Pitchers and catchers begin reporting to spring training this week, which is good for baseball fans. It warms one to know that spring is near. It especially warms one when the winter has been particularly fierce.
On February 15, 1956, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Athletics> had scheduled an exhibition game in Birmingham, Ala. But the city still had an ordinance in those Jim Crow years against black players being on the field with white players.
The game was canceled.
African American players on the A’s and Pirates that year included Harry Simpson, Curt Roberts and all-time great Roberto Clemente. (Hispanic players were oddly "classified" as black in those years, the very opposite of black players "passing" as Hispanic earlier in the century.) Baseball had been integrated for a decade in 1956, but segregation held on stubbornly. This chapter in American life is well documented, as I wrote last year, in Jules Tygiel’s biography of Jackie Robinson, Baseball’s Great Experiment.
Of course, it’s hard to know who actually was slated to take the field that day. February 15 is very early in the spring schedule, which started even later in those years then it starts now. And how much of Civil Rights-era politics was involved that day, or how much was simple rivalry between baseball schedulers … it’s hard to know what the reality was behind the cancellation that day.
But canceled it was.
It has been many years since those trying times, but it’s a cautionary reminder just how ordinary discrimination was. After a long winter, a baseball game was maybe just the thing to signal a change of season, a renewed outlook. But like a sudden storm, segregation washed away a nice afternoon.