David Halberstam was quite a writer. He touched on a wide variety of issues in his books, from Vietnam to America in the fifties to John F. Kennedy’s administration. Halberstam also spent a lot of time writing about sports, touching on baseball with Summer of ’49 (about the Red Sox and Yankees) and October 1964, which focused on the Yankees and the Cardinals and how they worked their way to the World Series that year. Both of them are remarkable books, but obviously the latter makes more of an impact to Cardinals fans. If you haven’t read either of them, I strongly suggest that you do. If nothing else, it’s sometimes nice to see how your team is treated by a well-known writer who has no connection to the club.
The overall story is great, but there’s a part in the book that has been reverberating with me this week as we’ve seen all the protests and, more directly, the reason for them. The fact that we are still so divided racially in this country, knowingly or not, is a tough thing to see (though not nearly as tough as it would be to experience). Ideally, we’d all be treated fairly and equally, that we’d be able to interact without prejudice, that everyone would feel protected by law enforcement instead of some being harassed (or so much worse) by them.
Given that nobody is reading this, I feel hopeful I won’t get in trouble for quoting parts of a chapter of Halberstam’s book, but I think it’s just so amazing to read and sad to see that we aren’t more like this. So, from chapter 5:
When a few years later, Marvin Miller, the labor negotiator, visited the various baseball camps during spring training for the first time to explain collective bargaining to the various players, he was quickly struck by the fact that the Cardinal camp was different from every other one he visited. The players were more relaxed, more mature, and better integrated, black with white. The friendships among the players seemed to transcend racial lines, and Miller was especially struck by the fact that not only were the players friendly with each other but their families were too.
If, by 1964, the Cardinals had become something of a model in terms of their racial composition and attitudes, it had not always been that way. In fact, the Cardinal shad come to this more slowly than most National League teams. They were one of the teams that had, for a brief time, considered striking against Jackie Robinson in his first season……St. Louis was for a time the most segregated city in the big leagues, the city that visiting black players liked to visit least.
When the Cardinals finally did sign their first black player, they went about it ineptly. Gussie Busch was stunned to find that the team he had just purchased was all white. Since Budweiser, its executives believed, sold more beer to black people than any other beer company in the country, Busch was nervous for economic reasons about owning a lily-white team. He could easily visualize a black boycott of his beer, and, to his credit, he also thought it was morally wrong to exclude blacks.
Yet, more than most teams, the Cardinal players came to deal with race with a degree of maturity and honesty rarely seen in baseball at that time. In 1961, a good fourteen years after Jackie Robinson’s professional debut, Bill White, the Cardinal black first baseman, challenged the concept of an annual whites-only players breakfast in St. Petersburg. Local businessmen there traditionally honored the visiting Yankee and Cardinal players, but, according to local custom, invited only the white players. White leaked to a reporter the anger of the black players about the breakfast, and, even more important, their resentment over segregating white and black players in separate living facilities–the whites staying at the best local hotels, the blacks forced to stay as boarders with black families in the black section of town. The policy for the breakfast meeting was quickly reversed (when White found out how early he had to show up, he asked his white teammate Alex Grammas if Grammas would like to go in his place). The housing problem was stickier because of Florida law. Finally, a wealthy friend of Gussie Busch bought a motel, the Skyway, and the Cardinals leased it for six weeks and rented some rooms in an adjoining one, the Outrigger, so that the entire team and their families could stay together. A major highway ran right by the motel, and there, in an otherwise segregated Florida, locals and tourists alike could see the rarest of sights: white and black children swimming in the motel pool together, and white and black players, with their wives, at desegregated cookouts. That helped bring the team together. Even Stan Musial, who had both the right, as a senior star, and the money to rent a house for his family during spring training–something he had looked forward to in the past–stayed at the motel and was a part of the team. That made a great difference, for Musial was not only one of the two or three greatest players of his era, he was one of the most beloved as well: he seemed to live in a world without malice or meanness, where there was no prejudice, and where everyone was judged on talent alone.
The Cardinals not only dealt with the white-black issue better than most teams, they did it, Tim McCarver noted years later, before they team had won a pennant, whereas most teams tended to come together on the question of race only after winning. The mutual respect Cardinal players had for each other cut across racial lines. The team bridge game was an important daily ritual, pitting Bill White and Ken Boyer against Bob Gibson and Dick Groat. While it was a game, it was more than a game, because if these men, the four leaders on the team, had to play together on the baseball field by law, what they did in the clubhouse was their own choice.
One of the key players in helping create the culture of the new Cardinal clubhouse was a man few people knew. George (Big Daddy) Crowe was gone from the team by 1964, but he played a vital role in bridging the gap from one era to another….If you were casting him in a movie, the writer Robert Boyle once said, you would want the young James Earl Jones. His influence on the team was vastly disproportionate to his actual contributions on the playing field……
What Crowe had learned in so unusual a life, filled as it was with so much success gained at so high a price, commanded the respect of his teammates–white and black. He was someone who had a history, and that invested him with authority……
In another era Crowe might well have been a manager, or even a general manager, and one of his proteges, Bill White, went on to become president of the National League. No one was going to abuse anyone or bully anyone on a team as long as George Crowe was there. And no one was going to toss racial epithets around lightly. He became, not surprisingly, the self-appointed judge of the team’s kangaroo court, a job for which he seemed to have been ordained at birth……his commentary was a far more important part of the team’s byplay than the fines collected. Almost unconsciously, he merged the culture of the two races, for he was a black man who had lived for a long time in a black man’s world, and when he came to the white man’s world he brought with him a distinctly black sense of dignity and pride.
That’s a lot, I know, but there’s so much more in there so again I encourage you to get a copy of it if you haven’t read it before or perhaps pick your copy back up if you have. The Cardinals covered a lot of ground from Jackie Robinson to 1964, which goes to show that it is possible. It’s terrible that we are having these same problems, these same injustices, almost 60 years later. (It’s also sad to see that the Cardinals are no longer at the forefront of this issue.) Sports is inspirational at times because it shows us what can be done. Let us hope and pray we see it done in society soon.