- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Baseball is the sport of the ‘60s in the black community today, which is to say it exists along the level of soccer and hockey, distant from the whirl of everyday interests.

The cultural shift is dramatic and symptomatic of a game that has lost its way in part, given the high number of significant faces who once presided over the game. Bob Gibson, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Ernie Banks, Willie Stargell, Dick Allen, Bill White, Maury Wills, Curt Flood, Lou Brock, Hank Aaron, John Roseboro, Paul Blair, Roy White and so on.

Where have you gone, Jackie Robinson? A game turns its increasingly marginalized eyes to you. The black community, of course, long ago turned its attention to basketball and football, to Kobe Bryant and Donovan McNabb, to a plethora of celebrity stars in those two endeavors. Baseball has whom? Barry Bonds. Please. An aging Frank Thomas, Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr.

The latter are hardly a who’s who of baseball, just one-time second-tier names looking to make a graceful exit from the game. There is no one in their stead, at least no one of potentially compelling substance who readily comes to mind. In about two generations, baseball has lost touch with a significant pool of talent and its cultural touchstone.

Baseball telephones America’s black community these days and is lucky if someone picks up to say, “Not interested.” The transcendent black athletes of the ‘60s were mostly ballplayers, aside from Jim Brown in football, Wilt Chamberlain in basketball and a boxer by the name of Muhammad Ali.

Baseball, though, provided a unique platform, and so many black players stepped out from their uniforms and spoke out on sensitive topics. Baseball was the national pastime in America then, its principals accorded a certain power unavailable today.

Gibson, to name one, was a hard-throwing right-hander with the Cardinals who routinely brushed back hitters with the high, hard stuff. He also was an introspective person who was conflicted by his fame and responsibility to the black community. “Even though I am outspoken about race, I still feel no obligation to black people or to kids or anyone else,” he told the Washington Daily News in 1969. “But it’s funny. I bought a house in a previously all-white neighborhood in Omaha [Neb.], and some blacks even criticized me for that.”

Gibson, in the same interview, also said, “I do think it’s good for kids to have idols, someone to look up to, someone who has achieved a goal. I didn’t have someone who represented a goal. “I waited until Jackie Robinson got into baseball. All blacks had in those days was Stepin Fetchit, the movie clown. And I remember he embarrassed me, sitting right there in the theater, because he was making a fool of himself and others were making a fool of him. Our futures looked dim. So we’d say, ‘Well, let’s go out and rob a bank.’ “Now I’m a hero of sorts. But the day will come when people turn away from me. They’ll grab onto someone else. That’s the way people are. I won’t be disappointed or bitter. Maybe I’ll even be a little relieved.”

This was incendiary material, a reflection of the times, and it was delivered to the masses through the highly relevant conduit of baseball. This was the game that punched the racial buttons of the day, pushed for change, the significance of those times almost removed from the memory bank of a society that now thinks and lives in terms of the 24/7 news cycle.

Consider that Bobby Mitchell finally broke the color barrier of the Redskins in 1962, just two years before the Gibson-led Cardinals won the World Series. That is where baseball was in the black community, close to the heart and civil rights struggle. Now baseball is left to connect anew with the black community on the grass roots level.

The connection cannot be what it once was, because baseball is not what it once was in America. The pursuit, however important to the long-term health of the game, is fraught with the shared victories of yesteryear and an era in baseball that no longer can be duplicated.

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