Daily Archives: 19 October 2013

Legacy of the Birmingham Barons, 1964

From Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race, by Larry Colton (Hachette, 2013), Kindle Loc. 4817-4852:

[Paul] Lindblad was not a complicated man, just pure Midwestern stock. But as he thought back on the season and his teammates, he knew it had been something special: the grace and speed of Bert Campaneris, who’d risked his life to flee Fidel Castro’s Cuba… the power and determination of Tommie Reynolds, who two years earlier had filled out his last will and testament prior to hoisting his combat gear onto an army truck in Germany as the world waited on the precipice of ruin… the physical stamina of Hoss Bowlin, who grew up on an Arkansas tenant farm and spent much of the season hunched over in pain from having one of his testicles removed… the raw talent of Johnny Blue Moon Odom, who started the year washing dishes for the minimum wage at Macon’s Dempsey Hotel, where he was expected to use only the rear entrance… and the calm leadership skills of Haywood Sullivan, who grew up down the road in Dothan and knew all about the South’s history of lynchings and the hard-edged racial protocols but treated his players as equals.

Of course Lindblad hadn’t come to Birmingham to study family trees. In a sense, he and the rest of the team were poorly paid mercenaries, bringing to Birmingham their arsenal of skills and talent. They had applied those skills to winning ball games, and now it was time to move on. Other than Stanley Jones, none of them would stay around. They would all retreat, hurrying back to their hometowns, families, friends, and jobs in the warehouse for a buck twenty an hour. A few would return to Florida for Instructional League. From his time in Birmingham, Lindblad would preserve some newspaper clippings and a few Kodak moments taken by the apartment pool, but little else.

He was proud to have been part of Birmingham’s first integrated team. But sports had already provided a blueprint for breaking down barriers. For years black athletes had gotten white fans to suspend their prejudices in the name of team or national pride, as they had for Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, and Joe Louis. Although these black athletes couldn’t belong to elite country clubs or send their children to the schools of their choice, their exploits on the playing fields and arenas had pulled down a few pickets of the fence guarding the house of bigotry. The Barons had just invited all the neighbors to join them in the backyard.

“See ya next spring,” said Lindblad, shaking Hoss’s hand.

“Now, don’t you be going and drinking out of any strange toilets,” replied Hoss.

“My biggest regret this whole year,” said Lindblad, “is not getting to see you in that grass skirt.”

“You can thank Mr. Finley for that.”

For the second-sacker named Lois, it was back to Paragould, Arkansas. His wife, Madelyn, had a job teaching school, but he wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Maybe take a few college classes. Maybe drive a school bus. In a few days, the disappointment of losing out to Lynchburg would subside. He would start thinking about where he would play next year. His slump at the end of the year had dropped his final average to .242, not exactly a punched ticket to move up, but he knew Sullivan liked the way he played the game. He led the team in games, at-bats, walks, and ugly scars. Maybe, if he was lucky, he’d get invited to the big-league training camp. That was the dream anyway.

Neither Lindblad nor Hoss, nor anyone else on the team, had volunteered to come to Birmingham—they’d been assigned by the baseball gods. Before the season started, none of them had said, You know, I think it’s deplorable what has happened in Birmingham this past year and I would like to go there and make a difference.

They were not social activists. They didn’t volunteer at soup kitchens or in school programs. Basically, they lived in their apartments, drove their Malibus, Bonnevilles, and Impalas to the ballpark, played the games, and then went home and watched Johnny Carson and got ready to do it all over again the next day. They did not carry signs to end Jim Crow. They did not march on City Hall. They did not speak out on the issues. Some of them didn’t know Bull Connor from Strom Thurmond… or care about either one of them.

They just showed up and played integrated baseball, which, according to Alf Van Hoose, was the way baseball was supposed to be played, even in Birmingham.

In 1964, the culture of minor-league baseball—or for that matter, the ethos of all sports—didn’t encourage the mixing of social justice and athletic competition.

It was supposed to be about what happened on the field. And Birmingham was better for it.

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Haywood Sullivan at the Red Sox

From Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race, by Larry Colton (Hachette, 2013), Kindle Loc. 4869-4895:

In 1965, [Charlie] Finley fired his manager Mel McGaha and named [Haywood] Sullivan the [Kansas City] A’s newest manager. At thirty-four, he was the youngest skipper in the big leagues. His meteoric ascension had taken only a year.

He didn’t have any better luck than Finley’s previous managers, however, either in winning games with his inept team or in curtailing Finley’s constant meddling. When he got a call in the off-season from Tom Yawkey, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, offering him the position of vice president of player development, he said yes.

Over the next twenty-seven years, he would become the first person in the history of the major leagues to be a player, manager, general manager, and owner… and one of the most respected men in the game.

His time as general manager and owner, however, wasn’t without controversy. For years, the Red Sox faced repeated charges of racism, and Yawkey’s response to the team’s lack of black players didn’t help:

I have no feeling against colored people. I employ a lot of them in the South. But they are clannish, and when the story got around that we didn’t want Negroes they all decided to sign with some other club.

As general manager, Sullivan incurred the ire of Red Sox Nation for letting go of popular players such as Luis Tiant, Bernie Carbo, Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk, and Bill “Spaceman” Lee. And it was under his watch that the Red Sox blew a fourteen-game lead and lost in a one-game play-off to the evil Yankees on Bucky Dent’s homer.

When Yawkey died in 1976, his widow loaned Sullivan a million dollars, and he became a third owner of the team. After he and Mrs. Yawkey survived an attempted coup by co-owner Buddy LeRoux, he took over running the team, and although the fans had grown increasingly impatient for a championship, he became one of the most respected owners in the game. He served on the Major League Executive Council, the committee that basically runs baseball. In 1981, he was named by the Sporting News as the top executive of the American League.

Around Fenway, Sullivan had a reputation for dignity and decency, treating the grounds crew and the ticket takers with the same respect he afforded his players and fellow American League owners. There was discussion among the other owners of naming him the league president.

Perhaps the criticism of Sullivan’s tenure as general manager–owner that stung the most was regarding his older son, Marc, the little boy whom Hoss and Tommie Reynolds used to push around the [Birmingham] Barons’ locker room in a laundry cart. In 1980, the Red Sox selected him in the second round of the draft. Some said his skills didn’t merit being drafted that high, and he’d been picked only because his father owned the team. Marc was good enough, however, to play parts of five years in the big leagues, mostly as a backup catcher, although his career .193 batting average did little to quiet the doubters.

In 1993, a year after the death of Mrs. Yawkey, Sullivan sold his share of the team and retired from baseball after five absorbing decades. He confessed to friends and family that as much as he loved the game, he no longer wanted to be part of the direction it was taking, with strikes, labor disputes, skyrocketing salaries, and agents and players who cared too little about the history and integrity of the game. According to the New York Times, he received $36 million for the sale.

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