Three days before Jackie Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in the summer of 1962, Martin Luther King Jr. left the Civil Rights struggle in Albany, Ga. Days before, he had been bailed out of jail by an anonymous person. Dr. King later returned to Albany to be arrested again, but between, he came up to New York to honor his friend at a special Hall of Fame dinner put on by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
"Jackie Robinson incessantly raises questions to sear America's consciousness," Dr. King said then. "There are those, black and white, who have challenged the right of Jackie Robinson to ask those questions. He has the right. He has the right because he is a citizen.
"He has the right -- more rightly -- because back in the days when integration wasn't as fashionable, he underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of freedom. He was a sit-inner before the sit-ins, a freedom rider before the freedom rides."
Dr. King was not an athlete, and he did not have the time nor inclination to become a devoted baseball fan. But he understood the power of the game and what it meant to America. In this way, he believed in baseball.
And in the end, baseball believed in him.
Dr. King was assassinated 50 years ago today, a few days before the 1968 baseball season was to begin. America was torn apart. There were riots across the country. President Lyndon Johnson asked for peace and kindness. Sporting events were canceled everywhere. Baseball was scheduled to begin the season in Washington and Cincinnati on Monday, April 8, four days after the assassination, but those games were quickly pushed back a couple of days.
The funeral was on Tuesday and every team postponed its Tuesday opener … with one exception. And here's the sad irony: That exception was Walter O'Malley's Dodgers, the very franchise that had a little more than two decades earlier signed Jackie Robinson and allowed him to break the color barrier; the most progressive team of the 1940s and '50s.
"Mr. O'Malley is a man with tremendous ability," Robinson told a reporter then, "but also a man with a total lack of knowledge of the frustration of the Negro community. It grieves me that Walter O'Malley did not understand the importance of the thing."
O'Malley's opinion was simple: He said it would be silly to postpone the Phillies-Dodgers game because it was scheduled for late Tuesday night -- 8:05 p.m. Los Angeles time and 11:05 p.m. in Atlanta, long after Dr. King's funeral was held. Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi said that he personally approached two of the more prominent African-American players -- Willie Davis and Jim Gilliam -- and both wanted to play the game.
(This apparently was not true, as later he said both players would be excused from the game). In any case, the decision wasn't as innocent as O'Malley or Bavasi made it out to be: On Sunday, the day President Johnson had declared a national day of mourning, there was only one Major League sporting event played in America: An exhibition game in San Diego between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cleveland Indians (a doubly sad irony since Cleveland was the first American League team to sign a black player, Larry Doby).
"The game is on television," Bavasi said, to explain why the Dodgers insisted on playing the exhibition on a national day of mourning. "And we felt that by playing the exhibition we would keep a lot of people at home and off the streets."
All of this was met with great fury in Philadelphia. In fact, Phillies owner Bob Carpenter was so outraged by the very idea of playing that he immediately announced that his team would not take the field. He challenged Major League Baseball to punish him and his team any way they liked.
"We will not play," Carpenter said.
Carpenter expected the people running baseball to see the light and force the Dodgers to postpone the game, but for two days they tossed and turned. Longtime National League president Warren Giles insisted the matter was out of his hands; it was entirely the Dodgers' decision -- the only thing he could do was fine the Phillies if they refused to play. Baseball Commissioner William D. Eckert seemed even more paralyzed by the whole thing, giving a vague statement expressing sorrow over the death of Dr. King and adding, "even if the game is played -- and I'm not saying it will be played -- it will be after the funeral."
This back-and-forth went on for two days; Carpenter later said he could not understand why the powers that be refused to see how embarrassing the headlines were. Eventually, the Dodgers relented, agreeing to open their season with everyone else on Wednesday, but not before the damage was done.
"It angers me that a team which pioneered the advent of the Negro into baseball would take such a stand," Philadelphia All-Star first baseman Bill White said.
Two years after Dr. King's death, an All-Star Game was held in his honor. They called it the East-West Major League Baseball Classic -- an homage to the old East-West All-Star Games held in the Negro Leagues -- and more than 30,000 fans attended. It was an amazing celebration. Joe DiMaggio managed the East; Roy Campanella managed the West.
Emmett Ashford, the first African-American umpire in baseball, worked behind the plate.
Coretta Scott King, MLK's widow, threw out the first pitch.
The game featured 15 Hall of Famers, including Tom Seaver, who started for the East and was relieved by Bob Gibson. Ernie Banks played shortstop for the first time in a decade and said he felt great.
"I'm ready play another game, aren't you?" he said when it was over.
Reggie Jackson was just 23 years old and not yet an established star; he hit behind Hank Aaron and said the game made him feel humble -- and there wasn't much that could humble Jackson. Pete Rose talked about the joy of playing for something more than just baseball. Roberto Clemente "doubled" on a ground ball that went through Maury Wills' legs. Willie Mays pinch-hit. Satchel Paige was one of the coaches.
And standing on the sidelines, out of uniform, was Jackie Robinson.
"This man who was buried behind mules will have a chariot, a glow through history that will outshine any Caesar's past or present," the sportswriter Jim Murray wrote of Dr. King that day. "His legacy was brother, his crusades for the poor, his parades for garbage collectors. … They're playing a baseball game in his honor and to carry out his work."
Yes, it was quite a celebration for a man who always understood the power of baseball. You want the final irony? The game was played at Walter O'Malley's Dodger Stadium.