THE GHOSTS OF APRIL PAST
By John B Holway
Tuesday, April 10, 1945. I was 15 as I took a seat in the front of the segregated Virginia bus to the terminal at 12th and Pennsylvania in Washington. There I switched to the integrated Washington trolley, which turned left on 9th Street and let me off at Georgia and Florida, a block from Griffith Stadium, where the Howard University hospital now stands.
Looking back 60 years, I now realize that the trip was a metaphor and that baseball was about to take the same symbolic journey from segregation to integration - and would do it far faster than anyone then dreamed. I was about to see one of the final dramas of the old blackball era, which had lasted almost 60 years, since Cap Anson had uttered his now historic, "Get that nigger off the field" in 1887. It would end with stunning suddenness in barely six months,
We alighted to the aroma of fresh-baked bread from the Wonder bakery across the street - no one ever writes about that in nostalgia pieces. I stood in line for a ticket to see one of the classic duels of baseball history -- Satchel Paige, maybe the greatest pitcher of his era, against Washington's Josh Gibson, by far the greatest slugger. There aren't many people alive today who can say he saw those two titans match up (and even less who saw them plus Sadaharu Oh).
A throng was swarming to the ticket windows. About 30,000 people, the biggest crowd I ever saw in the old park, filled every seat. I was one of about four or five pink faces in the stands.
I remember joining a crush of other kids at the railing beside the third base dugout to watch Satch warm up, using a windmill windup like Dizzy Dean or the movie comic, Joe E Brown; nobody uses it any more. Across the field, Gibson was warming up his own pitcher. I recall him throwing his head back and laughing at something that had struck his funny bone, kind of a merry black Santa without the beard.
The only other player I had heard of was Buck Leonard, the Homestead Grays' first baseman, who was sort of the Gehrig to Gibson's Ruth, or the Maris to his Mantle.
Three years earlier, in 1942, Josh and Buck had shifted weight uneasily in the office of Clark Griffith, the Senators' owner. "The papers want me to get you boys on the Senators," he said. "But if I do, it will break up your league."
"We don't know about that," they shrugged, "but we think we can make the team." Of course, nothing came of it. If Griff had signed them up, the Senators might never have left Washington.
In those days, if my memory is right, the pavilion be-- St Louis was the only other segregated park in the major leagues. But this night anybody could sit anywhere. I think my general admission ticket cost $1.10.
The only other things I remember are that Satchel pitched three innings to draw a crowd, Josh didn't hit a homer, and Satch's Kansas City Monarchs won 2-1. The box score was never published in either the black or white papers, which was unusual, perhaps because this was a spring training game.
Did Cool Papa Bell cavort in centerfield for the Grays? Did future Hall of Famer Hilton Smith relieve Satchel on the mound, as he usually did? I don't know.
A Monarch rookie, former UCLA football player named Jackie Robinson, trotted out to shortstop, but if the public address announced his name, it didn't mean anything to me - I wasn't a football fan. I know now that Jack joined the team in the South that March and played his way north with them. "By the time we got up north," his manager, Frank Duncan, told me, "the scouts were all over him." Box scores of games in Baltimore and Philadelphia that same week show him playing there, so I assume I saw him in Washington without even knowing I was seeing him.
Jackie was always pestering his teammates with talk about the major leagues. He had had a tryout with the White Sox and was above to get another with the Red Sox, who shook his hand and promised to get in touch if they ever needed him. Apparently, they never needed him.
Cool Papa, meanwhile, took Jack aside and showed him how to slide and spring back on his feet, ready to take another base. He also told Jack he didn't have the range or the arm for shortstop and he'd better switch to second if he wanted to make the majors.
The whole world was exploding, but nobody, including the 30,000 people in Griffith Stadium that night, suspected it.
Two days later I was mowing a neighbor's lawn when a passerby asked if I'd heard the news. I shrugged. "President Roosevelt just died," he said. FDR had been elected when I was two years old; I had never known another president but him, just as I could not recall another heavyweight champ but Joe Louis. Two days later I stood on a hill in Virginia and watched the presidential funeral in the distance.
Ten days after that, baseball announced the name of its new commissioner, a southerner, Senator A.B. "Happy" Chandler of Kentucky.
"I rushed down to his office at the Capitol," sports writer Eric (Ric) Roberts of the black Pittsburgh Courier, would tell me many years later. "Senator," he asked, "would you approve of letting Negroes into the major leagues?"
"Hell, yes," replied Happy, who had just returned from a fact-finding trip to the South Pacific. "If a colored boy can make it on Guadalcanal, he can make it in baseball."
"That was all I needed," Ric said. "The Courier headlined it!" That was the green light Branch Rickey needed.
Hitler's Germany fell about two weeks after that. Hiroshima and Nagasaki followed in August. The Senators almost won the AL pennant, with a little help from Bert Sheppard, an ex-fighter pitching on a wooden leg.
I saw the St Louis Browns' one-armed Pete Gray, who effortlessly caught the ball, tossed it up, dropped his glove, and threw with one easy motion. Sniffed Kansas City pitcher Chet Brewer: "The only thing a one-armed white man can do better than a two-armed black man is scratch the side that itches."
By October the word was out - Robinson had signed with the Dodgers.
A year later, in April 1946, Robinson was playing with the Dodgers' farm team in Montreal, and the posters on phone poles around Washington were advertising the visit of the Monarchs again: "See the new players who will follow Jackie," they said.
I was in the upper stands on a warm Sunday afternoon. This time Paige didn't play. Nor did the dying Gibson, 34, with only a few more months left to live. I watched Leonard hit a ball against the high scoreboard, just about the same spot where Charlie Keller of the Yankees had hit one a few days earlier. "Too bad they don't play in the same league," I mused, "so we could really compare them."
In a few days the Senators would open the American League season, and my boy, Ted Williams, would come back and wallop a homer into the most distant corner of the centerfield bleachers.
The world was rushing into the future with the speed of the new jet planes.
But in a sense the future had already begun a year earlier on that April evening in 1945, when I had boarded the segregated bus to make the symbolic journey to where the hospital now stands.
If you drive slowly along Georgia Avenue, you can still see the ghosts warming up in front of the dugouts and smell the aroma of fresh-baked bread.