I remember as an eight year old boy playing baseball in Washington, Missouri. I was bat boy for my 16 year old brother’s team and we traveled downstate to Fulton, Missouri to play in a tournament. Before the first game, we went to a restaurant and we were refused entry because we had a black player, Eddie Pennington, on our team. Our coach, a World War II veteran, was outraged and after a verbal altercation, the restaurant owner said we could stay, but the Eddie would have to eat in the kitchen and enter through the backdoor. Our coach got more enraged, rounded up the whole team, and we left.
I loved Eddie. He was the star of our team and the nicest kid you would ever want to meet. This was in the era of Bob Gibson, one the greatest pitchers of all time and I thought Eddie would be him, someday. I remember our coach, when we got back back on the bus, saying how ridiculous it was, what they had just experienced and that we are one team. We play together and eat together as one team. He hoped everyone understood. He got a standing ovation and everyone starting chanting, “Eddie! Eddie!” I was so proud and happy to be on the bus and part of that team.
I remember talking to Eddie about it. He was hurt, embarrassed and understood it because he had experienced that prejudice before. He just said it was tough on a kid, with his eyes tearing up. Then he hit me in the shoulder and said make sure I get the right bat out for him and let’s go win the game… which we did.
I was proud of our coach (my dad), and my brother who was a great player and team leader. We were unified. We didn’t think of Eddie being black, brown or white. We thought of Eddie as our teammate and friend, and equal in our quest to win games.
I had the distinct pleasure of the same experiences when I got to high school and played sports under one of the greatest coaches and human beings I’ve ever met, Jim Perry. I went to a large public high school and I played alongside a number of talented black athletes on our basketball and baseball teams. These kids were segregated by where they lived, in a section of houses on Front Street, in our small town along the Missouri River. Jim Perry helped us all, and was one of the most balanced and respected people I have ever come to know. We all played as a team.
I had similar experiences when I went on to play college sports (baseball and football). We all played as one team. I don’t remember in any of my sports experiences any racial bickering, tensions, slurs or jokes. We all respected each other for what we brought to the team and our coaches brought that out it in us.
We in America have a division like none this 68 year old has ever seen. My simplistic resolution is to start to heal and solve the problem with advice and council from this country’s greatest players and coaches. Who doesn’t respect Charles Barkley and his unvarnished logical solutions to problems…or Magic Johnson…or Michael Jordan…?! Ask Michael about Phil Jackson and Dean Smith. I think he would share stories similar to mine with two of the greatest coaches ever.
In short, the solution to our current dilemma lies with what we need…coaches to bring out the best in all of us and leave the prejudice and unjust behavior and racism behind. It doesn’t help you win games, and it doesn’t help you win in life. And we are all one team, The United States of America.