From 1876, the year the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs was founded, until the present day, everything that has occurred in the United States has been reflected in and around the game of baseball.
Enjoy these selected American Innings’ vignettes, short episodes on significant parallels between major American stories and major league baseball.
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Ron LeFlore – A Second Chance
Ron LeFlore went from being inmate B115614 in Michigan’s Jackson State Penitentiary to playing centerfield for the Detroit Tigers. While still behind bars Ron began campaigning for the Tigers’ management to give him a chance – and wouldn’t take no for an answer. When the Tigers said they had all the players they needed, he got a prison official to write him a letter. When Billy Martin came to the prison to try him out, the fields were too muddy for him to demonstrate his athleticism. Undaunted, he got himself a furlough to go to Tiger Stadium for another try, but on the way to Detroit his father’s car threw a rod. You might say he hitchhiked his way into the record books, because that’s how he finally got to the try out, which was soon followed by his major league debut in 1974. He began the 1976 season with a 130 game hitting streak – the record for opening a season – and that year made the All Star team. Enjoy this story of how, with talent, focus, and relentless hard work, Ron LeFlore made the most of his second chance.
Presidential First Pitch
An American tradition was born on April 14, 1910 when William Howard Taft threw out the first pitch of the baseball season, performing the honors at the home opener for his Washington Senators. Ever since, that ceremonial first pitch signifying the beginning of baseball has symbolized the optimism and hope the country and baseball share at the beginning of each season.
Chuck Cottier who played, managed, and scouted in Major League Baseball for over 60 years recalls the day John F. Kennedy threw out the ceremonial first pitch in in Washington in 1962 and the journey that baseball took afterwards.
Curt Smith, nationally known author of The Presidents and the Pastime, The History of Baseball and the White Houseshares the raw emotion of the crowd when president George W Bush threw a perfect strike as the first pitch of Game 3 of the World Series, just seven weeks after 911.
Enjoy the story of how this this tradition, well over a century old, has woven a connection between baseball and those fans we have also called “Mr. President.”
Emmett Ashford, remembered by Chuck Cottier
It was on April 11, 1966 that 51 year old African American Emmett Ashford, MLB’s first black umpire, made his big league debut, almost 19 years to the day after Jackie Robinson had done the same. Loved for his huge personality and hustle, he was an animated and colorful umpire known for his for his consistent strike zone. Ashford began his career in the Class C Mexican Arizona League in 1951, working his way up to the Pacific Coast League before finally getting his chance to umpire in the big leagues.
In 1967, only his second year, Ashford was chosen to work the All Star game, and then the World Series in 1970. Chuck Cottier, a player, manager and scout for more than 60 years knew Emmett Ashford from his days playing in the American League in the 60’s. He remembers Emmett here with vivid stories, bringing his unique personality to life.
Nate “Pee Wee” Oliver
Racial discrimination openly existed in baseball from the mid-1880’s until the tide began to turn in 1947 when Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers became the first person of color to appear in the major leagues.
Players growing up in the south during the Jim Crow era faced pervasive racism in their home towns. Nate “Pee Wee” Oliver was one of them. Born in 1940, and growing up in St. Petersburg Florida, he experienced segregation and discrimination firsthand every day. When Nate signed to play professional baseball with the LA Dodgers June 1959 the team was sensitive to the racism Nate had been subjected to growing up, and was careful to assign him to play on teams based in non-segregated minor-league towns during his first few years in pro ball.
Nate Oliver debuted as a major leaguer with the Dodgers on April 9, 1963, playing second base and shortstop in the big leagues until September 1969. Here Nate explains the stark segregation of his Florida youth and how the humanity of his teammates and the compassion of a baseball team impacted his life.
World War II Hank Greenwald on Hank Greenberg
Baseball played a major role in American life during World War II. On January 15, 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt issued his famous “Green Light” letter giving baseball the go ahead to play the 1942 season and beyond. He wrote that baseball would lift America’s morale, giving round-the-clock factory workers a break when they had a chance to see a game. Hearing the baseball news gave soldiers in Europe and the Pacific a chance to feel close to home. Due to the manpower shortage, teams were composed of those who were left behind, including many under 18 or over 40, but still, it was baseball! Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg served three and a half years during the war, joining many fellow major leaguers. Legendary San Francisco Giants broadcaster Hank Greenwald tells us about Greenberg’s baseball and military career, and his role in the 1945 post war World Series. Baseball helped America’s war effort, maintaining a familiar component of American life that reached across America and beyond to the battlegrounds of the Pacific and Europe.
Baseball was America in the 20th century, sharing the country’s glories but also its flaw of systemic racism. Despite scores of major-league-quality baseball players of color, during the first half of the century organized white baseball practiced blanket discrimination, refusing any non-white person the opportunity to play in the major leagues. Until Jackie Robinson broke the color line for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, Negro Leagues baseball filled the void for the African American community, providing leagues where some of the finest baseball players ever to step on a diamond had a place to play. Joe Black, an African American college student in Baltimore, learned of the Negro League for the first time when friends took him to see the Baltimore Elite Giants play. Catching the attention of the owner, he managed to wrangle a try out and made the team. At age 28 he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, was named Rookie of the Year and became the first African American pitcher to win a World Series game. Here is his engaging story of being rejected by the scouts because he was “colored”, and how his introduction to the Negro Leagues put him on the path to an impressive playing career and the opportunity to make a major contribution to racial equality in baseball.
Frank Robinson, in memoriam.
When Frank Robinson passed away on February 7, 2019 baseball lost one of its greats. Although during his two decades in the majors he rose to great heights, hitting 586 home runs, becoming a Hall of Famer, a 14-time all-star, and the first African American major league manager, his beginnings as a Cincinnati Reds farm hand was anything but easy. Coming from Oakland, California Frank had not experienced the pervasive, harsh and unrelenting racism and segregation he would face in the deep south in the years following Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in 1947. As he worked his way up to his major league debut in 1956, Frank experienced firsthand the same indignities that Jackie Robinson had faced. He was disrespected and forced to hear language he had never expected to endure, including from his own manager. On the road the racism was particularly rough and pervasive. In this interview this legendary baseball leader tells us about the challenges he faced as a young ballplayer, and how he met them.
Perhaps no decade changed life in America more dramatically than the 1960s. Issues now confronting young adults included racial injustice, labor rights, and the use of recreational marijuana.
Hank McGraw, the older brother of major league star pitcher Tug McGraw, was just 18 years old when he began his baseball career in 1961. Hank was a powerful minor league catcher/outfielder, slugging 133 homeruns during his 12 seasons with 18 different teams, but all in the minor leagues. That long-awaited call to the majors never came for Hank, because of his outspoken views on the social issues of the times. Here Hank McGraw describes successfully taking on the baseball establishment over his suspension for having long hair, his feelings about the discrimination against his African American teammates that he witnessed, and the changing life in America and on the baseball field in the 1960’s.
The 1970s and 80s marked a major change for the world economy and how US companies did business. America saw lower wages, lower profits, a reduced labor force, and the outsourcing of jobs to outside contractors. These changes were visible in baseball as well. Owners colluded to reduce free agent spending and hold salaries down. Salary arbitration was instituted to help small market teams retain its players. Baseball teams still controlled the fate of players under contract, by freely trading them among existing teams.
Pitcher Don Robinson spent nine years with the Pittsburgh Pirates before being traded to the San Francisco Giants on July 31, 1978. Close to his home and family, and beloved by the Pirate fans he never wanted to leave, he describes how the club made that deal, bringing him to tears and demonstrating how, despite labor gains, players still had little power in determining their place of employment while under contract.
Go West Young Man!
David Rapp on Tinker to Evers to Chance
(Chicago Cubs History I)
The famous 1910 poem Tinker to Evers to Chance tells the story of how this famous double play triad came together from different backgrounds and different regions of the country to create the foundation of Chicago baseball. Joe Tinker, the son of an unwed mother, grew up in Kansas City, a Western boom town at the time. The city was just beginning to create parks and playgrounds for kids, and baseball became his sport. In the minor leagues he developed the nickname “Pretty” and was very well loved. While still in uniform he would become a successful vaudeville act. Johnny Evers came from Troy, New York, an industrial town on the Hudson River. The grandson of an Irish immigrant, he grew up in a baseball town that played an important part in the founding of the New York Giants. Frank Chance came from Fresno California. As children, his parents had come across the country on the Oregon Trail in covered wagons. That rugged, determined spirit came down to him, and translated into a fierce competitive will to win. All three of these fascinating and diverse trio were later inducted into the Hall of Fame. David Rapp shares their story in his book Tinker to Evers to Chance, describing how the Cubs of that era illustrate what was going on in the country at the time and the changes that were taking place.
Be sure to look at the companion story The Start of Chicago Baseball below.
David Rapp on the Start of Chicago Baseball
(Chicago Cubs History II)
Chicago, as the baseball town we all know, was created as the city itself was being formed. A city constantly reinventing itself needed something to unify and bring the populace together. Author David Rapp chronicles the catalysts that got baseball started in the city, and how an early population boom along with a growth of baseball attendance helped form modern day Chicago. The first decade of the twentieth century saw the city grow by a million people and double in size. Baseball became the unifier of this chaotic place. Back then the Cubs played at a wooden stadium called Westside Grounds, predecessor of Wrigley Field. With their great success during that decade, the Cubs doubled their attendance and increased the size of the stadium. They developed a fierce rivalry with New York, carried far beyond baseball into culture, finance and even geography. When Chicago acquired land out beyond its original boundaries, New York annexed the boroughs in order to compete with Chicago’s expansion. The rivalry made baseball so popular that newspapers had their own dedicated telegraphs to communicate the scores. David Rapp explains how the baseball of this era, and especially the Chicago Cubs, created America’s love of spectator sports and why they are such a large part of our culture today.
Be sure to look at the companion story Tinker to Evers to Chance above.
Jon Miller on the September 11, 2001
Attack on The World Trade Center
Jon Miller has seen a lot during his years as a Giants radio play-by-play announcer, but one road trip in 2001 stands out the most. The Giants were trapped in Houston when the news of the 9/11 attack hit. Watch and listen as Jon takes us through the aftermath of the tragic events, describing the emotions the Giants team experienced, their subsequent return to San Francisco, and the toll it took on the players, coaches and fans. Rich Aurilia, the player rep, had come from Brooklyn and could see the twin towers from his old neighborhood. He knew people who had been in the towers. As with all Americans, the players just wanted to be home with their families, but the airports were closed. Finally, the air traffic ban was lifted, and their charter plane was the first to take to the air. Although the president was anxious to have baseball return as soon as possible, the season was delayed about a week to allow the players and coaches to grieve with their families. It reopened for the Giants in San Francisco with moving ceremonies and remembrances in a game against the Houston Astros. Then the emotional release began. When Andres Galarraga hit a massive home run the cheers that erupted were cathartic. Jon traveled to New York for the month of October, as the Yankees fought their way through the post season in dramatic fashion. Although the Yankees didn’t win it all that year, their World Series run did something more important for New York and the rest of the country. They created a sense of community as the country healed from the vicious attack on 9/11.
The United States welcomed many people from Europe in the early 1900s. Some of the sons of these hard-working immigrant families became baseball players, even when their parents did not quite understand the game. Joey Amalfitano was the son of an Italian immigrant who came to this country by himself at the age of 16. After a stop at Ellis Island, he took a train west and began work as a commercial fisherman in San Pedro. Amalfitano, a bonus baby signee of the New York Giants in 1954, tells us about his Italian families’ move to America and how his father reacted when he signed his first baseball contract.
The 1960’s were a decade of turmoil and social unrest in the country’s major urban areas. When Detroit erupted in riots in 1967 the Tiger players were told to go home for their own safety. Instead, baseball icon Willie Horton, still wearing his uniform, plunged into the smoldering Detroit community, to play a crucial role in restoring peace and harmony to that torn city. Willie went to the streets near where he was raised in the projects, reasoning with people to stop the burning. Here he tells about how baseball brought black and white people together to heal the city, as they went through a winning season together. During his 18 year career, Willie’s commitment to the community made him more than a ball player. Today a statue stands in his honor, and he is one of only four people to have a state holiday named after him, an honor he shares with civil rights heroine Rosa Parks.
Rick Monday on Saving the American Flag
Rick Monday, a Chicago Cubs outfielder, was playing against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the turbulent decade of the 1970s when two protesters ran from the stands on to the field with an American flag and a big can of lighter fluid. Seeing their attempt to set the flag on fire, Rick ran over, swooped down and grabbed the flag before it could be ignited. As a former Marine, he did what came instinctively. He became known as a hero, illustrating one of many strong connections between baseball and the military. The Dodgers later presented Rick with that very flag in an on-field ceremony honoring him at his home stadium in Chicago.
Willie McCovey on Racism and Baseball After Jackie Robinson’s Debut
Despite Jackie Robinson’s debut in 1947, black players continued to face harsh racism. But after World War II, Americans began to question the laws of segregation, wondering why African Americans could fight and die for their country but their children had to attend segregated schools. In this vignette, Willie McCovey brings us back to the 1950s and the example Jackie Robinson was to him as he shares his experience of being a young African American traveling in the south as a minor league player.
Joe Garagiola on Signing with the Hometown Team
Before the major league draft was instituted in 1965, players often signed their first major league contract with their home team because of their love for the players they watched growing up. Born in an Italian neighborhood in St. Louis, Joe Garagiola explains life growing up in in the 1940s and the players he idolized as a kid that led him to sign with the hometown Cardinals.