Baseball remains to be a civil rights battleground

Jackie Robinson on bat.

For over 150 years, the baseball field has been a civil rights battlefield. Bigote politicians like Texas Governor Greg Abbott are still waging the civil war – on the wrong side of history.

Governor Abbott (R) boycotted the Texas Rangers opening game in protest of Major League Baseball. Abbott is mad at the MLB for pulling this summer’s All-Star game out of Georgia. Both Texas and Georgia have a special place in what is known as the Jim Crow Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 1944, the great Jackie Robinson was arrested by the military police in Texas when he refused to sit on an army bus. Robinson was a rising baseball star and lieutenant at Fort Hood at the time. He stood before a court martial, in which he was acquitted despite affidavits from white officers. Georgia has the distinction of being the only state that specifically prohibits “amateur baseball teams” from playing ball within two blocks of a white children’s playground. Strangely specific, I know.

Abbott, without a hint of irony, refused to paint the ceremonial pitch at the Rangers’ first home game. He said, “It is shameful that America’s pastime is not only influenced by partisan politics, but also perpetuates false political narratives.”

What Abbott really fears is that the nationwide backlash against Georgia’s new laws to suppress racist voters will spread to Texas. Abbott’s current efforts are “a Republican crusade to further restrict voting,” according to the Texas Tribune.

Of course, partisan politics have always been linked to baseball and all other aspects of American life. Institutional racism was the bulwark of our country’s cultural, economic and political system. Abbott knows this, which is why he made his teenage threat to “take his ball and go home.”

Historically, Connecticut’s hands are by no means clean. It was not until 1970 that voting rights were fully secured with the abolition of the undemocratic literacy test. Civil rights activists challenged racial discrimination in the areas of work, housing, banking and education until the 1980s. Its a lot to do.

But in some ways our state should be cautiously recognized for its fight against bigotry in baseball. Because of brave color athletes, local fans and teams were more suitable for this fight.

In the 19th century, nationally known black players Frank Grant and Moses “Fleetwood” Walker won praise and admiration when they played for integrated semi-pro clubs of Meriden, Ansonia and Waterbury.

Likewise, Native American baseball greats Louis Sockelexis (Penobscot), Albert Bender (Chippewa), and Jack Meyers (Cahuilla) stunned the white crowds every time they led their Hartford and New Haven teams to victory. All three had also played for major league teams.

Asian players have also made a name for themselves: in 1878 the Chinese education mission in Hartford sponsored the successful Celestials Ball Club. Starting in 1918, Buck Lai and Andrew Yim, both Hawaiian-born Chinese players, were recruited for the Bridgeport Americans of the Eastern League.

New Britain found and signed four Cuban players for the local aviators who played at Electric Field. One or more of them appeared on the grid for five seasons; Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida were eventually picked up by the Cincinnati Reds.

Perhaps the most underrated white figure fighting the baseball color line is Bill Savitt, jeweler and exceptional self-promoter. His Savitt Gems invited the Negro League teams to play at Bulkeley Stadium in south Hartford. In 1934, he hired black players like the young phenomenon Johnny “Schoolboy” Taylor, a local kid who beat 25 opposing batters in one game for an average of 0.418.

Taylor played in Winsted and Waterbury, Mexico and Cuba. He was expelled from the majors, but at the age of 20 he knocked out Satchel Paige at the Polo Grounds in New York. And when he returned to Hartford and played for Martín Dihigo’s New York Cubans, he led the pile-on against his old team, the Gems, 11-0.

Almost 30 years after retiring from baseball, Taylor told a reporter, “I like to think that what we did with the white teams through barnstorming in the 1930s and 1940s paved the way for the next generation Has.”

The courage and tenacity of the black ballplayers struck back Jim Crow. The same traits will also rule out Greg Abbott and his husband.

Steve Thornton has written three books and maintains, Stories about Hartford’s Base. He will be featured on the Connecticut Historical Society podcast on Black Baseball starting May 1.

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