While watching the Jackie Robinson Day ceremony at Yankee Stadium April 15, our friend Joe commented about the current players,”These guys have no idea what black players went through back then,” as the Rangers and Yankees each donned the number 42 for the night (as did all MLB players) in commemoration of the man who changed baseball.
Joe’s comment inspired me to ask my husband, Ken Singleton, on the ride back to the hotel after the game: What was it like as an African-American to play baseball in the 1960’s?
“I’m not comparing what I experienced to what African-Americans and Hispanic players went through before me — because they did all the heavy lifting,” said Ken, “but it wasn’t great sometimes. It was obvious in some of these cities that people weren’t happy that black and Latino players were there — in their manner of speaking or the way they looked at us. They weren’t nice. It didn’t happen everywhere, but it did in certain places.”
Ken played in the New York Mets’ Minor League system 1967-1970 before rising up to the big leagues and never looking back: Winter Haven Florida (A); Raleigh Durham North Carolina (A); Vasalia California (A); Memphis Tennessee (AA) and Jacksonville Florida (AAA)).
Although he was never the only black player on a team 20 years after Robinson paved the color warpath, Ken was one of just a few. Growing up in integrated New York City schools prepared him to “learn how to get along with everyone,” he said, as a student of Graham Junior High School and Mt. Vernon High School. “I had all different kinds of friends: Italian, Jewish, Black, Hispanic.”
As an Expo, Ken had the good fortune once to meet Jackie Robinson in Jarry Park in Montreal (where the NY Dodgers had first sent Robinson to Triple A).
“I was taking batting practice and he came onto the field,” said Ken. “I was tongue-tied. This guy was a legend! I was so nervous I was shaking. This was Jackie Robinson!”
As a right fielder, Ken recalls many a mean taunt from opposing fans jeering from the stands. “Fans yell stuff about your parents or your playing ability,” he said, “They call out, ‘You stink! You suck!’ Not everyone at the ballpark is rooting for you.”
Those incidents were mild compared to what Jackie Robinson went through as the only black player in the entire league. “I don’t know how he was able to do it,” said Ken.
Pitchers threw at Robinson (called up in 1947), opponents tried to spike him, fans insulted him, and Robinson received death threats; i.e, he would be killed if he showed up at a ballpark. He was unable to lodge at the same hotel as his teammates. Robinson took all the heavy barbs for black players of the future.
“He had to hold his tongue — he must have been a very strong man,” said Ken. “He was told he couldn’t fight back — that he would have to take it. He was aware of the situation and where his success could lead to — not only personally — but for all black players. Jackie Robinson was a social experiment for the whole country, and it paid off in baseball. If Robinson had failed, it would have set the country back many years. Who knows how long it would have taken to give another black player a chance?”
All of baseball owes this guy a debt of gratitude since baseball today is international, housing Hispanics, Europeans, Asians, Americans — to name a few — and certainly, scores of African-Americans.
Ken is convinced, as are many others in baseball, that “Robinson made the game better.”