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Colbert I. King

Race and Baseball in D.C.

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, April 2, 2005; Page A21

Anticipating tomorrow's appearance of the Washington Nationals baseball team at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium after a 34-year absence, The Post ran a story last Sunday on the fading image of the black ballplayer in the African American community. The piece touched all the right bases: the demise of the Negro Leagues, the allure of faster-paced football and basketball, the dearth of admirable black baseball players compared with black talent in the NBA and NFL, and the failure of Major League Baseball to market the game to African Americans.

There was, however, an irony in Sunday's story. Time was Major League Baseball had no black images to fade. I'm referring to the era when putting a black player on the baseball field meant putting an innocent player's life on the line. Now, hold on: This is not a reference to the familiar saga of Jackie Robinson courageously breaking the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

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The story I am about to relate, which I discovered last year while researching another 1954 event, concerns the first attempt by our town's team, the Washington Senators -- known at that time as the Nationals -- to put seven black ballplayers in Washington uniforms during spring training in Winter Garden, Fla. The month was March; I was 15 years old.

The black players belonged to the Nats' farm teams in Charlotte and Chattanooga. In 1953, the black minor league players were transferred to the Washington training camp in Orlando, which didn't strictly ban black and white players from occupying the same field. In 1954, however, the Nats decided to operate combined Chattanooga and Charlotte camps at Winter Garden, where a town ordinance frowned on integrated baseball.

The players had been working out in Winter Garden for about 10 days without any trouble when, on March 17, the chief of police showed up and ordered Joe Engel, president of the Chattanooga farm team, to get the seven black Cuban players "out of town by sundown."

According to a Post story written by legendary columnist Shirley Povich," 'Engel came rushing up to me,' said Nats farm director Ossie Bluege and said, 'We're in trouble. The chief of police is out there on the field and he's just told Zinn Beck [Chattanooga's general manager] to get the Negroes off the field and out of town.' "

The county clerk who had accompanied the police chief to the ballpark explained that they were just trying to avoid trouble. Povich quoted George Barley, chairman of Winter Garden's city commissioners, as saying: "The city has a field for local Negroes. It has just always been that way around here. That's the custom. We don't want any trouble with Negroes, or any other kind of trouble."

And the response of the Washington Nats?

The team was quickly bundled off the practice field and driven to nearby Orlando, where segregation laws were less strictly enforced. Bluege told Povich that he had been hearing rumbles about the town's unhappiness with the presence of blacks in the training camp: "It's been simmering for a few days, but I didn't think it would come to this."

It did, however, and bigotry in Winter Garden carried the day. The Nats didn't return, even after city officials offered to protect the team. Povich quoted a Nats official as saying that "our colored boys were afraid to go back there, and I was getting a little scared myself."

The following year Washington farm teams with black players trained at Key West, Fla., "where town officials aren't bigots" wrote Povich in his Feb. 20, 1955, "This Morning" column.

Major League Baseball and Washington's ballclub, despite a 34-year detour, have come a long way in 50 years. That is worth remembering, and not solely because of the game's troubled racial history. After all, baseball's color barrier, broken by Robinson in 1947, reflected existing racial roadblocks in other aspects of American society.

Robinson -- like many of Washington's baseball players of color in the '50s -- knew he was playing at a time when segregation was lawful in the South, when racial etiquette required pride-swallowing moments and when people off the field who looked like them worked at some of the country's worst jobs. But those players also knew, as Roger Wilkins wrote in his foreword to Rachel Robinson's book "Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait," "what hung in the balance as baseballs hurtled at him at ninety miles per hour was more than his personal success or that of the Dodgers and even more than how eighteen or nineteen million black people would feel as they went to bed that night."

"He had to know that as America tried out new postwar patterns of life, his performance as an athlete and as a man would be a shaping and seminal national experience."

That seminal experience for Washington occurred on Feb. 21, 1953, when owner Clark Griffith broke with precedent, announced he was bringing two black players from Nats farm teams to spring training camp in Orlando and declared to Povich that he intended to keep his promise to Washington's black baseball fans that "I will sign a Negro ball player just as soon as we can find one who can play in the big leagues."

In contrast with Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, Griffith took his own sweet time getting there. And he never came close to matching the efforts of teams such as the Dodgers, New York Giants and Cleveland Indians. Years later Griffith's nephew Calvin, who later blamed D.C.'s majority black residents for not attending the games (according to last Sunday's story), moved the Washington Senators franchise to Minnesota in 1960.

At any rate, here we are: 34 years after Bob Short ran off with the Senators to Texas; 45 years after Calvin Griffith first sold out the nation's capital; and 51 years after the Nats got chased off the field in Winter Garden. Baseball is back in town with a reportedly diversified front office and a black manager. As for me, the old love of the game that sent me trudging off to Griffith Stadium to see the Senators is still lurking deep inside. But are D.C.'s other 325,000 African Americans into baseball?

Addendum

In a July 24, 2004, column ["Sandy Berger: A Case for Accountability"], I noted that Berger walked out of the National Archives with classified material and that he failed to show the papers to archives officials for review before leaving. Berger's attorney said at the time that his client's actions were "inadvertent." A former Clinton administration colleague went so far as to describe Berger as a sympathetic, forgetful, sort of Mr. Magoo figure. The column asked "was Sandy Berger's violation due to negligence -- at best -- or was it deliberate -- at worst? And should he be held accountable for his actions? Or is he too important and well-connected to be treated like everyone else? What's the answer, Washington?"

Since then, several readers have repeatedly inquired about the status of his case. It's in. Yesterday, Berger, former White House national security adviser, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to intentionally removing and destroying classified information belonging to the National Archives -- a misdemeanor but nonetheless a criminal offense.

kingc@washpost.com


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