Pandemics, Baseball, dealing with racism, and July the 7th

What is the common thread between global pandemics, baseball, the historical and contemporary problems with racism in our country and July the 7th? At first glance, they might seem not to be connected. At age 63 I finally just recently discovered how intertwined they really are.

The most recent July 7 passed us just last week. It may not mean much to most readers, but it was my Dad’s birthday. Had he still been with us, he would have celebrated his 102nd birthday. Dad loved baseball, and he passed on his love of the game to me. It is typically close to the date of the annual All-Star break, the mid-season classic pitting the best players from the National and American leagues against each other. However, due to Covid-19, there is no baseball being played at the moment.

Dad was born in July of 1918, during the Spanish flu pandemic that took over 40 million lives. After flattening the curve during the summer, the flu’s second wave came with a vengeance. One of the casualties was his mother; my grandmother, Mary. She died in November of that year. Dad was the youngest of 5 children, so he was too young to have any memory of his mother. His father Owen, who was a riveter who built bridges, was lost as to how to work and take care of 5 children. His brother Tom, took in the whole family without hesitation. My middle name is Thomas, named after Dad’s uncle.

Dad grew up during the depression. He briefly played semi-pro ball. He was a sergeant in the infantry during WWII, earning a Purple Heart Medal, a European African Middle Eastern campaign Medal, a Distinguished Unit Badge, a Bronze Star Medal and a Silver Star Medal. He was reticent to relate to me much about the war.   Most of what I learned about the war from him was from his military records and written accounts of the history of the 337th regiment of the 85th Infantry Division (The Custer Division). He had always dreamed of playing professional baseball, but life got in the way of his dream. After the war, he returned home to work and make a living. He had only a high school diploma, but through hard work, made a decent, honest living in the restaurant business. Due to long hours, he was often absent from the home. Even so, much of the free time he had, he spent teaching me about the game he loved. Many of the fond memories that we had together had to do with that sport.

As a young boy in the sixties, we attended many baseball games on the weekends. Living only 43 miles from New York City, we attended mostly Mets games. In 1964, Dad made a financial sacrifice and bought tickets to the World Series to see the other New York team (The Yankees); a special treat! We saw a thrilling game four, where the Yankees beat the St. Louis Cardinals 2-1 on a 9th inning home run by Mickey Mantle. Everyone stood up as soon as Mickey connected, as he drove a mammoth home run into the upper deck of old Yankee stadium off of knuckleball reliever Barney Schultz. I was too short to see it, even after Dad picked me up to see above the crowd. Thankfully, in those days fans were allowed on the field after the game. We visited the monuments in the deepest part of center field (463 ft. from home plate) of the great players of years gone by. We then stood at home plate and Dad pointed out where Mickey’s homer landed in the upper deck of right field. It was so far away, that I couldn’t even imagine shooting a cannon that far. Although I was already a novice fan, that day sealed it for me. I became a real baseball aficionado from that moment on.

My favorite players were National league players, since the Mets were a National league team. Hank Aaron of the Braves and Roberto Clemente of the Pirates were two of my favorite players. I had huge posters of them displayed in my bedroom. I also followed two players from the St. Louis Cardinals; Lou Brock and Curt Flood. All four of these players were players of color. That was never an issue for me, because of how Mom and Dad raised us. Being just a kid, I didn’t know about racial inequality back then. I never heard Dad use the N word, but I did hear other people use it back then. I didn’t understand why people would look at somebody differently just because of the color of their skin. However, the 1960s was a tumultuous decade in the history of race relations. 1964, the year that I saw my first World Series game, was the year that the Civil Rights Act was passed. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed Congress the following year. A few years later, Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. Race riots were prevalent, and the Vietnam War was ramping up….truly a time of turmoil in our country.

Players of color during that era had additional hurdles to overcome.  The Civil Rights Act didn’t solve the racial inequities in our country.  Curt Flood, the Cardinals center fielder, led the league in hits in that 1964 season. He was an exceptional center fielder, possessing a strong throwing arm, and his speed made him a threat to steal a base at any time. In 1969, Flood was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, against his wishes. The Free Agency of today did not exist at the time. Players were not free to sign with another team or negotiate contracts with other teams on their own. Due to what is called the “Reserve Clause”, players were limited to one team per lifetime. Management essentially owned the rights to players, and players were traded when a deal was made between the management of two teams. Players were essentially “owned” by their teams. This suppressed player salaries and conferred all the power to team owners.  Flood had completed his contract with the Cardinals and been a longtime league member, so he petitioned the league for free agency. The baseball commissioner denied his request. He filed a lawsuit against the league. Rather than move his family to a new city where he didn’t want to live, Flood sat out the 1970 season. He paid a big price to assert his freedom. He became a pariah. Curt Flood received hate mail from fans and was basically blackballed by the league, prematurely ending his stellar career. I wonder, “How would history have looked different if he wasn’t African-American?”  Just a few years later, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, both pitchers who were white, won an arbitration ruling which opened the door to free agency.   That decision that would change the game forever.  Flood’s memoir was titled, “The Way it Is.”  Curt Flood died in 1997, but lived long enough to see the anti-trust legislation “Baseball Fans and Communities Act of 1997” passed, which in part was based on his experience.

Curt Flood

These were some of the role models of my youth. For readers younger than me, these names and the people behind them have faded in memory or are non-existent. Each generation has their sports icons. I knew only a few of the big names in baseball before my time….Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Honus Wagner, and Nap Lajoie to name a few. Most of them played before the league was racially integrated. The only black player we knew of from history was Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in the 1940s.

I asked Dad about who he idolized as a baseball player when he was young. Dad was real keen on picking out talented players. We watched a Mets game in 1968 where a young pitcher named Nolan Ryan took the mound. He was a hard thrower, but often wild. I remember Dad telling me, “Mick, keep an eye on this kid. He’s a flamethrower and he will be in the Hall of Fame one day…Mark my words!” I didn’t see what he saw, so I shrugged it off. Seven no-hitters later, he holds the all-time record for strikeouts and was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1999.  His long career lasted 27 seasons.  He is one of only three players in history to have his number retired by three different teams.   Dad’s words were indeed prophetic.

Of all of the players Dad idolized, one name I hadn’t heard before. His favorite pitcher of all time was Leroy Satchel Paige. I had never heard of him as a kid. Paige, arguably THE greatest pitcher of all time, played in his prime during the 1930s and 1940s. He wasn’t as famous because he played in the Negro leagues, before baseball was integrated. Dad actually told me that he batted against him once. I wondered if the story was truth or fiction, but each time I heard the story, the facts were told with consistency. The story never deviated from one time to the next. I don’t know the exact year that this occurred, but after doing some research. I pinned down the possible encounter to circa 1936.

I asked, “Dad, why were you playing against Negro league teams?” He replied, “It was customary for those teams to barnstorm and pickup games outside of league whenever they could.” His first-hand account of facing the greatest pitcher of all time was intriguing, but also funny. Dad would have been a young 18 years old, just out of high school. Paige, as he recounted it, was much older and already an established seasoned pitcher.

Young Mike stepped up the the plate and dug in. Satchel Paige had a wide grin on his face, and he seemed to chuckle as Dad stepped up to the plate. The first time a batter faces a new pitcher, he usually doesn’t swing at the first pitch. It’s good to see how they throw; to see what kind of pitches they have, and to get your timing down. If it ends up being a strike, no big deal….it takes three of them to get you out. Paige went into the windup and zipped a fastball down the middle of the plate….STRIKE ONE!

Dad recounted how awed he was by the first pitch. ” It came in so fast, it looked like a frozen pea shot out of a rifle”, he said. They didn’t have radar guns back then, but I imagine that Paige would have clocked triple digits on the radar gun. “Okay, dig in and get ready for the next pitch”, he told himself.   The second one came in faster than the first. “This one looked like a bb, even smaller than a pea,” he recounted. No time to even swing.  Could it be that the first pitch wasn’t even his best stuff? “STRIKE TWO”, yelled the umpire.

Now the count was 0-2. Dad choked up on the bat to get ready for the next pitch. If he was to go down, it would be swinging. Still grinning widely, Paige started his windup. Dad now had his timing down and would be ready for the fast one. The third pitch, also a fastball, was much lower and looked outside. “STRIKE THREE”, yelled the umpire, as Paige did what we call “painting the outside corner.” Pinpoint accuracy is even more important than speed for a pitcher, and Paige was a master of it. It was good morning, good afternoon, and good night for young Mike in three successive pitches.

I can imagine Dad walking slowly back to the dugout, feeling somewhat embarrassed by his non-performance. As he walked back to the dugout, he glanced back at the pitcher. His feeling of embarrassment melted away and a feeling of admiration came over him for being able to observe greatness first-hand. There was no shame in a mere mortal being shown up by a legend.  As he glanced back toward the pitcher, Paige was looking back at him and still grinning widely. Was he just proud of his strikeout, or did he secretly know that he had changed a young man’s life by infusing him with an indelible memory that would last a lifetime? Or, did he somehow know that it would influence that man’s son, who would write about this moment over 80 years later?

Later Dad confessed that TECHNICALLY he really didn’t bat against Satchel Paige, citing that the bat never left his shoulder. But he really did face him and stood in the batters box and watched him. And since later on I found that Dad was good about picking out baseball talent, I believed his story. Recently, I did some digging through history to find out more about this legend of my Dad’s youth.

Leroy “Satchel” Paige of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues

Leroy “Satchel” Paige was born in 1906, making him 12 years older than Dad. Oh, and did I mention that his birthday was July 7, just like Dad’s? This had to be more than a mere coincidence. Paige started his career with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts, but was more famous for wearing the jersey of the Kansas City Monarchs.   Some first-hand account stories about him mention that he sometimes told all of his infielders to sit down during an inning, where he then proceeded to strike out the side in order.  Unlike modern day pitchers who only pitch every fourth day, Paige pitched every day.  His longevity and stamina were amazing.  Most pitchers are done by age thirty-five, but Paige pitched regularly until he was almost fifty years old, and part-time until he was almost 60! Once Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in MLB, Paige became the oldest rookie ever, when the Cleveland Indians signed him at age 42.  He signed a one game contract with the Kansas City Athletics in 1965 and pitched three scoreless innings at the ripe old age of 59.   His biography,  a book titled “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever”, was published in 1975.  Much of his story recounts the poverty of his early days and the racial discrimination that he faced. He stated, “The only change is that baseball has turned me from a second-class citizen to a second-class immortal.” Sad that he felt that way, but true, especially during the racial attitudes of that time. He was born in Mobile, AL and lived through the Jim Crow era. But through all of it, he was also known for his humorous outlook on life and was the author of many other famous quotes. One of my favorites is “Just take the ball and throw it where you want to. Throw Strikes. Home plate don’t move.” Another one was, “Age is just a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.”

The Negro League Baseball Museum is located in Kansas City, Missouri. It is the equivalent of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. You could go there and learn about Satchel Paige and all of the other stars you might not have heard of; Josh Gibson, Norman “Turkey” Stearns, J.L. Wilkerson, Hilton Smith, and Buck O’Neil to name a few. Any time you are in that part of the country, you should go see it. I just found out that a dear friend of mine from my high school era in New Jersey just retired and moved to KC to be closer to her daughter. Besides going to see the Royals play in their home park at Truman Sports Complex, I’ll have two more reasons to visit KC now.

Fast forward to the year 2020. We are in another pandemic. That pandemic has exposed the fault lines of racial inequality in our society. People of color experience a disproportionate percentage of cases of Covid-19 and they suffer the highest mortality rates. Economic inequality forces overcrowding of living quarters. Many of these people are poorly paid workers performing the needed services that society needs, so they don’t have the luxury of working from a computer at home. There is a large health disparity gap in our country which highly correlates with demographic type. Add to that the recent killings by police of African Americans such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rashard Brooks, and Ahmaud Arbery. These are just the most recent tragedies. Add that to the long history of oppression and you have masses protesting in the streets for justice. It doesn’t seem like we’ve come that far since Satchel’s time.

The pandemic has been a catalyst to expose the inequalities in the U.S. and allowed outrage to be felt by more than just communities of color. BLM marches now include lots of Caucasians. White people are beginning to wake up and see things as they are and not just how they imagine them to be. Things just might be beginning to change.

This past July 7th got me to look through old pictures, documents and some of Dad’s belongings he left to me. Reminiscing about our experiences led me to do more research and find another connection to Satchel Paige and connect the past with the present. Since July 7th, just a few days ago, the Washington Redskins Football team finally acquiesced to a name change. Even if it was not out of the goodness of their heart, but owed to caving to political and economic pressure, it is still a change in the right direction. We still have a long way to go, but even in the darkness that we are experiencing in 2020, I have some hope that we may still work toward a more perfect union. 2020 is also the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Negro Leagues in Baseball. We need to remember our history, both good and bad, so that we can move forward.

I’m really looking forward to July 2021. Hopefully, we’ll have a vaccine by then and can get back to some sense of normalcy. I’d certainly like to see baseball again. On the fourth, I will celebrate INTERDEPENDENCE DAY, realizing that we all need one another. And, on the 7th I will wish Mike McCann and Satchel Paige happy birthdays. And I will remember ….and compare if there are any small changes, and hope that we’ve moved the needle a bit forward toward a better society.

Shalom…..

4 thoughts on “Pandemics, Baseball, dealing with racism, and July the 7th

  1. Thanks Mick. Details about Dad I never knew! (But then I was “the daughter”d and never took a liking to baseball.)

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  2. I really enjoyed meeting your Dad and never knew your love of baseball came so strongly from him. I also list a great grandmother to the Spanish Flu. That bit of history is much more poignant now.

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  3. Fabulous story and info Mick. While in KC in went to the Negro Leagues Museum. Fabulous. Thanks for sharing the story of your father facing Satchel Paige. Freakin’ cool.

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