August 2013

Civil Rights weekend roundup: on the issues, the progress and the work still to be done.

Emptying the notebook after a fantastic Civil Rights weekend in Chicago, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington…

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Is college baseball hurting the Major Leagues?

The Civil Rights roundtable discussion last Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center touched on several talking points, one being that the lack of African-American ballplayers in the Major Leagues can be attributed partly to the lack of substantial baseball scholarships offered at the collegiate level. Most baseball programs don’t offer full rides, opting instead to utilize partial scholarships that not only don’t fully cover tuition, but don’t provide enough for books, room and board, etc.

This deters a large population of the young athletes who can’t otherwise afford it from pursuing baseball. They go the football/basketball route, where scholarship money is more plentiful.

“It sets the African-American baseball player back 15 years,” said MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds, who moderated the roundtable discussion. “These days a lot of teams like to draft college players and not high school players, and you just cut the legs off of African-American players.”

The notion that baseball has become too expensive would have been laughed at one or two generations ago. But not anymore. The intensity level of competition seems to have increased over the years, with select and traveling teams often the only way for a kid to participate in competitive organized baseball. This costs money. And subsequently, it eliminates a huge number of kids from being able to pursue baseball in earnest.

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Hank Aaron and Harold Reynolds at the roundtable discussion at the Chicago Cultural Center.

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Longtime sports columnist Michael Wilbon, a veteran newspaper man perhaps best known for his work as half of the duo on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” was the keynote speaker at the Beacon Awards Luncheon honoring Bo Jackson and Aretha Franklin on Saturday. A native Chicagoan, Wilbon spoke passionately about his love for baseball as a kid growing up on the south side. Apparently, he could play a little, too.

“I thought I was unhittable,” he said. “Until this tank of a kid — five-foot-six, 200 pounds…he crushed a pitch that I threw about 370 feet.” Wilbon asked a teammate after the game who that kid was.

“Somebody said, ‘You don’t know who that is?'” Wilbon recalled. “‘It’s Puckett. Kirby Puckett.’

Wilbon laughed as he remembered responding, ‘OK. Let’s keep track of him.”

Fast forward 10 years. Wilbon was now a sports reporter for the Washington Post and, upon walking into the Minnesota Twins clubhouse, Puckett approached him.

“He said, ‘Don’t I know you? You look familiar,'” Wilbon recalled. “I said ‘Nah. It’s got to be someone else. We’ve never seen each other.”

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Wilbon was a White Sox fan, but later rooted for the Cubs as well, despite a disturbing incident his father encountered many years earlier at Wrigley Field. An avid Cubs fan at the time, Wilbon’s dad attempted to buy a ticket to watch Jackie Robinson’s first game at Wrigley, but he was, according to Wilbon, “shooed away from the box office.”

Apparently, the racism Robinson experienced as the first black player in the big leagues extended to the grandstands as well.

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Hank Aaron, as has been well-documented, had to deal with unspeakable racism during his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record. He heard the taunts from the stands and received terrible, threatening, hateful letters from the lowest of the low, many of which included death threats that promised not only to affect him, but his family, too.

Yet to hear Aaron talk about it today, he feels anything he had to endure was nothing compared to what Robinson had to deal with when he broke the color barrier in 1947.

“Listen, I just went through a little tidbit of what Jackie went through…I had nothing,” Aaron said before the Beacon Awards luncheon. “All I had to do was walk out there and hit a baseball, go back in somewhere and hide and go back out the next day and hit another baseball. Jackie had some tough times. I happened to play against him the last two or three years that he played. He probably had the toughest of all.”

On a lighter note, Aaron asked by a local reporter to conjure up any fond memories of his time playing at Chicago-based Wrigley Field, remembered one particular game that left him, at the time, speechless.

“The thing I remember most about playing at Wrigley Field was hitting probably the hardest ball I ever hit in my life off Kenny Holtzman when he pitched a no-hitter,” Aaron said. “I thought for sure I hit a home run, and the wind blew it right back.

Aaron felt like it could have cleared the bleachers. But, no.

“It was the hardest ball I ever hit,” he said. “I don’t know how it stayed in the ballpark.”

Aaron was also quick to add that he was Holtzman’s final obstacle before nailing down the no-hitter: “He wasn’t afraid to pitch to me. He came right back and got me out for the last out.”

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Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was just entering the big leagues when Jackie Robinson was nearing retirement, and other than the two taking a picture together before a game, they didn’t cross paths as active players.

“My manager took me over and we posed for a picture, but after that, it was business as usual,” Frank Robinson said. “I believed in not fraternizing with the opposition while you’re in uniform.”

That changed once Jackie was finished with his playing career. Frank visited him at his office when Jackie was working for Chock Full O’Nuts.

“I spent a couple of hours with him just talking about baseball, about life, about the game away from the field and what the responsibilities were of me coming in and people of my color coming in at the time,” Robinson said. “Our responsibilities on and off the field. Really, it was the only time I talked to him.”

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Spend five minutes talking with Sharon Robinson, Jackie’s daughter, and it becomes apparent she’s a true slice of living history, with amazingly moving anecdotes about her father.

Jackie was of course well-known for the impact he had on Major League Baseball, but what he did once he retired shouldn’t be overlooked. After retiring in 1957, he really had two full-time jobs: as an executive for Chock Full O’Nuts, and as an advocate for the Civil Rights movement that took up almost as much time.

Jackie had a deal with his boss that he would be allowed to take off work to fulfill commitments all over the country as a Civil Rights Movement spokesman. In his free time, he and his family hosted jazz concerts at their home to raise money for various organizations as well as for families of victims of hate crimes.

The first guest? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., not long after he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.

“It was an unbelievable moment in our lives to see him at the March on Washington and then to see him up close and personal and see he was a warm and engaging person,” Sharon remembered.

Jackie Robinson died before a Major League Baseball team hired its first black manager, but he spent the final years of his life tirelessly pressing the league to break down that barrier, as well. His last statement to baseball was, according to Sharon, “I’m glad we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary [of his debut]. We might have broken this color barrier but still, I’m looking out there and there are no black managers.”

“He was still egging them on at the last moment,” Sharon said. “That baseball has to continue to change. That America has to continue to change.”

Follow Alyson Footer on Twitter

“Let Them Wear Towels” exposes bad behavior, terrible treatment and progress.

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A reporter’s job: keep eyes open, recorder running and don’t miss a morsel of what’s unfolding in front of you. To do this, it’s helpful to actually be there.

It was 2004. The Astros were in Atlanta. And they were celebrating.

That last part alone was remarkable. For years, there were very few reasons for the Astros to be celebrating in Atlanta. Whether it was the regular season, or, more significantly, the postseason, the only thing that happened to the Astros in Atlanta of any import was their ability to quietly pack up their belongings and get the heck out of town as quickly as possible.

The Astros never won in Atlanta. Even in their best seasons, they’d go there and get thumped, two, sometimes, three games. And the playoffs? Bah. Pick a year: 1997, 1999, 2001. Different seasons, same results. The Astros were, simply, the Braves’ personal punching bag.

That is, until 2004. The scene in the clubhouse was chaotic. The Astros finally did it — they beat the Braves in the Division Series, and they spent the next hour or so destroying the carpet in the visiting clubhouse with several dozen cases of bubbly. This was a big one. This wasn’t merely the first time the Astros won a postseason series against the Braves. This was the first time they won a postseason series, ever. Seven tries over 40 years and not a single time did they advance beyond the first round. Until now.

Amid the hugs and laughing and champagne chugging, there were so many other things going on in that clubhouse at Turner Field. Older players spoke sadly and solemnly about their friend, Ken Caminiti, who had died just days earlier. Longtime Brave John Smoltz, part of all of those prior teams that beat the Astros, snuck into a backroom adjacent to the visitors’ clubhouse to personally congratulate Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio and wish them luck in the next round. General manager Gerry Hunsicker, normally buttoned up, stoic and very GM-like, laughed joyously, champagne-soaked hair wildly shooting off in every direction, recalling his thoughts even with the Astros up by seven or eight runs late in the game: “Oh boy. Here comes (Mike) Gallo. This thing isn’t over yet.”

If this was the scene in, say, 1984 and not 2004, the situation would have been different. Oh, sure, the carpet would have still been destroyed. And players would still be loud and laughing. And the GM would still look like a crazy mad scientist. And classy players from the losing team would still be gracious in defeat.

It would have been different, however, in that the only reporters documenting all of this would have been men. Me? I would have been standing outside of the clubhouse, alone, missing everything, and hoping someone would be nice enough to come outside and tell me about it.

I thought about this, and the dozens of other poignant moments that I would have missed during my years covering the Astros for MLB.com, as I watched the documentary “Let Them Wear Towels” on ESPN Classic. This hour-long special, chronicling the treatment women sports reporters received decades ago, both enraged and enlightened me. Previously, I felt like I had a pretty good grasp of how things were handled back then. After watching this show, I realize I had absolutely no idea how bad it really was.

It’s impossible to truly comprehend how horribly women were treated back then, mainly because it seems so preposterous in modern times. If you walk into a Major League clubhouse today, you may not find the same number of women reporters as men, but the ratio is closer than ever. And there are probably athletes who still don’t like women in locker rooms, but for the most part, it’s a teeny tiny minority. It’s not unnatural or weird or a spectacle for a woman to be in a locker room. It’s simply a normal workday.

This would be in stark contrast to women being harassed, screamed at and physically thrown out of clubhouses, which apparently was standard practice in the 1970s and ’80s. As I watched “Let Them Wear Towels,” I found myself gasping with disbelief, just stunned, with what women had to deal with back then. It just infuriated me. One account actually moved me to tears.

I tried to imagine what it would be like today, to go through what our predecessors endured. And I can’t. It just makes no sense. Standing alone in a hallway, barricaded from a place I had every right to be? Shunned by not only the athletes, but also the public relations directors and fellow reporters, most of who refused to help? Having absolutely no control over anything, including the crappy copy I was about to file to my editor because I had no quotes? And not losing my mind — or worse, my temper — throughout?

I’d like to think I would have pushed forward and fought for what was right. Would I have stood my ground? Probably. Would I have done it with as much restraint, class and dignity as the women featured in “Let Them Wear Towels” did? Well…

As I watched, I tried to put myself into a 1980s setting where women in locker rooms were treated like human feces. Then I thought, why not do the reverse — put the actions of yesteryear in the context of today?

Below is what may have taken place if a female sportswriter in the 1970s or ’80s was live tweeting her experiences, in real time. Most of this is based on exactly what was relayed to us by the brave, strong women featured in “Let Them Wear Towels.”

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Couple of notes:

* Kingman most definitely dumped water over a reporter’s head, but there was no limping on his part later. I added that as a way of relaying how the situation may have been handled differently in, say, 2013, if it had happened to not @alysonfmlb but to @alysonfooter on a day that she may or may not have been moved to use her knee as a weapon of mass destruction.

* The kindness Garvey showed to Claire Smith of the New York Times brought tears to my eyes. It was such a small gesture, but looking back, it probably was a main turning point in the lifting of this outrageous ban on women in clubhouses. And Garvey acted as he did because he knew it was the right thing to do. Simple enough, no? You’d think.

* There is much more to the documentary, including the account of a landmark lawsuit filed by Sports Illustrated against Major League Baseball on behalf of then-26-year-old reporter Melissa Ludtke to grant women access into locker rooms. And then there’s the unspeakable treatment of Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson by the New England Patriots, the aftermath of which was so unbearable that Olson ended up moving to Australia for a spell to get out of the public spotlight.

To say we’ve come a long way would be laughably understated. Not only is the behavior that was so rampant in a generation ago looked down upon today, almost all of it is also illegal.

Progress can’t be made without our predecessors fighting for change. It’s just unfortunate so many had to suffer that much in order to move things forward.

Follow Alyson Footer on Twitter

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