A few days later at my conference, I attended an event at the Gem Theater. The Gem Theater, or Star Theater as it was originally called, was once a meeting place for the African American community, and a place where jazz musicians, such as Charlie Parker, could practice their art without the prejudice that they encountered in some southern states and even in other parts of Missouri.
During the presentation at The Gem, Kansas City Star and Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski gave a short speech about the Negro League baseball great Buck O'Neil. Posnanski wrote a book about O'Neil that was published in 2007, and he told the audience quips about O'Neil's amazing life. Posnanski spent a year with O'Neil chronicling the more than 200 events O'Neil attended nationwide when O'Neil was at the spry age of 93. Unfortunately O'Neil passed away in October 2006 before the book was published. One story that Posnanski told really struck me. You can read the entire article on the Sports Illustrated website, but here is the part that got me:
He [O'Neil] could not get enough. He spoke in classrooms and chatted with people at ballgames and went up to complete strangers in restaurants and at airports, and he believed in this America. It isn't perfect, of course, nothing close to perfect, and there's always a lot to do. Buck said that plenty. But, more, much more, he said: "Look how far we've come. Look how much we've grown. Look how much closer we are."And I got a huge lump in my throat.
"How old are you?" he asked me once along the road. I told him.
"Just think," he said. "You will live long enough to see a black president."
It wasn't until this moment that I truly understood the magnitude of this election. Only a decade before I was born in 1972, black American citizens were still fighting corrupt election officials for the right to vote in some southern states. When Barack Obama was a baby, students with his skin color were suing to be able to study at some universities. Obama was almost two years old when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream Speech" in Washington DC. And today, the Unites States inaugurated him as its first African American president.
Later that evening after Posnanski's speech I toured the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. What a cool experience. If you are in Kansas City and you are a baseball fan, I highly recommend this museum. One thing that really struck me at the museum was a photo of the 1904 Ohio Wesleyan University baseball team. The photo that I am posting here from the Ohio Wesleyan archives doesn't do the original photo justice. When you look at this photo you see the faces of young men in the prime of their lives, not unlike any other college sports team photo that you would see in 2008.
On the far right of the photo is student manager Branch Rickey, and in the back row, center is catcher Charles "Tommy" Thomas. Rickey was tormented by the many racial slurs that Thomas endured in his two seasons playing for Rickey at OWU. During one game at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, 21-year-old Rickey threatened to forfeit the game unless the other team stopped shouting slurs at Thomas. A similar incident occurred at the University of West Virginia where Thomas was the first black player to use the school's baseball diamond.
In 1903 the team traveled to South Bend, Indiana, to play Notre Dame, but the hotel would not let Thomas stay with the rest of the team. Rickey convinced the hotel manager to let Thomas sleep on a cot in his room, but later found Thomas crying, lamenting the color of his skin. Branch Rickey would later become the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and in 1947, signed Jackie Robinson as the first African American major league baseball player. Charles Thomas went on to dental school and ran a very successful dental practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Last year singer-songwriters and baseball fanatics Steve Wynn (founder of Dream Syndicate) and Scott McCaughey (formerly of Young Fresh Fellows) put together The Baseball Project, a collection of songs about the national pastime. Here are two of their tunes, one about the Negro League and Major League pitcher Satchel Paige, and another about Jackie Robinson.
Buy: Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails (2008)
Also Buy: Joe Posnanski - The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America (2007)
Other source used for this post: Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman, by Lee Lowenfish (2007)