Black Out

The Cards still don't have any blacks on their team. What else is new?


Hey Joe: Are there any black players left on the Cardinals?

Vince Coleman, Jacksonville, Florida

That brings back memories from 1953, when I took Tom Alston and Jehosie Heard to the Glass Bar, a fancy hotel and nightspot in St. Louis. Alston was the Cards' first black player, and Heard was a former Negro Leaguer whom I played against.

Preston Wilson, an American-born black, started the season with the Cards but has since disappeared. So what's new? I could've answered the question by simply saying no, but I feel I would be cheating somebody out of some other interesting things, especially in relation to the Cardinals' previous season and current one.

By winning the championship last year, Tony La Russa's image has grown bigger than life itself. Every time I hear him immortalized I think of Josh Gibson, the former Negro League slugger, who sometimes played in the Mexican winter league. It was rumored that one day, while batting better than .500 by hitting singles, doubles and triples, he was called into the office by management, where he was told, "We no bring you here to hit singly, doubly, triply. We bring you to hit home run!" The spokesman added, "If you can no hit home run, you be on plane," and used his right hand to indicate a plane taking off while humming to sound like its engine. In La Russa's case the home run was a World Series, and prior to last year, I thought he would have been run home — especially after Walt Jocketty tried to buy him a World Series team several years ago.

Obviously, management was more interested in La Russa's personality. Maybe it was recognized that he possessed a pre-Jackie Robinson mentality when he was hired almost thirteen years ago. During the last two seasons, it should have been revealed that a baseball game is just that — excluding the Major League hype. Any player with ability and desire can play it with equal opportunity and without a so-called "genius" as a guide. Jackie Robinson proved this in 1947, even though it was once said that he could play no higher than Class C. It was also said that if the Dodgers allowed him to play, the niggas following him would tear down existing ballparks.

It's no secret that La Russa has exhibited his preference for certain players. My concern about him was solidified this year, especially when I heard that he was found asleep behind the wheel and then embarrassed one of the game's best players in front of the nation by not allowing Pujols to play in the All-Star Game. This, to me, is strange mental behavior. But he could go out in style if he converts Chris Duncan into a third baseman (the easiest position in baseball), gives the center field job to Rick Ankiel and covers left field with another one of his talented players. Then cut loose Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and himself so new faces can take their places. By doing so, all the dissent that he creates — and which still hovers over the team — will disappear.

Prince Joe Henry, one of professional baseball's original "clowns," was an all-star infielder for Negro League baseball teams in Memphis, Indianapolis and Detroit throughout the 1950s. But up until the late 1940s, Prince Joe didn?t know anything about the Negro Leagues. His knowledge of organized baseball was limited to the Cardinals and Browns games he attended during his preteen years at Sportsman?s Park, accompanied by lifelong buddy Eugene "Gene" Crittendon, who could pass for white.

Perhaps Henry?s most vivid memory of those games: Upon entry, white ushers would politely escort the boys to a small section of the left-field stands reserved for "Colored." After climbing past several tiers of bleachers, they?d arrive at their stop, rows and rows behind their white counterparts.

Even at a young age, the boys were conscious of the double standard -- and determined to vent their disdain. The opportunity would arise with the urge to urinate. Rather than head for the latrine, the boys would edge their way to the front of the section and let fly. As the liquid foamed its way down the concrete steps toward the white kids, Henry and his pal would ease back and relax, politely rooting for the visiting team to beat the hell out of the Browns or the Cards.

After all, Henry and Crittendon hailed from Brooklyn, Illinois, a small, predominantly black township just east of the Mississippi River. So hospitable were the residents of Brooklyn that they were known to take in a rank stranger, treat him to breakfast, lunch, supper and a night out on the town -- and afterward, if he messed up, treat him to a good ass-whippin'.

Direct questions on any and all topics to [email protected]. If we don't like yours, we'll hit Joe with our own.

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