Niagara Gazette

April 30, 2014

BRADBERRY: Sports ... Leveling the playing field, again

By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Ostracize: to banish a person; to exclude, by general consent, from society, friendship, conversation, privileges, etc.

Like many too young, or too insulated to have experienced real, hard core, in-your-face racist sentiments first hand, most of my adolescent, and a few adult nieces, nephews and their multi-cultural acquaintances were totally outraged and disgusted by the depth of Donald Sterling’s racist remarks; they find it hard to believe that people actually think and behave like him.

They have absolutely no tolerance for the nonsensical ignorance Sterling displayed, albeit privately; they want him OUT!

Now!

Well, trust me; Sterling is likely not alone, unfortunately. Remember the racist rants of cattle rancher, Cliven Bundy last week? I know, that’s a horse of a different color, but it’s the same problem. Years of standing up against racism have succeeded in driving most of the outward manifestations of the scourge underground, but every now and then, as these two gentlemen demonstrate, it bubbles back up.

Ironically, that’s a good thing because circumstances such as these force the rest of us to do more than just talk about race prejudices and DO something; professional sports have historically led the way, not only in America, but around the world; look at what Soccer did to unite South Africa.

Listening to my radio yesterday as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver effectively ostracized Sterling, I recalled Dad’s little green radio, a gift Mom got for him from Eddie Zewin’s furniture and appliance store on the corner of 24th Street and Cudaback Avenue in Niagara Falls; it was always tuned in to the Cleveland Indians baseball games, like the games were the only thing that little radio played.

I never knew why he was so dedicated to that team until a decade or so ago while I was on vacation in Florida when Walter Bulka excused himself from his birthday dinner party and went to his bedroom. He came back to the dining-room table with an original May 23, 1948 Cleveland Indians official scorecard.

Bursting with pride, Walter pointed to a name on the roster.

“That’s Larry Doby,” he said, as if I was supposed to know who Larry Doby was.

I had no clue.

“I was right there in the stadium in Cleveland watching him play. He was the first African-American baseball player in the American League, and I saw him play in person just before they won the World Series!”

Walter was bursting with pride and uncontainable excitement.

Then, as if to trump that, Walter laid out on the table a letter addressed to him and his family at his home, then on 93rd Street in LaSalle, a personal letter signed by none other than Mickey Mantle himself.

It was as if a light bulb suddenly came on in my head. I got it. I now knew why my dad — and Walter, as it turns out — were such big fans.

At the same time, I was kind of ashamed that it had taken me so long to understand. It took Walter Bulka, an 80-year-old Polish man who used to live in our old neighborhood, to bring me another notch closer to knowing my own father.

Walter knew just about everybody in the neighborhood back in those days and, remarkably, he remembered everything in detail; their names, their birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, marriages, where they lived, where they moved to and why.

On top of all the personal local history, he also just happened to know a heck of a lot about sports, especially baseball.

According to Mr. Bulka, and from what I can remember about my dad’s fascination with the game, there were a lot of Cleveland Indians baseball fans in Niagara Falls right after World War II.

“We used to drive all the way over there just to watch those guys play,” says Walter. Dad and some of his friends used to go to the games, too.

Not everybody who liked the Indians liked them for the same reasons. But from what I gather, Dad liked them at least in part because their owner, Bill Veeck, had the courage and good sense on July 5, 1947, to sign Doby to a contract with the Cleveland Indians, making him the first African-American to play for the American League, about three weeks after Jackie Robinson’s debut with Brooklyn in the National League.

Doby, who was born in December 1923 in Camden, S.C., batted left and threw right.

After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Army, where he stayed until 1946. When he came out of the service, he went to play baseball with the Negro National League’s Newark Eagles for four seasons, leading them to a championship in 1946. Bill Veeck, Cleveland’s owner, had scouted Doby, recognized his talent and made him an offer. The rest, as they say, “is history.”

Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998, he was a nine-time all-star, earning seven appearances with Cleveland and two with the Eagles. He twice led the American League with home runs. During his career he also played for the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. In 1962, he became the first former pro player to play for a professional Japanese team, the Chunichi Dragons.

Commenting on the role he played in the integration of the sport, he said that the United States was still very segregated when he played. He was not able to stay at the same hotels or eat at the same restaurants as the rest of the team because of the color of his skin. He was often taunted, verbally assaulted by the fans and not accepted by many of the white players, but he said he never let that affect his games.

He said, “I couldn’t react to situations from a physical standpoint. My reaction was to hit the ball as far as I could.”

In his first full season (1948), Doby hit 16 home runs and added a .301 batting average to the Indians’ last successful World Championship drive. He contributed a team-leading .318 average to the 1948 World Series, winning the fourth game with a 400-foot home run off Braves ace Johnny Sain.

He played in every All-Star Game from 1949 through 1954, hitting a key home run as a pinch hitter in his last All-Star at-bat in the midst of the Indians’ 1954 record-setting, 111-win season. In 1952, he led the American League with 32 home runs, 104 runs and a .541 batting percentage.

And Doby wasn’t the only black ballplayer to play in those legendary Cleveland clubs. Luke Easter, Monte Irvin, Sam Jones and Satchel Paige joined him on that most integrated of early teams.

A lot was going on in America during those times. We were changing, mostly for the better.

It’s interesting now to look back at them, black fans and white fans rooting for their team, cheering them on as they acted out, on the ball field, some of the same games America is still playing in the courtrooms across the county today.

Play ball ...

Contact Bill at bill.bradberry@yahoo.com

Contact Bill at bill.bradberry@yahoo.com