In my 10-year-old mind, you see, baseball had no color.For that, I thank Jackie Robinson.
But baseball represented that peaceful sanctuary, universal language and common understanding that bonded folks of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. The aura, the strategy, the camaraderie, the competition, the distinctive smell of freshly cut grass . . . that was the game I fell in love with from the days of tossing a rubber ball against the steps of our front porch as a 4-year-old--pretending to be Johnny Temple or Roy McMillan of the Cincinnati Reds--to competing in Little League, high school and American Legion ball.
Being awarded the Jackie Robinson Trophy as the first Most Valuable Player of West Gary Little League in 1959 was an honor that has grown in personal significance in this, the 50th year since Robinson broke baseball's color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers. I played second base that year, as did Robinson most of his career, but my hero was Nellie Fox of the White Sox. I mimicked Fox's ever-present chaw of tobacco by tucking a sour grape ball in my jaw. Baseball then had no color for me.
Robinson broke major-league baseball's color barrier a year before I was born, dramatically affecting not only the sports world, but also the way political powers viewed the issue of providing opportunities for blacks.
Still, the process of meaningful racial integration was slow and in many cases begrudging. I remember collecting baseball cards and learning through overhearing adult conversations that the Boston Red Sox were the last major-league team to sign a black player. Somehow that wasn't on the back of Pumpsie Green's trading card.
The name Jackie Robinson soon became a euphemism for any black who was the first in his field. When my father, LeRoy Mitchell Jr., was named the superintendent of labor relations at Inland Steel Company in 1963, he privately called himself "the Jackie Robinson" of his department.
Robinson's acquiescent disposition during the spate of racist incidents on the diamond became a standard of behavior to which many blacks subscribed until the late 1960s, when activists sought change through more expedient pro-active measures.
My father's passion for baseball was passed on like a family heirloom. He was an infielder at the University of Cincinnati before playing semipro with the all-black Cincinnati Mangrums in the mid-1940s. His infatuation for the game superseded bitter recollections of ugly incidents that left indelible emotional scars. I remember listening to the hurt in his voice when he talked about his coach telling him he couldn't stay in the same hotel as his white teammates for a game in Kentucky.
I remember hearing the woeful tales of how his all-black semipro teams were forced to use separate restrooms and water fountains, Yet his love for the game was unwavering. He routinely took me and my brothers, Bud and Steve, to Cubs games (even though he despised the Cubs) at Wrigley Field and his beloved Reds games at old Crosley Field.
My father and two of my uncles, Austin Tillotson, 82, of Cincinnati, and Astor Tillotson, 76, of East Chicago, Ind., played baseball with and against many of the Negro League stars who have been inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame in recent years.
"I played against Willie Wells," Austin Tillotson said of the recent Hall of Fame selectee. "Buck O'Neill, Double Duty Radcliffe . . . a lot of them."
Astor added: "Josh Gibson could have been the first. He could hit the cover off the ball. But he had other problems. Robinson had something between his ears and that made him a good choice."
The Chicago American Giants of the Negro American League asked Austin to play center field for them occasionally while he was still in high school.
"I had to use another name, though, so I could keep my eligibility," he said. "Sometimes we would play three games in one day. We would play games at fairs, then hop on the bus and play somewhere else. And then finish up with a night game. A lot of places wouldn't give us a place to shower and some of our players would get sick. I remember changing clothes in a barn."
asked Austin if he thought then the racial climate would change in America, or if blacks some day would be allowed to play major league baseball.
"It was a no-no and we accepted it. (Segregation) was so ingrained in us that we never gave it any thought," he said.
"When I was in the service, I played against (former Dodger Hall of Fame shortstop) Pee Wee Reese and (former Yankee great) Joe DiMaggio. Reese was a real friendly guy and he knew a lot of us could play. He kind of hinted that I could have played (in the majors)."
Astor Tillotson, a third baseman, got a hit off major-league Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean when Dean's barnstorming club faced a team of black players at Block Stadium in East Chicago during World War II.
"It was a base hit right up the middle. I still have the writeup in the paper somewhere in the house. Dean picked me off of second base, though. He was still pretty savvy," said Astor, who used to wear a uniform handed down from the Chicago Cubs.
"Satchel Paige pitched for us and Dean pitched for the white team. I think it was 1944. We had five or six guys that I think could have played in the majors, if they had been given a chance.
"Red McClain, Del Miles, Henry Milton, O.C. McCarthy, William Henry Rancifer . . . a lot of great ballplayers.
"But they never got the chance."
It is hoped this year's 50-year celebration of Robinson's pioneering effort will be as much a reminder of how far we have come as it is a springboard to where we are headed.