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Berger’s Burg: Hate and prejudice plagued the early days of baseball

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Sport is one area where no participant is worried about another’s race, religion or wealth: and where the only concern is “Have you come to playi” — Henry Roxborough

(Editor’s Note: Not true in baseball until 1947.)

Everyone knows I am a football fanatic, particularly when it involves my New York Giants. But when I was young, I was a baseball fanatic. I followed the Brooklyn Dodgers before I was old enough to read.

How can I forget the Dodger stars that passed through my eyes: Harold “Pee Wee” Reese (shortstop), Edwin “Duke” Snider (outfielder) and Whitlow Wyatt (pitcher)i To me, no other players were as talented. But they had one thing in common: All were white and gentile, as were the other players in the Major League.

I was aware of a “Negro League,” with five or six teams representing American cities. I never saw them play, but followed in the newspapers the scores of the exhibition games they played against white major leaguers. Whenever they won, I attributed it to the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the white players who were not really trying. Baseball had the best players and they all happened to be white.

With the signing by the Dodgers of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the majors, in 1947, my entire perspective changed. Many teams began signing more black players and the color barrier was bent, but not broken. Black players were still subjected to taunts and threats by fans and players.

Robinson, for one, was instructed to ignore these gestures. When Reese, a player from Kentucky, finally placed his arm around Jackie’s shoulders during a game, the barrier was finally broken for good.

To illustrate the folly of team’s minimizing the number of black players on the field at the same time, the then-New York Giants signed both Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, two of the greatest ballplayers of all time. But rather than having two-thirds of their outfield black, they traded Aaron to the Braves. Can you imagine the great team the Giants would have had for years if they only were a little more color blindi

Although some Jewish ballplayers were tolerated in the early years, they also faced abuse. The Bronx’s Hank Greenberg was a prime example. He was chosen by the New York Yankees to play behind first-baseman Lou Gehrig. Rather than being a backup substitute, Greenberg opted to be traded and he landed in Detroit, one of the most anti-Semitic cities in America in the 1930s.

Greenberg tried overlooking the harassment from teammates and opposing players, but finally the hate became too overbearing. Walking his 6-foot-4, muscular body to the opposing team’s dugout, he challenged the biggest bigot there to meet him outside after the game. The coward cowered and the religious taunting abated.

Unfortunately, it subtly and insidiously continued. When Greenberg hit 58 home runs and was on his way to topping Babe Ruth’s record of 60, opposing pitchers intentionally walked him, rather than allowing him to swing for the fences. They did not want a Jew beating Babe Ruth’s record.

Italian ballplayers were not immune to bigotry. They encountered religious slurs based on their ethnicity and Catholic faith. Ernie Lombardi, a catcher with a prominent nose, heard aspersions about his “Italian nose” every time he came to bat.

According to Long Island University professor Joseph Dorinson, before 1947 Italian-American baseball players had to deal with a virulent stream of abuse from established baseball stars. When Italian umpire Babe Pinelli called a third strike on Babe Ruth, considered by many to be the savior of baseball after the 1919 gambling scandal, Ruth called Pinelli a “blind d---.”

Even the great Joe DiMaggio got his share of abuse. “Joe D.” became embittered in 1938 after he held out for a higher salary and the press and fans took the side of management. They lambasted him in the newspapers and booed him at the ballpark. DiMaggio was receiving a salary of $25,000 a year. Thankfully, baseball grew up and, as Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Its racial and religious segregation is now over.

Today, the number of black and Hispanic players outnumber the white ones. This is not reverse segregation, but the acknowledgement that players are now chosen on the basis of skill and not race or religion. To quote the motto of the Olympic Games, baseball has become “citius, altius, fortius” — swifter, higher stronger.

Contact Alex Berger at timesledgernews@cnglocal.com.

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