I was almost twenty years in writing Key to a Cold City. I should clarify that the work began about twenty years ago, and then the project was pushed aside for a long time. Now that I’ve retired from teaching, I’m paying renewed attention to some of those undertakings that never quite got off the ground. This was the most challenging of them all.
The book had its origin in a lazy day of looking through the first baseball cards I ever collected: sets clipped with scissors off the backs of Post Cereal boxes in 1962 and 1963. Believe me, there was a lot of pleasant nostalgia in revisiting those days of early childhood. Yet as an adult, I found myself puzzled that so many young players with brilliant stats had simply dropped off the radar in the intervening years. Even today, kids know (more or less) who Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are… but Vada Pinson? George Altman? The statistics in the latter cases could have come from the cards of the former two: Pinson and Altman were that good in the early Sixties. What happened?
I wondered, as I compiled more and more such cases, if racial prejudice had not utterly disappeared after Jackie Robinson’s arrival on the big-league scene in 1947. The book began in the hypothesis that it had passed somewhat underground without actually evaporating. Oh, there were white players who raised similar questions. Why didn’t Don Demeter blossom as his stats promised? Why did two-time batting champ Pete Runnels seem to spiral into oblivion in the middle of a brilliant career? These cases, however, were fewer and also less severe most of the time. I mean, Pistol Pete did have enough of a chance that he carried home two batting titles!
I’m not offering a review of my own book here. I’ve made access to it available through these links: Amazon Kindle and Amazon paperback. (I managed to ratchet the cost of the latter way down by ditching the little bit of red ink used in four graphs; the graphs themselves are relatively unimportant, the red letters should remain distinct as a lighter gray, and the price reduction was an incredible $30!) I will only say further here of the book’s contents that I find racial issues to be immensely complex. I’ve developed a real dislike—even a kind of smoldering fury—at how the “r” word is tossed about every time a person of color is caught in a sleazy act. Real racism shouldn’t be deflated in this manner: its existence shouldn’t validate a “get out of jail” card for grafters and shysters. Guys in the Sally League were having to dodge bottles and batteries as they tried to follow play from left field. Their ordeal was nothing remotely like that of a corrupt city mayor who gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
The specific reason I bring the issue of racial prejudice in the Fifties up here is that I truly believe skin color to have been a secondary factor in the discrimination I researched—a kind of ready-made “yellow star” for front-office dopes who couldn’t express their more abstract concerns. White owners and managers at that time wanted machine-like offenses powered primarily by the home run. The black players who were filtered to them through the Negro Leagues were well versed in bunting, chopping, hitting to all fields, base-stealing… all things that the MLB brain trust associated with a sloppy, silly, out-of-control game. I’m sure that the association fed right into the stereotype of the kid of African descent as wild, fun-loving, and disorderly. Here’s the point, though: the stereotype didn’t produce the distaste for creative, unpredictable baseball—the distaste came first, and (what do you know?) the young black players on trial were prime offenders.
Now, some of the recruits learned to adjust their game. These are the household names: Mays, Aaron, Banks, Robinson. Jackie was actually never a slugger of this caliber: I concluded the study very much convinced that Branch Rickey would have used his Negro League style as an excuse to send him back down if “the experiment” had damaged ticket sales. It was Rickey who ruined George Altman’s prospects by pressuring him to pull the ball over the fence. A great many other players who had dropped off history’s radar apparently had the same trouble. Guys like Curt Flood and Floyd Robinson who could have been the next Pete Runnels were instead trying to muscle up and emulate the young Willie McCovey. Another Willie by the last name of Kirkland was in fact given a very long leash, considering his series of miserable batting averages, because he showed promise in generating “jacks”.
I know I will irritate some people if I say that this situation comes very close to many we see at SmallBallSuccess.com. Racial prejudice is supposed to be the ultimate misery that anyone may suffer… but to a boy or young man whose whole life is playing ball, not getting a fair chance to play ball is the ultimate misery. Kids like Jake Wood and Ted Savage, though they were obviously five-tool players, were benched or demoted because, it was said, they struck out too much—but they were striking out too much because management was telling them to pull the hell out of everything! That’s the precise situation in which my son found himself during his senior year in high school. He eventually became a successful college pitcher; not every boy of smaller build has that kind of versatility. Albie Pearson and Dick Hauser scored tons of runs during the brief time they were given to audition in the big leagues. Though white lads, however, they seemed to be simply reserving a slot in the line-up until a taller prospect arrived at their position. A promising Georgia boy called “Coot” Veal was taught four or five different batting styles by the “experts” until he didn’t know up from down, all because he came up as that most loathsome of creatures, a front-foot hitter. Veal, too, was Caucasian; but I found case after case of young black prospects having to submit to precisely the same “lean back and hack” brainwashing that destroyed their success at the plate.
Well, hitting off the front foot happens to be one of the techniques we preach on this site. The Negro Leagues, in fact, were a veritable repository of Deadball Era tactics that white baseball had consigned to the dustbin of history. Funny how, half a century later, the game still seems to be waging that war against smaller players who employ offbeat styles to get on base. They’re not welcome. The 6’8” slugger who strikes out once a game and can do nothing to thwart a radical shift is on every GM’s Christmas list.
Let’s keep up the fight. You can’t argue with winning—and eventually even the densest of coaching know-it-alls will have to give you playing time if you’re always on base.