I don’t believe in coincidence. Moments in life happen because of our own actions and decisions.
I am, however, a big fan of irony. To that end, the great Ted Williams certainly had no concept that his words in the 1960’s would not merely resonate, but be so desperately needed in the sense of educating a large part of American society well into the 21st century.
It was July 25, 1966. Another day where the baseball Gods smiled down on the small hamlet of Cooperstown, NY for an annual rite of passage. Where the best of the best from America’s pastime were welcomed into the hallowed walls of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
It was a day everyone knew would happen, as Williams was indeed one of the greatest of his generation. Even then, casual observers knew he was one of the greatest to ever swing a piece of well-crafted wood, wear a sewn together collection of leather, view far off walls and fences as minor encumbrances to be overcome.
What many did not expect in that short, sometimes poorly delivered reading of notes that lasted about the same time as what it takes for a single at-bat in the modern contest, was an aberration of the era.
A political statement.
You would have to understand the era, those American 1960’s, where everything was either coming apart at the non-baseball seams, or was gathering together into a mighty swing of change that the country was so in need of.
Racism was rampant in America, and had been for generations. Boston was an epicenter for racist views and actions, long known by many a player of color to be one of the most dangerous places to play. The city was at the forefront of school desegregation, and many a young black girl and boy was viciously taunted and abused, as were their parents and others of the community who simply sought to be part of the America they were promised.
Simply stated, Boston was just one American city where African-Americans were treated as little more than stumbling blocks and lesser beings. It wasn’t only Boston, to be certain. That concept was shared in almost every state, and certainly most major cities.
From a baseball standpoint however, Boston was an unfortunate and shameful standout in the effort to bring America together. When Williams delivered his speech that day in Cooperstown, it had been a mere 7 years since his Red Sox became the last major league baseball team to have a black player on the roster with the addition of Pumpsie Green. Charges of racism had flown about the franchise for years. At a hearing for the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination, Herbert Tucker of the NAACP pointed out that for 12 years, the Red Sox were the only franchise without a black player.
Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey and General Manager Bucky Harris, when they did speak on the subject, authored little more than weak defenses that merely augmented the segregation argument. After all, the Red Sox had passed on Sam Jethroe, Jackie Robinson,and Willie Mays. The only conclusion had to be the Red Sox were either decidedly racist, or decidedly stupid in the ways of baseball.
History teaches us, and current Red Sox ownership, has admitted the former. Yawkey wanted nothing to do with black players, and despite those who called him a “nice man” or a “wonderful human being”, most of those accolades came from his fellow owners.
White, male, baseball owners.
So here was Ted Williams, standing before the gathered multitude, many of whom were in awe of being close to the man who exemplified the game of baseball. A mostly white audience, as the era dictated. No one could have imagined how their little world would be rocked by just a few words.
The greatest player in the game, the military veteran hero, the man who always had a difficult and sometimes contentious relationship with both the press and fan during his playing days, without hesitation, called for the inclusion of Negro League players into Cooperstown. To that point, not one player from that organization had a presence in the Hall of Fame. Suddenly, here was Teddy Ballgame calling out the Baseball Writers of America and everyone associated with his sport.
One can only imagine the reaction had there been the scourge of 21st century social media available. The blatant racism in America at that time would have excoriated Williams. Raging tweets would have landed with explosive power akin to the bombs he faced in World War II. A gossip hungry clickbait media, relying on anything and everything that didn’t take any real professionalism, journalism, or hard work to uncover, would have swarmed over the comments and called for Williams’ Hall membership to be revoked immediately for his “radical” views.
“How dare this athlete speak of anything political”, would be the cry. Undoubtedly, the rising swell of criticism would hammer away at another jock denigrating his sport by daring to use a forum seeking to advance a social cause.
A political cause.
Let us then swing forward to the present, where athletes of all manner, all sexes, every race and creed, are speaking out over the systemic racism that existed in the days of Ted Williams, and have never truly receded one iota. They are using their forums, ones they have worked for, to seek positive change in America. Like Williams, they are doing so in a respectful, dignified, quiet and powerful manner. Few will ever have a Hall of Fame pulpit to speak from, so they are using what they have available.
A simple bending of the knee during the national anthem. Locked arms between teammates. A call for justice, but more important simply a call for others to recognize and understand that changes must be made.
A political statement. Just like Ted Williams.
54 years after “The Splendid Splinter” took his swings against injustice and racism, a new generation has picked up the bat and come to the plate. Unlike 1966, they do so in a maelstrom of media and political leaders seeking to roil up a racist base, eager to foment politically tinged fear and hate for no other reason than to feed this boorish beast that believes dumb jocks need to just shut up and play.
No one would have ever said that Ted Williams. If they did, in those days, I believe a good smack in the mouth would have been next. Williams suffered no fools. He stood for his beliefs. He feared no retribution. He stuck his chin out and dared anyone to take a shot.
Exactly as the athletes of today are doing.
Sports and game are indeed life’s blood to many, but in the end, it is merely a game. Entertainment for the masses. A deflection from everyday life which allows necessary escape from harsh reality. In this current age of COVID19, it is needed more than ever. Mother Nature, as we have seen, has her own plans that man will not so easily overcome.
Yet when given the chance, sports must also become a driving force to heal a nation by more than just runs, goals and touchdowns scored. There is an imperative for games to rise above mindless entertainment and fantasy leagues. It, and the people involved, have a responsibility to turn fantasy into fact, and words into actions.
Ted Williams believed that to be so.
That’s good enough for me.