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Here are some more thoughts about the Cincinnati Civil Rights Weekend. On the roundtable that I participated in (that may air one of these days on the MLB cable TV network), Harold Reynolds, the broadcaster and former All-Star second baseman, shared his vivid memory of watching on TV with his grandmother and some of his seven older siblings as Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career HR record. Reynolds emphasized that it was especially meaningful that Aaron hit his epochal homer in 1974 as an Atlanta Brave in Georgia! In accepting his Beacon award at the Saturday afternoon luncheon, Aaron emphasized that he “rode the shoulders of a lot of civil rights people” and couldn’t have hit 755 home runs without them.

During his memorable Saturday speech, former President Bill Clinton made a reference to his own special TV moment in 1956 when at the age of 9 he watched Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays on his family’s first set. A gaunt-looking Clinton started slowly, perhaps because he is following doctor’s orders about cutting down on his fast food in the aftermath of his serious heart surgery. He picked up steam as he told of his friendship with three Arkansas-born baseball Hall of Famers: Bill Dickey, the Yankee catcher and coach; George Kell, the Tiger third baseman and financial chairman of his early political campaigns; and Brooks Robinson, the Oriole third baseman who Clinton said has signed more items for him than anyone could have been expected to do.

Turning to his outlook for the future, Clinton pleaded with Americans to adopt “win-win” attitudes because the world is too interdependent for us to be locked into a win-lose framework and an Us versus Them mindset. Clinton pointed out that as of today California has no majority race and in 40 years there will be no majority race in the United States. “We live in a web of inescapable mutuality,” he quoted Martin Luther King so we must learn to live and work together.

Clinton praised Muhammad Ali, a second Major League Beacon Award winner, for not becoming bitter, heartbroken, or withdrawing from life after he was stripped of his boxing title for refusing to enter the American military during the Vietnam war. “I admire Ali because he kept giving,” Clinton said. Because of his deteriorating condition Ali, though seated on the stage, could not stand or speak to accept his Beacon award but his wife Lonnie thanked “the awesome wonderful Bill Clinton” for his words. She mentioned that both she and her husband had become big baseball fans because their youngest son, Assad, is a catcher (who, as I noted in a post last week, was drafted earlier this month by the California Angels.)

Bill Cosby was the third Beacon award winner and his remarks brought back memories of the humor and racial pride in his routines when he burst on the scene in the early 1960s. He told the story about Hank Aaron’s endorsing a breakfast syrup when Cosby was a youth in Philadelphia. He begged his mother to buy it for his breakfast but it was so thick and heavy it took a half-hour to get out of the bottle. “It was the only time I ever chewed syrup,” Cosby said, but his mother insistedm “You wanted it and you gonna eat it, son.”
He also regaled us with tales of his rooting for the Cleveland Indians when they came into Philly with African-Americans Larry Doby, Satchel Paige and first baseman Luke Easter; the Mexican second baseman Bobby Avila (later, I should add, the mayor of Veracruz); and the Jewish third baseman Al Rosen. One of the all-white Philly A’s hit a grounder to Rosen at third, and according to Cosby he hot-dogged it and threw it so high that the huge Easter had to leap for the ball. Big Luke did catch it and tagged the A’s runner out with a hard slap. “I could like this game of baseball,” young Cosby thought. He added that at that game 60 years ago there was “no shooting, no violence, nobody got pregnant.”

The recurring theme in Cosby and Clinton’s speeches was that none of the achievements of the civil rights era was “a done deal.” As the former President said passionately near the end of his speech, “I’ll go to my grave being glad that Branch Rickey and Pee Wee Reese made Jackie Robinson feel like he belonged and that Rachel Robinson set up the Jackie Robinson Foundation, . . . but we’re a long way from home.”

I turn 67 tomorrow June 27 making me exactly one year older than Red Sox shortstop Rico Petrocell and 23 years older than Jeff Conine, Mr. Florida Marlin who played on both their world championship teams in 1997 and 2003 and also had good years with the Royals and the Orioles. (I also include early 20th century activist-writer Emma Goldman and African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in my June 27 pantheon.)

The narrative of my life as anti-Yankee fan began on June 26, 1949 when Pat Mullin hit three home runs for the Tigers in the second game of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium earning Detroit a split of the two games. After an easy Yankee win in the first game, a fan sitting next to me (and on the other side from my father, an old time New York Giant fan who never accepted the Yankees as usurpers to the crown of Gotham’s favorite team) advised, “Kid, why cause yourself trouble? Root for a winner.” Though never a rebellious child, I did see the man’s practical point until Pat Mullin went to work. He only hit 87 HRs in his career but those three dingers, at least two of them of the cheap short right field porch variety as I recall, kept me firmly in the anti-Yankee faith from then on.

Mind you, I have always respected the Yankees on the field. I learned that from the former player and coach Tony Lupien who I wrote the first edition of THE IMPERFECT DIAMOND with and from reading just about anything I could find about Branch Rickey. The Billy Martin-managed Yankee teams in the late 1970s went from first-to-third as well as any I ever saw, proving that you don’t need to be fast to be a good baserunner – see under Chambliss, Chris; Nettles, Graig; Piniella, Lou. And those Joe Torre-managed teams of the late 1990s through 2001 played the game well, too. But root for them with too many of their fans having that outrageous sense of entitlement? Never.

Happy unbirthday to those of you not celebrating tomorrow. And will be back for one more post early next week before I head to the festivities in Lubbock where Branch Rickey gets inducted into the Collegiate Baseball Hall of Fame. Ciao for now!
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