By Stuart Mitchner
“Where are our black players?” That’s the question August “Gussie” Busch, the beer-baron owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, asked his manager and coaching staff one day in the 1950s, according to David Halberstam’s October 1964 (Ballantine 1995). “How can it be the great American game if blacks can’t play? … Hell, we sell beer to everyone.” Not only was Busch well aware that Budweiser sold more beer to the black community than any other brewery in the country, he’d heard rumors of an integrate-or-else boycott.
At this point I was about to resort to that old crutch, “the rest is history,” except it’s not that simple, it never is. When I first wrote about October 1964 in October 2014, I had no knowledge of the provocative historical evidence that would be revealed to me in February 2020. My focus was on the merging of African American history with baseball history in Halberstam’s account of how the Cardinals eventually “came to deal with race with a degree of maturity and honesty rarely seen in baseball at that time.” By spring training 1964, a racially balanced team was being put together and harmoniously integrated. Busch’s solution to the issue of segregated living facilities, and Florida law, was to have a wealthy friend buy a motel and rent space in an adjoining one, so that the players and their families could stay together. As Halberstam writes, “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.”
Fifty years later in a St. Louis suburb, a white cop shot an unarmed black youth named Michael Brown. Even as the Redbirds were on their way to winning the Central Division, the Michael Brown story dominated the news, the shadow of Ferguson spreading in the direction of Busch Stadium until a group of protestors, most of them African Americans, gathered outside the home of “Cardinal Nation” during the National League Division Series. The result was a shouting match that tainted the racially enlightened narrative of 1964 and the generally accepted notion that St. Louis fans were the most savvy, civil, and respectful in baseball.
Writing six years ago, I wondered how many fans affronted by the intrusion of racial conflict on the hallowed ground of playoff baseball knew that Michael Brown’s family had placed a Cardinals cap on the lid of his coffin. Various news stories pictured people in the Ferguson crowds casually attired in Redbird regalia, and there were undoubtedly fans among the Ferguson cops who showed up at Busch wearing Cardinal jackets and hats, as devoted to the emblem of the two redbirds on the slanted bat as the citizens of Ferguson rallying for justice in the name of Michael Brown. more