By Larry Teren
Remember the Simon and Garfunkel song “Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio” from the late 1960’s? It was sort of an anthem for baby boomers weighing in on the changing of the guard from the 1950’s rock and roll culture to the hippie drug craze. Dimaggio retired from playing ball with the New York Yankees in 1951 after a World War II shortened career grabbed away some reachable goals in the annals of baseball records. He had another fifteen minutes of fame in the mid-50’s as one of Marilyn Monroe’s husbands. Joe kept his iconic status burning in the 60s and 70s with Mr. Coffee commercials as well as the annual trek to Monroe’s grave site to lay a garland of flowers on her tombstone.
The brightest baseball heroes baby boomers worshiped were the New York and then San Francisco Giants Willie Mays and the Yankee’s Mickey Mantle, both of whom came on the scene in the early 1950’s. Oops- there was one other- the Brooklyn Dodgers Jackie Robinson.
He broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 just after the official start to the boomer era. Slowly but surely, the other major league teams started adding black players. These fellows all had to be exceptionally good or the fans would not tolerate their being around. In fact, the New York Yankees did not add a black player until Elston Howard showed up in 1955. Apparently they didn’t need one. Between 1949-1953 they won five World Series in a row, not just AL championships. It was only because Yankees management saw that Yogi Berra needed a break from catching so many games did they add a catcher, a black one, to the team.
It’s turning full circle now- less and less American-born black athletes are going into professional baseball, opting more often for basketball and football. The Chicago Cubs of 2012 did not have a single Black as a starter and possibly none on the roster until Dave Sappelt showed up late in the season. (Of course, this is open to a little debate.) There were a handful of darker-toned players wearing the Chicago Cubs uniform but they all had Hispanic surnames and most were imports from Latin American countries.
I was too young growing up in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s to notice a player’s skin color. Either he was good or he stunk. The Chicago Cubs had Ernie Banks since the mid 1950’s and throughout the 1960’s. For close to ten years his teammate was sweet-swinging Billy Leo Williams, my personal favorite. He batted lefty just as I did which was good enough for me. During that decade another black player, George Altman played alongside Billy in the outfield for a couple of years. From 1967 through 1972 Fergie Jenkins won at least 20 games each year, something most likely never to occur again because of the five man pitching rotation currently favored.
The Los Angeles Dodgers had Willie Davis, Tommie Davis (no relation), Maury Wills and Johnny Roseboro in their starting lineup as they won multiple World Series. The St. Louis Cardinals showed up in three World Series (’64, ’67 and ’68) off the strength of Bob Gibson’s arm. The San Francisco Giants had Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Jimmy Ray Hart. The Pirates in the 1970’s had Dave Parker and Willie Stargell.
In the 1970’s, the Chicago Cubs replaced their long-time (more than a dozen years) all-star third baseman Ron Santo with the very black Bill Madlock. He rewarded their trust by hitting over .300 in each of his three years on the team.
In one of those years, he made an appearance in the 1975 All Star game and had the game winning hit. There was some confusion as to whom the writers awarded the MVP trophy for the game because the NL winning pitcher was named Jon Matlack (a white person). It resulted in both players sharing the award although Matlack didn’t really affect the outcome.
Bill Madlock was rewarded for winning two batting championships in a row by then-Chicago Cubs owner Phil Wrigley before the start of the 1977 season by being traded because he had the audacity to ask for a pay raise to $100,000.00.
In the mid-1970’s the Chicago Cubs groomed a powerful first baseman named Andre Thorton but was quickly traded when blonde outfielder Pete LaCock (the son of Hollywood Squares’ host Peter Marshall) proved he could play first base albeit without the same home run and rbi potential. Thorton had a few terrific years with the Cleveland Indians
In 1984, the first year since the 1945 World Series that the Chicago Cubs made it to the post season, right before the season started, they brought in the immensely popular Gary ‘Sarge’ Matthews who became captain of the team. He and first baseman Leon Durham would be the only blacks in the starting lineup for a team that won 96 games during the regular season. The Chicago Cubs flopped in the post season, partly due to an error by Durham and errant relief pitching by another African-American, Lee Smith. With less than one third the season done, they traded away two gifted black outfielders- Mel Hall and Joe Carter- in order to get Rick Sutcliffe who went on to win 16 out of 17 games including 14 in a row. There is no question they never would have made it to the playoffs without Sutcliffe but both Hall and Carter went on to stardom in the American League. In fact, Carter was on two consecutive World Series winners with Toronto and hit the game and World Series winning home run in one of them.
So, why have black athletes shunned baseball? Some think that it may be because if one is a gifted athlete, it is easier to make the money quicker and with less hassle in basketball or football.
Baseball has that built-in minor league system where it is understood even the best of amateur ball players need to spend time honing their craft. The Chicago Cubs current President Theo Epstein this past season talked about a player needing to get at least 500 at bats in the minors before he would be considered to be brought up. This despite the fact that he already had 22 home runs and 60 rbi’s in 50 games at the triple A level.
Is it possible that black athletes looking for instant gratification are no longer interested in going through the minor league route of a couple of years in baseball on their way to playing with even the New York Yankees? They opt instead of tossing the dice on football and basketball’s draft where there is chance to play right away or at least be on the highest level professional roster? Athletes get rewarded for playing in a world series as much as they do in a football or basketball championship series.
Inquiring minds want to know. After all, Jackie Robinson was a gifted college running back. Would he have opted to play in the NFL instead if given a chance?