Sunday, November 17, 2013

Green Light for Baseball

I had the privilege of moderating a panel on "Desegregating Baseball: The Kentucky Connection" at the Kentucky Book Fair. It was a informative and insightful discussion, primarily focusing on Harold "Pee Wee" Reese, Albert B. "Happy" Chandler, and Jackie Robinson.

Dick Usher as Pee Wee Reese
Dick Usher, a Chautauqua performer with the Kentucky Humanities Council, provided a touching performance that brought the baseball hall of famer from Ekron in Meade County back to life for 30 minutes in the Old Capitol chamber. We learned about Reese's strength of character and sense of fairness that helped pave the way for Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

Former Kentucky congressman and state attorney general Ben Chandler recalled time spent with his grandfather, who talked to him about this important period in American history when he served as Commissioner of Baseball. While some have questioned Chandler's importance during that time -- and many believe he was an integral figure -- his grandson noted that his grandfather provided a "green light" for Robinson to play after decades of "red light" governance by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
Ben Chandler

And Ben Chandler also pointed out, which many have forgotten, that Chandler opened the door for Robinson and other black baseball players seven years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended Jim Crow (separate but equal) laws in public schools.

Chris Lamb, a professor of journalism at Indiana University in Indianapolis, provided commentary about the events leading up to Robinson becoming the first black in Major League Baseball. His outstanding book, "A Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball," chronicles the roadblocks and obstacles encountered by black baseball players in the years leading up to Robinson's courageous and historic stance against the odds.

Lamb talked about how Landis and most owners of the Major League teams refused to budge on the race issue. He noted the perseverance by black sportswriters and black newspapers to keep pressing to desegregate baseball.  And sadly, how most of the white sportswriters remained silent on the issue.

And a major turning point, according to Lamb's research, was how black Americans could serve in the military to end racism in Europe and then return home to racism in their home country. Many Americans began to understand it wasn't right.

William Marshall addressed Happy Chandler's role in desegregating baseball and
how the "green light" opened the door for such great black players as Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe to play alongside whites in America's great pastime. Marshall, the retired director of Special Collections and Archives at the University of Kentucky Libraries, is the author of distinguished "Baseball's Pivotal Era: 1945-51," another scholarly but entertaining book about desegregation and social change.

I would urge those who are interested in baseball, history, and significant events to read these books. And if you ever get the opportunity to see Dick Usher as Pee Wee Reese, or perhaps invite him into a classroom or civic event, do it. You won't be disappointed; in fact you'll be enriched and enlightened by reading the books and seeing the history come to life.

Until the next time....

(The program was taped by Frankfort Plant Board Television. I'll try to get it posted on YouTube.)

As promised, here are the videos of the panel discussion:

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