Thursday, July 11, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 79: Red Smith, Jim Crow’s Playmates (#173)

Red Smith, "Jim Crow’s Playmates" (1950) from American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith:

After the earlier story about police brutality during the Civil Rights Movement, here's a nice antidote: Red Smith reports on Branch Rickey's experience with segregation and the color line. See, before Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, he was a baseball manager at his school. (The LoA page notes he was at Ohio Wesleyan, not Michigan, as Red reports.) And when the team went on the road, the only black member of the team faced discrimination before he even got on the ballfield and seemed pretty upset, noting that this wouldn't happen if he were only white. According to Red, Rickey promised that ballplayer that one day, it wouldn't matter that he was black. Yay.

What I like about this story, why I think it's an antidote to the Bull Connors of the world, is that it's not just "Rickey feels bad for the black man." The story is: Rickey saw how racism affected someone's life in America and did something about it. I also like how the story doesn't beatify Rickey and even notes that he failed to brief his one black player on the racism they were likely to encounter... in Southern Indiana.

Finally, Smith tells this all in a pleasant, occasionally jocular voice, far from the hectoring or triumphalism that is a real danger when talking about overcoming prejudice. Note, for instance, how Smith uses some metaphor and hyperbole here:
A year ago Rickey was weaving and ducking and bobbing in an effort to elude people who wanted to have him stuffed and mounted as a prime specimen of tolerance...
So we've got two sporting ideas (boxing, hunting), and though the theme of violence is implicit, we can relax because we know no one is really going to hurt Rickey. Who, after all, is a white man who doesn't really have to worry about being lynched, burned, castrated, or attacked. In other words, Red can afford to be jocular, even though there is the specter of real violence out there.

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