Mark Whitaker is the author of “Smoketown: The Unknown Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance.” Previously, he was managing editor of CNN and, before that, editor of Newsweek.
The winter and spring of 1968 and 1969 were bitter seasons in black America. The trauma of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis and the ensuing riots that erupted in cities nationwide had barely subsided. The defiant spirit of Black Power was in the air, symbolized by the black gloved fists of sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the Mexico Olympics that summer. The fall election of President Richard Nixon on a platform of law and order boded more conflict with police and the criminal justice system. Yet against that tense backdrop, an unlikely, uplifting miracle unfolded in the black community of Columbus, Ohio. East High, an all-black school on the city’s East Side, became the first in that sports-crazed state’s history to win the state championships in basketball and baseball in the same year.
Wil Haygood, a Columbus native and former Washington Post correspondent who wrote the article that inspired the movie “The Butler,” brings meticulous reporting and vivid writing to this largely forgotten story in “Tigerland: 1968-1969: A City Divided, a Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of Healing.” (The title comes from the name of the two East High teams, the Tigers.) In the first half of the book, Haygood re-creates the season of the basketball Tigers, who were bidding to repeat as state champions and were so popular that their games were played in the coliseum at the Ohio State Fairgrounds. It’s a good tale, but not as good as the second part of the book, which is devoted to the improbable run of the baseball Tigers. They wore faded uniforms and hand-me-down gloves, used folding chairs in lieu of a dugout and played to empty bleachers. Yet somehow, they made it to the state playoffs at Ohio State University, where in the finals they defeated a heavily favored, well-funded all-white team from suburban Upper Arlington High, a sports powerhouse that counted golf great Jack Nicklaus among its alumni.
The star of both teams was Ed “Eddie Rat” Ratleff, a lanky, handsome natural athlete who played forward and was the school’s best pitcher. On the basketball court, he formed an explosive troika with forward Nick Conner and guard Dwight “Bo-Pete” Lamar, who in a sign of the rebellious times had transferred to East High after his previous high school demanded that he cut his bushy Afro. On the baseball field, Eddie Rat threw to catcher Garnett Davis, the team’s best hitter, who had learned the game from local Negro League era coaches who created a Little League franchise for black Columbus youth nicknamed the Peers CLUB. After high school, Ratleff and Lamar would both be named college basketball All-Americans and go on to pro careers; Davis would get a minor league tryout with the New York Mets that ended when he protested the team’s efforts to move him to third base.
The real heroes of this story aren’t the players, however, but the adults who raised and supported them. Like several of the mothers in the book, Lucy Lamar had moved from the South in the Great Migration and raised her children by herself on the unpredictable wages of a domestic; yet she was willing to rent an apartment in a housing project across town so that Bo-Pete could play for East High. Jack Gibbs, the school’s black principal, was a disciplinarian who chided students about slovenly appearances and bad grades, but also cajoled local businessmen to pay for buses to away games and created a job at the school for Davis’s mother when the family faced eviction. Other noble figures in this it-takes-a-village tableau include the Rev. Phale Hale, the pastor of the local Baptist church and friend of the King family; Carl Brown, the owner of the only black-run grocery store on the East Side; and Hiram Tanner, a sports writer who followed the Tiger teams for the city’s black newspaper, the Columbus Call and Post.
To place this rich local drama in historical context, Haygood occasionally digresses into summaries of landmark stories that in one way or another set the stage for it, from the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that sanctioned segregated schooling to an entire chapter on how Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier. Unfortunately, some of these summaries are long enough to interrupt the narrative but not long enough to do justice to important details. (In the Robinson chapter, for instance, Haygood suggests that Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey and his scouts discovered Robinson playing in the Negro Leagues. In fact, it was Wendell Smith, a black sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier who later served as Robinson’s ghost writer and travel companion, who first called Rickey’s attention to him.)
Yet that’s a small flaw in a book that is both highly readable and a valuable contribution to the under-appreciated history of the African American North in the wake of the Great Migration. Like so many communities formed by that exodus, the East Side of Columbus eventually fell victim to “urban renewal” that severed it from downtown; to white flight that drained financial and political support; and to a failed busing experiment, backed by a black Republican state judge, that inflamed racial tensions. But that’s only part of the story, no matter what Donald Trump suggests in his “What have they got to lose?” appeals and all the recent headlines about police shootings in black neighborhoods. The other part is the sacrifice, ambition and perseverance exemplified by Davis’s mother, Gardenia, who took that job at East High to support her children while their father served prison time in South Carolina. Now in his 60s, Garnett Davis continues the tradition by visiting his alma mater to remind students of its past glory, and by running a baseball camp to keep the fatherless boys of the East Side off the streets.
By Wil Haygood
Knopf. 420 pp. $27.95