This month the new film about Jackie Robinson’s life, “42,” was released. It details the trials and travails of the baseball legend as he becomes the first Black player to play major league baseball in America. There are some, and at times this writer is one of them, who believe that too great of an emphasis is placed on sports — that a deification of sports icons takes place in our society sometimes with tragic results.
Sports do indeed function as a lens through which American life and society is viewed, so it can provide valuable and compelling insight into our collective issues and ills. The smashing of the color-line in baseball was truly a pivotal moment in American sports and history. Nevertheless, I think that we should also reflect on the other side of the coin, as it were: the guys who didn’t make it and the reason they didn’t.
The invisible asterisk
This writer has always been a student of sports (especially football). I have studied the record books of the “Big Three” of sports (baseball, basketball and football) and some people have considered my knowledge of these encyclopedic – or annoying, depending on whom you ask. Anyhow, the one thing that has been extremely interesting in these studies is the asterisks next to certain records.
There was an asterisk next to Roger Maris’s old single season homerun record, calling attention to the fact that his 61 home runs were obtained in a 162-game season and Babe Ruth’s 60 occurred in 154 games. There have been asterisks next to the names of Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis and Jamaal Lewis because they surpassed 2,000 yards rushing in a 16-game season, whereas the original 2,000-yard rusher, O.J. Simpson, accomplished this feat in 14 games.
There was even an asterisk next to the name of Otto Graham when he was still among the top 10 of the NFL’s all-time quarterbacks a couple of years ago. The notation for the asterisk stated that if the records from the All American Football Conference (a football league that briefly rivaled the NFL from 1946 to 1949 – the two leagues merged in 1950) were counted, then his place among the NFL’s all-time passers would have been higher. Some time ago, on the official website for the NFL’s Hall of Fame, they recognized his AAFC statistics – as a result, he now stands at No. 16 all-time. So as you can see, there is an asterisk for just about everything.
I began to think, however, about all the places where asterisks should appear and don’t. I thought of those who were never afforded the opportunity to make their mark or realize their full potential.
This is not in regard to Lou Gehrig, Sandy Koufax, Gale Sayers, Reggie Lewis or any of the great athletes whose careers were cut short by an injury or unforeseen tragedy, but of those individuals such as Josh Gibson, Warren Moon and Leroy “Satchel” Paige (and many more) whose full greatness was never completely realized because of discrimination and bigotry.
For example, the name of Josh Gibson is seldom or never mentioned when speaking of the single season and career home run records (and when Barry Bonds had the “audacity” to insinuate that Josh Gibson was a greater slugger than the American Institution Babe Ruth, sports writers across America let him have it with both barrels).
In various publications, the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder has been credited with as many as 84 homers in one season. His Hall of Fame plaque says he hit “almost 800” homers in his 17-year career. His lifetime batting average was higher than .350, with one book putting it at .384, best in Negro League history. Gibson died of a stroke at the age of 35 in 1947 (three months before Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers) without ever receiving the opportunity or credit his talent deserved. Alas, there will never be an asterisk next to Babe Ruth’s legend.
A “nigger chance”
Black college quarterbacks, for the longest time, were either ignored altogether or, when an opportunity came, got one shot. When they weren’t immediate sensations – and quarterbacks rarely are, Black or White – they were shifted to traditionally “Black positions,” (running back, defensive back and receiver) where their “natural athleticism” (old school NFL language for “Black”) would serve them better.
“As a black QB, they are constantly trying to switch you to another position,” said James Harris in 1974, when he was the lone Black NFL starting quarterback, playing for the Los Angeles Rams. His success was short-lived. “Blacks get two types of opportunities to play quarterback in the NFL: a chance and a ‘nigger’ chance,» says Harris. «One mistake and you were gone.”
The long-held belief in the intellectual and social inferiority of Blacks was the foundation that prevented and limited opportunities. (The comments that Rush Limbaugh made concerning Donovan McNabb, several years ago, tells us that traces of these beliefs still linger).
Warren Moon, one of the most prolific passers in NFL history (the most in Professional Football when his CFL statistics are considered) had to begin his career in Canada because of the bigoted notions of many in the NFL during this time. When Moon graduated from Washington, Black quarterbacks in the NFL were rare and generally unsuccessful. Willie Thrower, Marlin Briscoe and Joe Gilliam had tried before him. Doug Williams was treated like a trailblazer when he was chosen in the first round by Tampa Bay in 1978.
A few teams, particularly in the South, probably feared a fan backlash as well. So Warren was urged to become a running back or a safety. At 6-foot, 3 inches, 210 pounds, he had the right size for either one; but he refused. He wanted to be a quarterback and when he was not chosen in the draft (which lasted 12 rounds back then), Warren signed with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL.
He soon won five league titles. In NFL career passing statistics, Warren Moon is: 3rd in attempted passes, 5th in total touchdown passes, 3rd in total passes completed and 3rd in total yards passing. Where would he stand in the annals of NFL history had he not been discriminated against? We are left only to guess — without a single asterisk to guide us.
The question left unanswered by too many
Satchel Paige did not reach the majors — with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 — until he was in his 40s. Before that time it is reported he pitched 50 no-hitters and surpassed Cy Young (Major League Baseball’s winningest pitcher, with 511 wins) in games won.
Sure the baseball aficionados pay homage to Paige now, but where is his name in Major League Baseball’s all-time record book? Where would it be had it not been for institutional and systemic racism? Cy Young’s legendary status remains unchallenged and yes – no asterisk. There is not adequate space or time to name all who have eaten the bitter fruit of racial discrimination in sports. For now, these examples will have to do.
Some might say that we will never know, so why bother? Others are quick to cite people such as Doug Flutie not getting a fair shake because of his height (or some other obscure or insignificant factor) – as if height discrimination should have equal footing with slavery and Jim Crow (the NAAVC – The National Association for the Advancement of the Vertically Challenged? Nah… doesn’t work for me either).
I fully realize that life is filled with unanswered questions. That is one of the more interesting characteristics about sports, the all-consuming “what if.” What if Bill Buckner would have snagged that grounder? What if Sandy Koufax would have played longer? What would happen if the 1972 Dolphins played the 1985 Bears?
What if the Portland Trail Blazers would have selected Michael Jordan with the second pick instead of Sam Bowie, in the 1984 NBA Draft? What if Len Bias wouldn’t have died of a drug overdose? I am not disturbed by not knowing, but by the reason we do not know. The reason we do not know is ugly, hideous and unworthy to be counted among the attributes of a society that claims to be a shining example of fairness and equality.
Imagine this scenario: I am teacher in a classroom and I’m administering a test to determine who the best student is. For no good reason, I exclude five students from taking this test. When the test is completed (by those who had been allowed to take it) I raise the hand of the student with the highest score; and in the presence of the excluded students I proclaim this student to be “the best.” Now, by this gesture, what am I saying about greatness? What am I saying about equality?
Yes, there are some who may say that by writing this article I am implying that legends such as Babe Ruth, Dan Marino, John Elway, Ty Cobb or Cy Young have not achieved or are not deserving of greatness. Nothing could be further from the truth. I too have marveled at their exploits. It isn’t their achievements that are called into question, but the designations of “greatest” and “best.”
As we further pondered this issue of prominence achieved by way of exclusion, I began to think about my educational experience as a student. I rarely, if ever, heard the words “greatest” and “best” used in reference to a woman (the closest I’ve come to hearing it was with Amelia Earhart when she was called, not the greatest pilot, but the greatest “female” pilot).
Not in my history, social studies or English classes. And that is the heart of the matter. How can greatness truly be measured when some are excluded? How absolute is the portrait of achievement when the colors we use to paint it with are incomplete?
Discrimination and prejudice have a way of obscuring true achievement and call into question our ideas about “greatest”…“unsurpassed”…“best.” This composition is dedicated to all whose dreams were thwarted not by a lack of talent, skill or determination, but by narrow minds and intolerant hearts. Cheers and asterisks to you.