The emphasis on being first at something can obscure the struggles of those following the pioneer. As a young child, for example, I was only dimly aware of the importance of Jackie Robinson in American culture. However, before I reached my mid-teens, I was surely aware of the problem of being Black but athletic enough “to play a game for money,” as some people contemptuously put it in my hometown, Pittsburgh.
I was a witness to the perception and treatment of Black Pittsburgh Pirates in the two decades after Brooklyn gave Robinson a uniform, when “the door” was open, but….
To be sure, memory is manipulated by passing time, but the following stories are true. The first is easily verifiable, the other two not so much.
For me, Bucs of any color were, by dint of their uniform, wonderful. Before long, though, I realized it wasn’t that simple.
In my eyes, Roberto Clemente, The Great One, was just that. He tracked down balls in right no others could, and if pitchers had thrown rosin bags to him, he would have turned those too into screaming line drives into the right-center alley.
The thing was, however, heavily Slavic and Polish Pittsburgh didn’t quite know how to take their only Black and Latino superstar, and the feeling appeared to be mutual. That Clemente spoke heavily accented English didn’t help the situation. The press sometimes quoted him semi-phonetically, reviving a practice from Ring Lardner’s time: Clemente preferred to play in warmer weather? He liked it “veree hot.” Also, he “heet” pitches, unlike teammates.
The other thing was the player’s frankness with the press about his health. Clemente was often referred to as “moody,” although this may have been related to a chronic insomnia problem.
At various times, he also complained about his back, legs, neck, and stomach. Thus, the outfielder was considered a “whiner,” and in a time before political correctness, a couple of my young friends turned that into “a Rican whiner” or “a lazy n*****.” Moreover, seemingly nice, reasonably tolerant adults always recalled the fly ball Clemente didn’t reach, no matter that he made a circus catch in that game and went 3 for 4. Some of those adults used that special word too.
It literally took the player’s dying for the sake of others to completely stop that nonsense. However, it takes little effort to still find comments on the internet about Clemente being “prickly,” though some now are sort of backhanded compliments.
They have to be. Clemente was clearly the best ever to suit up with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Wilver Dornel Stargell eventually became a player as beloved in Western Pennsylvania as Honus Wagner or Clemente-in-retrospect. He won over the ‘Burgh with tape-measure homers and a winning personality. It didn’t hurt that he debuted several years after Clemente either. That didn’t mean his ride was without bumps, though, and I personally found that out following a day game at Forbes Field in 1962 or ’63, when Stargell was still young.
At that time, players actually exited the ballpark into departing fans if they had showered quickly, and I couldn’t believe my luck when I recognized Willie in the crowd. I approached him for an autograph. He quietly took the slip of paper and pen, and then it happened.
“Hey, Stargell, you’re a n*****!”
I felt a visceral jolt somewhere between my spine and stomach that I’ve learned means DANGER – and possibly to me. I turned left and back, and saw a small, 50-ish white man sporting three days growth of beard, which was definitely not considered stylish back then. He was about thirty feet away, he seemed drunk, and he yelled again, slurring:
“You’re a n*****, Stargell!”
My thought then had nothing to do with Pittsburgh Pirates: Willie’s going to kill this little twerp right in front of me…
But the player continued to carefully sign his name, now a nearly forgotten approach in autographs. He never even glanced right, where the drunk continued muttering insults. The player who would eventually become Pittsburgh’s “Pops” handed me his signature, and I said, “Thanks.” He walked away slowly, never looking back. I looked again for the drunk, but he’d disappeared.
Years later I learned that Willie Stargell had played minor league ball in Texas, New Mexico, and North Carolina, and I came to my own conclusions about the development of his composure under pressure.
Pittsburgh, however, never featured a high-profile sports figure – say, a team manager – who defined the city negatively for decades on the issue of race as Ben Chapman did Philadelphia by his abuse of Jackie Robinson. With far fewer African-Americans than many American cities, The Steel City somehow came to embrace Clemente, Stargell, Manny Mota, and Matty Alou within five years of the above incident.
And there were lighter moments as well – I think…
I’d imagine many others roughly my age could verify this story, but I wouldn’t know how to locate them.
Alvin O’Neal McBean was a hard-throwing, seemingly cheerful, right-handed reliever for the mid-60s Pittsburgh Pirates. I got to see this Black ballplayer up close many times because classmates and I often sat in the left field bleachers along the foul line at Forbes Field (for $1.25).
Just below the first row of seats was the Pirates bullpen – with its braced, metal roof, which wasn’t very sturdy, but sturdy enough to hold a human body. Anyway, McBean used to put a banana up on the front edge of the roof, and inevitably a kid, usually white, would crawl out and try to grab it. Somehow (was there a small hole in the roof or was he just going by sound?) McBean always knew when the kid was “just about there,” and he snatched the banana away at the last second. I saw this more than once.
It was a tiny vaudeville act – really very funny from my junior high point of view.
A pivotal question came to mind later: Was McBean ever called a “monkey,” a semi-popular slur of the day? If that could be answered, the color of this story might well change.
I’d like to think his trick was merely an amusement, but what we’d like isn’t what we get sometimes – as these Pittsburgh Pirates could tell you. The pitcher may have been making monkeys out of us white kids.