Being at once a sportswriter and a school teacher, I have had many opportunities to become aware of how American cultural and ethnic groups get along with each other.
This is Black History Month, a celebration that was officially proclaimed in 1976 by President Gerald Ford (R). It was the culmination of an annual observance that started in 1926, when a Black History Week was observed in many American colleges. It is also now observed in February in Canada as well. It is also now observed in Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales and the Netherlands but not until October in those places.
Growing up in southwest Missouri (Monett) in the 1950s and '60s, I was exposed to communities of Polish, Italian and German immigrants who had their own cultures and mores. What we didn't have were any Americans of African descent. Outside of interactions with black athletes in track and field competitions, I really didn't know anyone with black skin.
When it came to sports, however, my heroes were black. My dad had little use for sports, except for baseball. He watched the St. Louis Cardinals as did I and in 1964, my main heroes were Lou Brock, Curt Flood and Bob Gibson, all black athletes. When we traded baseball cards at school, you could not pick up any of these three cards because all the boys wanted them.
The '64 Cards were unexpectedly World Series champions. Flood and Brock were the teams' best hitters and Gibson was an overpowering right handed pitcher. I knew all their stats, where they came from, and their personal records.
In the '68 Olympics, Jim Hines (9.95-100), Tommie Smith (19.83-200) and Lee Evans (43.86-400) all set world records in the Summer Games that year. Being a 400 runner myself, I was most impressed with Evans. The U.S. 4x100 (38.24) and the 4x400 (2:56.16) teams both set world records. All those gold medalists were black.
The U.S. Olympic team never had a ban on black athletes with John Taylor of Pennsylvania University winning a gold medal at the 1908 Summer Games in London. There was never big monied interests involved in the beginning of the Olympic story in America which might account for the scarcity of racism early on.
NBA basketball had no black players (hard to imagine) until Earl Lloyd was signed to play with the Washington Capitols in 1956. Other black players were then signed not long after the Lloyd contract, as he was a game changer as an athlete.
Most folks know about the Jackie Robinson story, the first black player to play Major League Baseball. There were more than a few racist owners of the league teams back then, and Robinson's well documented battle to make it in the majors is an inspiring story.
The other major sport in the United States is of course, football. The NFL's history is a little more convoluted than the others,
Fact was, there were black professional football players from the very beginning. Not a lot, but there were some. In 1932, George Marshall took ownership of the Washington Redskins, and he made it clear that he wanted no black players on his team, or any other team in the league. Because of Marshall's prejudice and pressure tactics, there were no black NFL players until 1946 when the Los Angeles Rams applied for a lease on the Coliseum in L.A. There were city by-laws banning lease agreements to any groups that discriminated anyone, so the Rams had to sign some black players or no lease.
The league, while desegregated, still had few black players until the NFL merged with AFL in 1970. The AFL never banned blacks and had quite a few on their rosters, which was why the AFL was rapidly overtaking the NFL in popularity. The leagues merged and the remnants of racist policies were eradicated in the process.
My first coaching experience after graduating college was in Birmingham, Ala. To say I was unprepared to deal with the number of truly racist people I encountered would be a vast understatement.
I taught at a Christan academy and I had one black player, my point guard Kenny. When playing out of town teams on the road, I was often asked if I had any blacks on my team. I replied in the affirmative, and I inquired if that would be a problem. One particular principal in Gadsden, told me "No, but we like to be prepared."
Not knowing what that meant, I found out quickly when Kenny stole the ball from a Gadsden player, and that Gadsden player shoved Kenny out of bounds. When the ref called a foul, about six men stood up and start yelling racial pejoratives and the like. At that moment, six uniformed police rushed into the gym and arrested the men, quieting the gym like you would not believe. I thanked the principal after the game, and he said he thought something like that might happen so he was prepared.
I do know there are a lot less racists living in America than there were in 1975. There are some still around, and probably always will be. There is no accounting for ignorance.
I will finish this column next week with some personal history that may shed some light on how far our society has come since the '60s and '70s.
Editor's note: John McGee, an award-winning columnist, sports writer and art teacher at Pea Ridge elementary schools, writes a regular sports column for The Times. The opinions expressed are those of the writer. He can be contacted through The Times at [email protected]