Last Thursday Francis Vincent ’60, the former baseball commissioner and president of Columbia Pictures, hosted a discussion of the desegregation of major league baseball in the 1940s.
The speakers included Larry Doby, the first black man to play in the American League and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame; Slick Surratt, formerly a ballplayer in the Negro League; and Claire Smith, an acclaimed baseball writer and commentator. Each of the speakers reminisced about their individual experiences in baseball and commented on changing attitudes during the 1940s. The discussion, which was held in Griffin, was organized by Vincent and sponsored by the Mt. Hope Farm Distinguished Visitor Series.
The presentation began with a series of short comments by the speakers on their memories of segregated baseball.
Both Doby and Surratt said they are not bitter about the racism they encountered.
“I don’t have any regrets,” said Surratt. “I knocked on the door and it wasn’t open. I played because I love the game.”
Doby agreed. “I am not too concerned about what happened 50 years ago,” he said. “I don’t have time to be bitter.”
Doby also discussed the white ball players who were extremely friendly to him at the beginning of his career in the American League. “Ted Williams was one of the first people to say hello and congratulations to me,” he said.
Smith argued that the Negro League had an important place within American black culture. “Its an oral history I will pass on to my children,” Smith said. “Just the hope that radiated though segregated America reached out and gave Afro-Americans hope.”
Smith also pointed out the importance of integration within the major leagues. “Baseball has always been an instrument of change,” she said. “It integrated 20 years before the country was mandated to integrate.” Smith cited instances in which the administration of certain baseball teams were forced to purchase motels so that their team could stay together on road trips. These motels or towns were “living theaters” for the rest of the country, models for racial coexistence.
Both Doby and Surratt also spoke more generally of their time within the Negro League, describing the athletes with whom they were fortunate enough to play. Surratt described a road trip he took with Satchel Paige, a famous black baseball pitcher. Surratt noted that roads from Arkansas to New Orleans were closed for the car so that “the great Satchel Paige” could arrive in New Orleans on schedule.
Doby also commented on current issues in baseball, specifically the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa this past season. He pointed out how amazingly Sosa and McGwire got along without any visible sign of hatred or prejudice between them. “[The relationship between McGwire and Sosa] makes you proud you were part of the game and are part of the game,” said Doby.
The hour and a half presentation was well-received by both faculty and students who attended. “I thought it particularly important that so many students were there to gain a better understanding of the history of segregation and desegregation through the experiences of those who lived it,” said President of the College Hank Payne.
“I thought Larry Doby was incredible,” said Jason Pack ‘02. “I think it is key that he did not want to talk about the bad racist things the white players did to make it tough for him in the league. This ommision was the most noticable thing about the talk, in addition to the fact, that Doby is a man who sees that baseball transcends what it is by having consequences on the thoughts and feelings of a people. It really does give hope and set a precedent for a nation. Jackie Robinson, and Larry Doby to a lesser extent, are political figures who were an important step towards integration.”