It was the national pastime that didn't include all the nation. Black ballplayers, whether they were stars or run-of-the-mill, weren't allowed in the major leagues back then -- or many minor ones for that matter. They were consigned to their own leagues, separate but unequal. Which was the case with a good many other American institutions at the time.
Some white fans might have heard the name Josh Gibson -- some might even have seen him play if they could make their way into a game in the "Negro Leagues." But in general it was as if black ballplayers played in an alternate universe. Yet no one seemed to notice what was missing from this picture, except of course the missing, who were given one more grievance to nurse.
Happy Chandler would later say his conscience wouldn't let him tell black players they couldn't play in the majors after they'd fought for their country. But he knew better than to say such things out loud when he was baseball commissioner, or it would have cost him his job. Which it did when he began to speak up. After the club owners voted 15-to-Branch Rickey against integrating the majors, Chandler was not elected to a second term.
Happy Chandler was a one-man example of the conflicted, schizophrenic and just plain strange South I knew as a boy -- and thought perfectly natural. Albert Benjamin Chandler (though nobody ever called him anything but Happy) had been a reform governor of Kentucky, then a popular senator from that state before he took the commissioner's job, performing admirably in all those roles.
Especially as baseball commissioner. The players' friend, he got them a better pension plan and proposed a minimum salary for major-leaguers (all of $5,000 a year!) and faced down loudmouthed Leo Durocher, the rudest man in baseball, suspending him for a year for "an accumulation of unpleasant incidents ... detrimental to baseball." The owners didn't like his doing that, either; Durocher was a big draw.
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Leo the Lip, who was famous for declaring that "nice guys finish last," never changed. He would be just as offensive 20 years later when he was managing the Cubs and I was writing editorials critical of him for the old Chicago Daily News. He managed the Cubbies straight into the cellar that year -- to my intense satisfaction, proving that not just nice guys finish last. But he stayed great copy. I have to give him that.
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Happy Chandler would go on to back the Dixiecrats in 1948, but he called out the National Guard in 1956 to enforce racial integration and the law of the land in Kentucky, leaving it to Orval Faubus to foist a Little Rock Crisis on Arkansas a year later. But by 1968 he was angling for the vice-presidential nomination on George Wallace's ticket that year. Try to make sense of that political pattern. I can't.
The simplest explanation I can come up with is that racism drives even the best of us nuts. I know. Some of my best friends were -- and probably still are -- segs. (I've never believed in letting politics interfere with friendship. It's uncivilized, and solves nothing. It's also just plain un-Southern.)
That whole strange time came back to me when I took in the exhibit on black baseball now on through December 1 at the Mosaic Templars museum in Little Rock. Don't miss it if you're a baseball fan, or even if you're not. The style of the paintings, supplied courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, is a striking mix of Norman Rockwell, Second World War posters, 1940s pop art, and glossy magazine illustrations that could have come out of Collier's or the Saturday Evening Post. But they're all pure Americana. Like a high fast one coming out of the shadows late on a long-ago afternoon in some ballpark now torn down -- like Ray Winder Field in Little Rock, once home to the Arkansas Travelers of the Texas League, who now have moved across the river to a fashionable little retro jewel box of a ballfield in North Little Rock.
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There's no doubt about my favorite painting in this show -- for very personal reasons. It's Willie Foster & Young Fans by Kadir Nelson. It depicts a bunch of little black kids holding huge Willie Foster's uniform, glove and cleats, doubtless hoping their services will get them into the game free.
The backdrop is Wright Avenue in Pittsburgh's black business district circa 1933, but it could be Texas Avenue in Shreveport around the same time, when we lived above my father's shoe repair shop. I would have been about the same age as those urchins in the picture, and just as baseball-crazy. Sure enough, there's a shoe shop in the painting. Perfect.
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As an Extra Added Bonus, as it used to say on the back of the cereal boxes (Wheaties and Post Toasties), the visitor to the museum gets a brief history of racial segregation and integration in minor-league ball here in Arkansas. The two were as entwined as everything else in the South.
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This exhibit has been lovingly assembled, you can tell, by a fan of baseball and America, which can be synonymous. Did you know the Hot Springs Bathers were thrown out of the old Cotton States League for daring to insert a couple of black players -- the Tugerson brothers -- into their line-up in 1953? The Bathers forfeited the game for their trouble.
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The paintings, striking and charming and wonderfully out-of-date, take you back. To a place you don't ever want to go again. But, strangely enough, want to visit. Southerners will grow nostalgic for near about anything. Maybe because we remember the people -- black, white and other -- as real, and the racial stupidities, cruelties and just plain absurdities as abstractions superimposed on what mattered most. And in the South, what mattered most and still does is the personal. May it always be so.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)