1940s: Breaking Barriers in the Baseball World

Russell Yoon, Guest Writer

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“You don’t belong here!”

“Go play baseball with your black friends!”

I didn’t know how to react. I wanted to throw my bat at them, but I remembered the words of Manager Frank, “If you’re going to play in the big leagues for me, I want to know if you can ignore the haters and just play your game.”

***

Life in the suburbs of Louisiana was hard in the 1930s, especially for a black person like me. We lived in the city of Mandeville, and my single mother worked in a shoe factory in New Orleans. The factory was an hour away and every single day she had to take the bus to her job, which only paid $1.25 an hour. In order to help my mom feed me and my two younger siblings, I dropped out of elementary school at the age of eleven and worked in cotton fields with other boys my age. The work was gruesome. While working eight hours a day, seven days out of the week, I still made time for baseball. Before my father died, he taught me how to throw and hit a baseball. We played together every day from 5:00 PM until the sun set. One day, a group of white men called the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) cornered my father into an alley and shot him when he refused to give his money up. Although I was devastated when he died, I did not want to give up baseball, so I joined a team in the local baseball league and continued to practice everyday.

***

Finally, on my 19th birthday, I could play baseball professionally in the Negro Leagues. The St. Louis Stars drafted me in 1943, and I filled the role of playing catcher for three years. On August 23, 1945, we played the Kansas City Monarchs, another team in the Negro Leagues. Their best player, Jackie Robinson, led the league in home runs and steals.

Throughout the game, I observed him closely. Fourth in the lineup (cleanup hitter), he came up to bat in the first inning. After letting two pitches pass by as balls, he swung and connected.

Without any hesitation, he began running. The ball went deep into left field, and Robinson easily got to third base standing up. As the next batter came up to the plate, I signaled to our pitcher to throw the ball a little inside. Then, all of a sudden, something hit me. Or someone.

I looked up at the umpire and he yelled, “Safe!” I then looked over to my left and there he was, brushing dirt off his uniform. I had heard about his infamous base-stealing ability, but I never thought he was that good. He just stole home right in front of my eyes! The rest of the game was a blur; Robinson ended up with 5 RBIs (runs batted in) and 2 more steals, and I actually hit a home run. After the game, I went over to Jackie Robinson with hopes of starting a conversation.

“So you’re the Jackie Robinson everyone’s been talking about. That was a great game! You played really well.”

“Not so bad yourself, Hughes.”

“Thanks. I heard that you will be playing in the major leagues next season… is that true?”

“Yes, it is. The Dodgers have offered me a contract, and I am training with them soon.”

“That’s awesome! I hope to follow in your footsteps one day.”

***

The season had come to an end, and one day, I was taking a bus to visit my mom. The bus was completely empty. What if I just sat in the front since there’s no one here? The back is too bumpy anyways. I slumped down on the front left side of the bus.

As soon as I sat down, the bus driver yelled, “What do you think you’re doing? Go sit in the back now!”

“Sir, I don’t see a problem here. There is no one else in this bus,” I replied.

“I don’t care! Can’t you see the sign? It says ‘WHITES ONLY.’”

“Sir, with all due respect, I will not move from this seat. I don’t believe that it is fair for me and for all black people.”

Without saying another word, the bus driver walks over to the police station right across the street. The police came in less than thirty seconds and arrested me without hesitating. After sitting in the local jail for a couple hours, I was released. I did not know how I was released so easily, but I was not complaining. As I began to walk out, a tall man wearing a Houston Astros cap approached me.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Hughes. I am Dallas Ford, and I am a scout for the Houston Astros. I just got news that you were in a little bit of trouble, so I worked it out with the officers. We have been watching you play for a couple of weeks now, and we are very much interested in having you play for our farm team. After you play on our farm team, there is a possibility of you moving up to the Major Leagues.”

“Uhm… me? Yes, of course, I would love to, but have you thought about how fans and other teams would react?”

“Don’t worry about that, we’ll take care of it. I’ll give you more information when you come in tomorrow to meet Manager Frank.”

***

It had been a year since signing a contract with Houston’s triple-A farm team when Manager Frank called me into his office.

“Nick, I’ve been thinking for a while and I think you’re ready to play in the major leagues. What do you think?”

“Sir, I can’t thank you enough… I definitely think I’m ready!”

“I only expect one thing from you; if you’re going to play in the big leagues for me, I want to know if you can ignore the haters and just play your game.”

“Yes sir, I won’t let you down!

***

It was time for the season opening game, and the bleachers were packed. I was 6th in the lineup and as I stepped up to bat, I was immediately hit with a loud “booooo”. To my despair, I struck out on the first three pitches. Fans yelled nasty remarks at me throughout the whole game, and it was to the point where I wanted to throw my bat at them. To make matters worse, a few of my teammates even laughed along with the crowd. However, I remembered the words of Manager Frank.

I also thought about how much Jackie Robinson went through, being the first black player in the MLB. I shrugged all of the negative comments aside and really tried to just “play my game.” It paid off. My next chance to bat came in the 4th inning, with two men on base. On the very first pitch, I whacked the ball into right field and watched the ball sail over the fence. I later had an RBI triple, and the fans began cheering instead of jeering. My teammates also came over and congratulated me; it was the best day of my life.

I went on to play 9 more seasons with the Houston Astros, and during those 9 years, dozens of black baseball players signed contracts with different MLB teams. I would like to take credit in being one of the first black baseball player in the MLB and paving a path for other blacks, but Jackie Robinson experienced the worst discrimination and endured hardships that myself and no other black person had to experience.

 

 

Bibliography

Diamond, Arthur. The Importance of Jackie Robinson. Lucent Books, Inc., 1992.

History.com Editors. “Ku Klux Klan.” A&E Television Networks, 29 Oct. 2009, https://www.history.com/topics/reconstruction/ku-klux-klan. Accessed 18 Apr. 2019.

History.com Editors. “Negro League Baseball.” A&E Television Networks, 13 Apr. 2017, https://www.history.com/topics/sports/negro-league-baseball. Accessed 18 Apr. 2019.

Nelson, Ken. “Biography: Jackie Robinson.” Ducksters, Technological Solutions, Inc. (TSI), www.ducksters.com/sports/jackie_robinson.php. Accessed 18 April 2019.

Schutz, J. Christopher. Jackie Robinson: An Integrated Life. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

 

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