The Dark Side Of Baseball

By Jean Rodgers
Updated: March 6, 2009

CHICAGO — It was Jack “Jackie” Robinson who, on April 15, 1947, ended eighty years of baseball segregation when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers – the first African American major league baseball player of the modern era. It was a time when unfounded prejudice believed that whites and blacks should be separated, even in sports.

This happened to be the same year I started my freshman year at Austin High School located in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago which was far less newsworthy than the fact that an outstanding athlete was a member of the lily white student body and the neighborhood surrounding it. He had been recruited and mentored by Austin’s widely acclaimed football coach, Bill Heiland, to play for the “Austin Tigers”.

Each of these athletes in their own way, at their own time in life unwittingly paved the way for future African American athletes.

In baseball’s early history, black athletes were banned by the original National Association of Baseball Players, but a few did slip in to play beside white athletes. However, by the time the baseball season of 1890 started up, a “gentlemen’s agreement” within the Association banned black players from playing for the next fifty-five years.

Yet this insult only fed the fires within black athletes as well as those other than athletes with differing ambitions. One was a black entrepreneur named Rube Foster who, in 1919, organized and owned the Negro National League whose players often surpassed the skills of the whites. As for some memorable players, there was speedy center fielder James “Cool Papa” Bell. Legend has it he could make it from first to third base – on a bunt. Or, the greatest pitcher of all time, Leroy “Satchel” Page – a lanky showman who nearly always delivered on his promise to strike out the first nine men he’d face.

Then there was the ‘black Babe Ruth” – Josh Gibson, a powerful hitter in the Negro League with almost 800 home runs in his seventeen year baseball career. Sadly, just when baseball was on the verge of completing integration, Gibson died of a stroke. Despite coming from a long line of baseball (and other sports fans) I’ve never become addicted to any one in particular. Guess I cheered myself out during high school games because Austin carried such a flamboyant reputation for football.

In later years, my two sons have triggered my interest in hockey. I admire hockey players because I respect anyone who can balance a single blade on a slippery surface and still maintain the presence of mind to engage in a competition that requires concentration and adherence to strict rules of play.

I do enjoy basketball, not necessarily because it has been my husband’s life long favorite, but because of its fast moving pace and the need for snap decision making. However, as I explore the history of African American athletes, I find a growing curiosity to learn more.

In retrospect, I perceive a deeper insight into the accomplishments of Coach Bill Heiland who taught his boys a lot more than football. He taught them about life – the ripple effect of mutual respect, and the rewards of team effort; and Jackie Robinson and Abe Woodson, each of different generations, who had the courage to take the opportunity when it was presented and thus unwittingly pioneer a rough path for future black athletes.