Monday, October 31, 2011

Desegregating the Minnesota Twins (1964)

Kwame McDonald died last week and I have respectful, kind memories of him!
by Charlie Leck

“If you love yourself, you will never let you down!”

Kwame McDonald thought you had to have self-love and self-confidence. “If you love yourself,” he said, “you will never let you down.” He tried to teach this to children who had every reason to lack self-confidence.

Mr. McDonald died last week at the age of 80. I met the man only briefly in 1964, but I have read plenty about him and I heard him chattering about sports and kids in sports a number of times on the radio. I grew to like him and looked forward to the day when, perhaps, I’d get to spend some time with him and talk about some of the things we had in common. It never happened. I just didn’t try hard enough to make it happen. So, it was my own damned fault.

Here’s where I’ll begin in telling you about Mr. McDonald. When the Minnesota Twins came into existence up here – moving from Washington, D.C. and changing their name from the Washington Senators – Mr. McDonald worked for the Urban League here in Minnesota. He also dabbled in writing about sports for the local newspaper that served mainly the black, minority community. He heard the Twins kept segregated housing facilities for their players at the spring training facility in Florida. It didn’t sit well with him and he didn’t think it was right morally or even as a “team-building” strategy. So, in 1963, he led a small campaign to convince the team to change its policy. After several years of dragging their feet, the Twins ownership and management staff, including their Travel Secretary, with whom I was well acquainted, didn’t hesitate after the Urban League and the NAACP got involved. They saw the sense that Mr. McDonald was making and the change came swiftly and completely after that.

That year – 1964 – was the same year that I went down to Mississippi to make a contribution, as a civil rights worker – to the Mississippi Voter Registration Project. So, I felt a kinship with Mr. McDonald when I read about him in the newspaper. In the autumn of ’64 he was invited to lecture at the graduate school I attended. The entire school gathered to hear him. He didn’t want to talk about the small movement he led to integrate all of the Twins’ facilities. He wanted to talk to us about our own attitudes and how strong we needed to be on matters of racial justice. He always pointed to the children and he pleaded that they needed a break. They needed to grow up in a world of justice and equality. Kwame McDonald loved children.


Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in 1946, but life wasn’t easy for him. It took some years before white players would treat him with respect. There were always nagging problems for him at hotels and restaurants during spring training in Florida and when the team was on the road during the season. Jackie Robinson was an extraordinary ball player, but he had to be tough in ways that white players didn’t and he put up with insults and general injustices and always seemed to keep smiling.

This past spring, I visited a high school classmate of mine who lives down in southern Georgia. She had a big surprise for me. Knowing how much baseball is a part of my soul, she took me out for a little drive to the little town of Cairo. On a quiet, country road, she stopped the car in front of a small piece of property where there stood a lonely chimney and, on a pole, some sort of notification sign.

“Come on,” she said, “this will interest you.”

I climbed from the car and up the little bank that led up to the property. I turned and looked at the sign. “Birthplace of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American in Major League Baseball.”

It did affect me. A tear swelled up in my eye and a lump grew in my throat. How I remember the blurring speed of Jackie Robinson as he tore around first place and headed for second after stroking a line drive into one of the outfield gaps. I hated the Brooklyn Dodgers just as my old man did, but I loved Jackie Robinson and my heart was always pulling for him and cheering for him in every Dodger game I saw.

Back in the early 60s, the Minnesota Twins had to lease a ball field for their spring training facility from the city of Orlando and then they had to find housing accommodations for all the players they brought to camp. The team leased the Cherry Plaza Hotel. The hotel held firm to their segregationist policy (common all over the southeast) and wouldn’t let black players stay in the hotel. The Twins had a couple of really talented black players and they had to find separate accommodations for them because their hotel wouldn’t take “any Negroes.” The black players had to accept clearly inferior housing conditions. Hank Aaron, who played for the Milwaukee Braves back then, was one of the most outspoken about the unequal treatment of black players.

It appears that the management of the teams that trained in Florida were working hard to cure the problem. Major League baseball was threatening to move all of their teams out of Florida to facilities in the southwest. By 1962, most of the teams had solved their problems with the hotels and boarding houses they used to house players. Sadly, the Minnesota Twins were the last team to solve this housing problem. A law suit was brought against them in 1962; yet it took two more years before the problem was solved.

Walter Mondale was the Minnesota Attorney General back in those days and he was very involved in the issue, as were two Minnesota Governors – Karl Rolvaag and Elmer Anderson. Calvin Griffith was the owner of the ball team back and he was a stubborn cuss.

Governor Anderson showed signs of anger in his correspondence with the Twins’ owner. Mr. Griffith argued for time because he was negotiating with the city of Orlando about building a new grandstand at the Tinker Field ball park. Anderson told Griffith that the time for waiting was over and that the matter was an embarrassment for Minnesota.

The Governor traveled to Florida and booked a room in the Cherry Plaza Hotel. The hotel was unyielding and made it clear to Governor Anderson that it would not bend its policies. Anderson kept nagging both the hotel and the management of the Twins’ organization for a change in the spring housing policy. He grew frustrated that he was getting nowhere.

The State Commission Against Discrimination (SCAD) came to the Governor’s assistance. SCAD was made up of nine commissioners who were all appointed by the Governor. SCAD’s role in life was “to secure compliance with the Minnesota State Act Against Discrimination, which makes it an unlawful act to discriminate against a person in his quest for employment or housing because of his race, creed, color, religion or national origin.”

SCAD brought a suit in the case on behalf of one of the Twins’ players, catcher Earl Battey. Because it required action in a different state (Florida) it got nowhere. SCAD then filed a direct suit against the Minnesota Twins and its ownership. The legal action particularly singled out the organization’s travel secretary, Howard Fox, for not doing enough about the matter. Years later I would get to know Howard Fox well. He became a good friend and frequent golfing partner, but I could imagine him dragging his feet on this issue. Howard died last year.

More and more newspaper stories appeared about the Twins’ stubbornness. Fox and Griffith were on a hot seat and it was getting hotter. Early in 1963 the newspapers learned that the Twins had signed another lease with the Cherry Plaza Hotel. The hotel would not yield to pressure from either the Minnesota Governor’s office (now under Governor Karl Rolvaag) or to the Minnesota press. 1963 would see no changes in the housing question for the Twins. The team was the last in baseball to have segregated housing for its players during spring training.

The issue dragged on and anger started to brew. Earl Battey publically stated that the issue was affecting team morale. Something had to be done. Angrily, the Minnesota Chapter of the NAACP announced it was getting involved. They announced they would picket the Twin’s opening game at Metropolitan Stadium in 1963. This pressure started to have an impact on the owner of the team, if only getting him really boiled into a red hot anger. He tried to take action to stop the demonstration.

Constant pressure on Griffith and Fox from civil rights organizations, the Governor’s office, the Attorney General’s office and, unceasingly, from SCAD, caused the Twins to finally wake up. For the spring of 1964 they signed a contract with the Downtowner Motel in Orlando and abandoned the Cherry Plaza Hotel. Segregated housing was finally over!

Kwame McDonald talked to us in 1964 about the Twins and the battle it took to get the organization’s ownership to do the right thing. He was very involved in setting up the public demonstrations that finally pushed Calvin Griffith to do what he had to do to end his own policy of racial injustice. It was almost 20 years after Jackie Robinson had “broken the color barrier” in Major League baseball. Mr. Griffith was a selfish, stubborn and foolish man. He proved it over and over again during his period of ownership. He fought off state agencies, bad press and powerful state officials, but Kwame McDonald and the NAACP brought Griffith to heal.

I kept my ears open about Kwame McDonald over the years. He settled into covering sports. He sometimes was interviewed on some of the radio sports talk shows.

When I read the obituaries about him, I was reminded of his strength and resolve. Now I learned something new.

Kids loved him. He gave nearly all his time to encouraging children to have confidence in themselves and to learn and to get what they deserved out of life. He went into the schools and kids gravitated to him as if he was a magnet. He talked to them and tried to encourage them to work hard and to learn – and to love themselves!


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