As a kid I was a St. Louis Cardinals fan. (Longtime readers of my blogs know this already.) It was natural. My hometown team, the Tulsa Oilers, was the club’s Triple-A farm team, so we regularly saw major leaguers in an Oiler uniform and the Cardinals came to Tulsa to play an exhibition once each season.
My dad also took my brother and me to St. Louis once a year to see the Cardinals play in Busch Stadium. He wasn’t particularly a Cardinals fan. In fact, my devotion was a sharp departure from the team of my parents’ baseball passion – the Dodgers.
It was natural for them. Like almost every Negro (that’s what we were back then) of their generation, they rooted for the team that signed Jackie Robinson, an act of historical significance that still ranks in the discussion with Brown v. Board of Education, the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the election of President Barack Obama.For decades after Robinon’s arrival in Brooklyn, the Dodgers were Negro America’s team. And not just because of Robinson. Owner Walter O’Malley also signed other black stars, including catcher Roy Campanella, who played the coveted “mind” position, the equivalent of the quarterback; and Don Newcombe, who debuted by pitching a 3-0 shutout and in 1956 (the year I was born, by the way) became the first player to win the Cy Young and MVP awards in the same seasons. (Above, Robinson, Newcombe and Campanella with Cleveland’s Larry Doby and Luke Easter) (Little-remembered Dodger Dan Bankhead became the majors’ first black pitcher in August 1947, four months after Robinson’s arrival.)
I don’t remember much about the two Hall of Famers. But I do recall many of the black Dodgers that followed them, particularly Maury Wills, who stole 104 bases in ’62 and was the NL MVP. In the ’60s, the Dodgers also boasted John Roseboro (another catcher) and Tommie Davis, guys who upheld Robinson’s legacy of excellence and class as the organization moved west.
I admired those Dodgers but they were not my team.
The Cardinals were actually only the 10th MLB franchise to sign a black player – first baseman Tom Alston, in 1954. Nothing admirable there.
But by the time I was old enough to root, three black players had become integral to their success – base-stealing outfielder Lou Brock (938 SBs all-time), fellow outfielder Curt Flood (seveT Gold Gloves) and, of course, Bob Gibson, who holds career Cardinals records in any category that matters and is still recognized as one of the most dominant and intimidating pitchers ever.
They were the players who caught a young boy’s eye, a young Negro boy who grew to cheer them as my parents did the Dodgers.
In time, blacks across the nation began rooting for their own teams, too. In cities like Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where black (and early Latino) players began to star.
The decline of black players in the game has been well-chronicled. No surprise: That decline has been mirrored by diminishing interest in baseball among African-American sports fans.
I love Albert Pujols, and Manny Ramirez is always worth watching. But the most prominent black player in this year’s Dodgers-Cardinals series is L.A. second baseman Orlando Hudson, a two-time All-Star with three Gold Gloves. There’s not a singular black star on either team, no one whose popularity transcends geographic boundaries.
As the series begins, I wonder who my kids will root for, who they’ll remember.
Or if they’ll even watch.