February 26, 2020

Marking the Spot — Thoughts on Baseball and Black History

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.

Hidden History

Flash forward to the impressive two-page photo spread of Busch Stadium in the February 16, 2020 New York Times magazine. As a longtime St. Louis fan, my first thought is upbeat: spring training’s underway, a new season’s approaching, and I’m smiling to see the team emblem at the center of the image, two red birds perched atop the inevitable Budweiser sign. All good, yay, hurrah, ring the bells, but how come the birds facing one another over the big cursive scrawl of the Busch brand look as black as ravens silhouetted against the pale sky? Maybe I’m reading too much Poe into the poetry of that familiar feel-good logo, surely it’s only because the photograph was taken in overcast weather, surely that and nothing more. Now I’m noticing the way the panoramic view is starkly bookended by two gloomy black arc light towers; in the background are the left field bleachers, row upon row of empty cardinal-red seats. As my gaze moves over a stadium exterior plastered with advertisements in which the 11-Time World Champions marker is buried between ads for Tums and Nathan’s Famous, I finally see the discreet caption at the left-hand bottom of the page:   

Corner of Broadway and Clark, St. Louis, Mo. (unmarked) On this site were the slave pens of Bernard Lynch, who ran one of the largest slave markets in St. Louis. What remained of the pens was demolished in 1963 to make way for Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals.”

Did They Know?

1963! — a year later the Cardinals would win the World Series for the first time since 1946, led by African Americans Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Bill White, and Curt Flood. Did the builders of Busch Stadium know the history of the chosen site? Did the players? Did anyone know of the slave pens constructed like prison cells, the rooms bolted and locked, bars on the windows? Did they know that one of Lynch’s pens contained only children? And did they know, and would it matter, that during the Civil War, the pens were closed until Union soldiers used them to incarcerate Confederate sympathizers?

Part of the Times’ 1619 Project commemorating the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery, the photo spread is credited to Dannielle Bowman with text by Anne C. Bailey. The preface describes the “auction block” as “one of the greatest depredations” in slavery’s “horrific history,” noting that “a majority of these sites are unmarked, unnoticed and forgotten” — which explains the parenthetical word unmarked in the caption. Imagine such a marker fronting Busch Stadium in the post-Ferguson October of 2014 — or in post-Charlottesville 2017.

Marking Every Day

Black history, American history, baseball history, the National Pastime, all are converging toward the close of the month marked to acknowledge, according to Wikipedia, “important people and events in the history of the African diaspora.” Throughout February and as far back as last summer, I’ve been keeping company with the music of Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker, and Wardell Gray without reference to the ceremonial occasion. For that matter, every year, every month, every day is marked by recognition and appreciation of musicians, poets, writers, civic leaders who happen to be black, and with baseball coming, heroes like Bob Gibson, who can be seen pitching to Mickey Mantle in the 1964 World Series as pictured in Will Hillenbrand’s cover art for October 1964.   

There’s good material for a marker in the October 11, 2014 article on www.theguardian.com by St. Louis writer Larry Borowsky stating that Gibson’s battery mate and lifelong friend Tim McCarver, “a son of the Jim Crow South, had never met self-assured black men like the ones he encountered on the St Louis roster in the early 1960s. Here was Gibson, one of the most forceful competitors of his era; Bill White, later the first African American league president in major sports; and the fearless Curt Flood, whose campaign against MLB’s reserve clause would eventually liberate professional athletes in all sports from (to borrow Flood’s phrase) ‘well-paid slavery.’ ”

A Year Ago

A year ago, writing about David Blight’s bicentennial biography Frederick Douglass:Prophet of Freedom (Simon and Schuster), I explained my reason for quoting in full an extremely long passage from Douglass’s Narrative. Blight had condensed the “psalmlike prayer of deliverance” that renders “in the music of words the meaning of slavery’s potential to destroy the human spirit.” According to Blight, the prayer ends in language “reminscent of slave spirituals,” making it possible for “today’s readers” to “stand with Douglass in the dark night of his soul.” What I heard in the jagged, improvisational phrasing and embattled ferocity, at once soaring and sinking, had more in common with jazz than spirituals. I compared the condensing of such an impassioned flight, however discreetly, to the idea of a jazz historian framing a Charlie Parker solo as a tribute to the “human spirit.” Or a baseball historian expanding on metaphors of freedom to caption a photograph of Jackie Robinson stealing home.

That said, 2020 marks the centenary of Charlie Parker, as 2019 did the 100th birthdays of Nat Cole and Jackie Robinson. I wonder if there are markers solid enough to withstand the disinformationally distorted storms of the 21st century? What I’ve come to realize is that the columns I’ve been writing since the 2016 election, and before, are like  glorified markers of my own, such as the passage I just found in Thoreau’s Walden, a little touch of Henry for the American night: “In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds.”