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Black, White and the Sterling Grays

Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page B08

I was 15 on April 10, 1945, when I took a seat in the front of a segregated Virginia bus to ride to Washington. At the bus terminal downtown, I then caught an integrated trolley to Griffith Stadium to see a game between the Homestead Grays and the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.

From a viewpoint of 60 years later, I now realize that my trip was a metaphor and that baseball was about to take the same symbolic journey from segregation to integration.

The old blackball era had lasted almost 60 years, since Cap Anson uttered his historic "Get that n----- off the field" in 1887. But that era was to end with stunning suddenness in barely six months.

I alighted to the aroma of fresh-baked bread from the Wonder bakery near the stadium and stood in line for a ticket to see a classic baseball duel -- Satchel Paige, maybe the greatest pitcher of his era, against Washington's Josh Gibson, by far the Grays' greatest slugger. About 30,000 people, the biggest crowd I ever saw in the old park, filled every seat, and hardly any of those fans were white.

I joined a crush of kids at the railing beside the third base dugout to watch Paige warm up, using a windmill windup that nobody uses anymore. Across the field, Gibson was warming up with his own pitcher. He threw his head back and laughed merrily.

The only other player I had heard of was Buck Leonard, the Grays' first baseman, a sort of Lou Gehrig to Gibson's Babe Ruth, a Roger Maris to his Mickey Mantle.

Three years earlier, in 1942, Gibson and Leonard had been called to the office of Clark Griffith, the Washington Senators' owner. "The papers want me to get you boys on the Senators," Griffith told them. Nothing came of it, of course, but if Griffith had signed the two players, the Senators might never have left Washington.

In those days, the pavilion between first base and the right-field wall was the Jim Crow section; 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.

Paige pitched three innings, Gibson didn't hit a homer and the Kansas City Monarchs won 2-1. A Monarch rookie named Jackie Robinson trotted out to shortstop, but if the public address announcer mentioned his name, it didn't mean anything to me. Robinson had had a tryout with the Chicago White Sox and was about to get another with the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox promised to get in touch if the team needed him, but, apparently, it never did. Yet the old world was exploding, although no one, including the people at Griffith Stadium that night, knew it.

A couple of weeks later, baseball announced a new commissioner, Sen. A.B. "Happy" Chandler of Kentucky.

"I rushed down to his office at the Capitol," sportswriter Eric "Ric" Roberts of the black Pittsburgh Courier told me, "to ask him about Negroes playing in the major league."

"If a colored boy can make it on Guadalcanal, he can make it in baseball," the senator said.

"That was all I needed," Roberts said. "The Courier headlined it!"

By October the word was out: Robinson had signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. A year later, in April 1946, he was playing with the Dodgers' farm team in Montreal, and the posters on phone poles around Washington were advertising a visit by the Monarchs again: "See the new players who will follow Jackie," the posters urged.

I was in the upper stands once again on a warm Sunday April afternoon. This time Paige didn't play. Nor did Gibson, who was dying at age 34. I saw Leonard hit a ball against the high scoreboard, at 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 were to open the American League season, and Ted Williams would come back from the Marines 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 begun a year earlier on that April evening in 1945, when I had boarded the segregated bus to make my symbolic journey.

-- John B. Holway


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