armchairquarterblog

SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on April 21, 2011 at 6:47 am

The Yankees’ Mariano Rivera pitching in the first inning?

Must’ve been a highlight from last night’s game.

Wait a minute, who’s at shortstop wearing 42?

Oh yea, it was Major League Baseball honoring Jackie Robinson — this time commemorating the day (April 15) he became the first black man to play in an MLB game.

All weekend, I studied faces surrounded in batting helmet-plastic to learn “who was who.” Even announcers guessed who was on deck or warming up in the pen.

It was “ceremony gone wild” with every player wearing 42 – not just on April 15 but the next day too.

It was a bit excessive – just like retiring No. 42 for every Major League team. I think Robinson might even get a chuckle out of that. The Dodgers, sure. But the Arizona Diamondbacks? They were established 52 years after Robinson’s debut. Retired numbers are supposed to mean something to that organization. If you don’t play, manage or coach for a team, your jersey number shouldn’t be recognized. Period.

Where does it end? Will MLB afford the same honor for the first Asian, the first Korean, the first Japanese, the first Chinese, the first Haitian, the first Samoan, the first Ukrainian to play in the bigs? While I respect Robinson for having endured racial abuse, the No. 42 should be mothballed only in Los Angeles.

While we’re reminded of Robinson’s bravery and talent, few fans probably know of the man’s charm – not lost one former Major Leaguer pitcher and manager — this one white.

Roger Craig, who played for Brooklyn in the mid-50, told me this story the day he broke into the big leagues. The night before, he pitched one end of a doubleheader for Montreal, the Dodgers AAA farm team (Tom Lasorda pitched the other game). The next day, Craig was summoned to Brooklyn to join the Dodgers.

I was sitting in Walter Alston’s office when he told me, ‘You’re now a a Brooklyn Dodger. Tell your wife you’re moving to New York.’ As I left the locker room to head to the airport, one Dodger walked up to me, stuck out his hand and said, ‘Congratulations.’ That was Jackie Robinson. I was from the south (Durham, NC)…and never forgot that.”

While MLB exhausts itself trumpeting Robinson’s impact on the game, there’s another player equally deserving but just about forgotten.

Consider Larry Doby — the first black man to play in the American League — followed Robinson by only 81 days. Outside of having Doby throw out the first pitch of the 1997 All-Star game, the man is seldom recognized. After retiring, Doby became just the second black (following Frank Robinson) to manage in the big leagues.

Doby’s statistics exceed Robinson’s, in part because he played three more seasons. He had 1,515 hits, 253 HR, 970 RBI, a .283 BA and made the AL All-Star team seven times. Robinson had 1,518 hits, 137 HR, 734 RBI, a .311 BA and was a 6-time All-Star. He also was Rookie of the Year and an MVP.

Plenty other Negro Leaguers had the same fortitude as Robinson without getting the recognition. Great careers in the Negro Leagues – which began in the 1880s – go unnoticed, except to baseball historians.

Five years ago, when the Montreal Expos moved to Washington, D.C., the Mayor’s office among others, suggested the team’s nickname be “Grays” to honor the Negro League team from the nation’s capital. When MLB expanded to Kansas City in 1973 , the name Royals was chosen in part to honor the Negro League team that played there – the Monarchs.

Bud Fowler was the first Negro Leagues player in 1878. Moses Walker and his brother, Welday played for Toledo in 1884. Rube Foster debuted in 1903 with the Cuban X-Giants. Cool Papa Bell and Willie Wells starred for the St. Louis Stars in 1925. In 1932, the East-West League featured Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Josh Greenlee.

Overall, seven formal leagues made up the Negro Leagues, which began in 1920 – 27 years before Robinson became a Dodger. The Negro Leagues even has a Hall of Fame though most fans recognize Cooperstown as baseball’s lone shrine.

Speaking of pioneers, how about Buck O’Neill? The former first baseman and manager for the Monarchs was the first ex-Negro Leaguer to coach in MLB (Chicago Cubs, 1962). He also scouted for the team, signing Lou Brock to his first pro contract. O’Neill has a “legacy seat” in Kansas City’s Kaufmann Stadium.

In 2006, O’Neill was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush. Only one other professional baseball player shares that honor – Jackie Robinson.

American culture gushes over ceremony – while oftentimes forgetting historical significance. Honor is noble but only when those equally deserving are feted.

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