Day is 46 days away. Spring is almost here…
*Yes, I actually meant to write it that way. February hasn’t been the nasty, cold, brutish, dark month I knew in my youth for a very long time. It’s making up for it this year.
†Years ago, back when a 14.4 modem was considered fast, and DSL was new, I MUDded. It was a dark time; it wasn’t uncommon for me to come home from work, grab something to eat, sit down at the computer and play, stopping in time to make breakfast and go to work again. Then The Sims‡ came out…
‡I may have stayed up all night for the MUD, but I upgraded my machine for The Sims. I’m not proud. Well, a little proud.
±’The Tribe’ is the Cleveland Indians. Ewwie.
ˆThat was hard to write; the As is short for Athletics, not Athletic’s. But, it seems officially it, like the now Oakland A’s, includes the apostrophe ‘s.’ The grammarian in me has gone for a lie down.