by Clark Groome
Ben Chapman’s horrific racist rant when Jackie Robinson made his first appearance against the Philadelphia Phillies at Shibe Park in 1947 is one of the dramatic highlights (lowlights?) in the film “42.”
Philadelphians can’t be happy about the way the city is portrayed in the fine movie that chronicles the first year of Robinson’s Major League career.
Not only were Chapman’s outrageous comments totally inappropriate, the movie also reminds us that the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, where Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers usually stayed, refused to give him a room. (The team found accommodations at the Bellevue Stratford.) Clearly our reputation as the City of Brotherly Love didn’t apply in 1947, especially if you were a “brother.”
“42” is but part of this season’s focus on the role of black athletes in the National Pastime. Several major articles have appeared in the New York Times and elsewhere about the diminishing number of African American athletes who have, in recent years, chosen to play professional baseball.
Two recent interviews – one with Phillies President David Montgomery and the other with Mt. Airy Native and 1971 Chestnut Hill Academy graduate David Sims, a nationally known sportscaster who is, among other things, the Seattle Mariners’ TV play-by-play voice – have cast some light on the reasons why this is happening.
Sims, who was recently in town to receive the CHA Alumni Association’s highest award, noted, “Baseball’s a father and son sport.” Growing up he was fortunate to have both parents in his life, he says, and that helped not only with his love of baseball but also with his staying focused when he was one of the first black kids to attend CHA.
Wyndmoor resident Montgomery said, “I’ve heard a number of African American players talk about this. Baseball has historically been a game you start with your dad taking you out for a catch. You end up playing with a group in the neighborhood, but it’s the influence of the father figure [that gets the kid interested]. Jimmy [Rollins] credits his involvement with the game to the hours he spent with his dad.”
Montgomery also noted that many of the black athletes who receive the most attention play in the NBA or the NFL. In those leagues, he says, “the individual marketing of players is not done by teams. it’s done by the Nikes of the world or the Under Armours. So the impressions that young men see is of basketball and football players.”
Both Montgomery and Sims noted that a basketball or football player drafted by the pros is likely to be on the squad within a year or two. It takes a player a lot longer to work his way through the minor leagues in baseball before coming to the Bigs.
“If you’re going to grab for the sport that gives you the quickest gratification,” Montgomery said, “you’re not going to go for the one that sends you to Williamsport and Lakewood and Reading.”
“Contrast baseball with the immediate gratification that you get from basketball and football,” he said. “If you’re high level in those two sports you can make a one-year transition. At the very least you’re holding a clipboard or you might be at the end of the bench or you might even be playing. It doesn’t work like that in baseball.”
Sims also noted that the great black player and manager Frank Thomas said that “if you make it, even if you’re an average player, you can play 10 years. You’ve got the best union in the history of mankind, benefits like crazy and a great way of life. You come out of it, as opposed to your football brethren, with your mind and body intact.”
Baseball is no longer the urban sport it was in the past, Sims said. “Years ago, during the summertime, every playground, every neighborhood had some kind of Little League, some kind of baseball, some kind of softball,” he noted. “Now the fields are overgrown.”
But he added: “The family breakdown [in the black community] has the most to do with it.”
It’s interesting that “42,” set in 1946 and 1947, is about getting blacks on the field, and that here we are 56 years later wondering how to get them back.
As for Philadelphia: How have our city and our team done? Well, it took until 1957 for the Phils to sign shortstop John Kennedy as their first black player. They weren’t the last team to integrate, however. That distinction belongs to the Boston Red Sox who signed infielder Pumpsie Green in 1959.
But how’s this for a bit of irony? This season, the Philadelphia Phillies have more African American players – six (Domonic Brown, Ryan Howard, John Mayberry Jr., Ben Revere, Jimmy Rollins and Delmon Young) – than any other team in the Major Leagues.
What a difference a generation makes, eh?