The Boys of Brooklyn Never Had a Problem: Sandlot Ball in the Age of Jackie Robinson

Article excerpt

"It could only have happened in Brooklyn." With these words, Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella summed up the episode that brought Jackie Robinson to the big leagues. Baseball entrepreneur Bill Veeck agreed: "If Jackie Robinson was the ideal man to break the color line, then Brooklyn was the ideal place." (1) Why Brooklyn was the right setting is a bit more difficult to comprehend, but writer Peter Golenbock ventures an analysis: "Everyone came to Brooklyn as a minority, and they discovered everyone was the same: everyone was poor. Everyone was struggling. No one felt persecuted." (2)

Upon signing Brooklyn native Tommy Davis to his first professional contract, Dodgers officials warned him to be prepared for "the problem." The major-league star recalled with some lingering puzzlement, "I didn't know what they were talking about. I played in Brooklyn and never knew that there was a problem." Similarly, Jim Mosley, who still resides in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood where he grew up, remembers his sandlot days as trouble free: "I never had any racial problems throughout my time playing for the Bisons, the Eagles, or Nathans. We didn't even realize at the time that there was a racial problem. Those were good times."

It is a well-kept secret, but the boys of Brooklyn played their baseball on sandlot fields in the 1950s and early 1960s oblivious to any bigoted animosity whatsoever. A good on-the-field race riot would have made tabloid fare, but the camaraderie, tolerance, and friendship that existed among these sandlot athletes has gone unnoticed and unsung, except by those who lived it. In truth, no one--black or white, Jewish or Christian, Irish or Italian--ever made a conscious effort to smooth the way. The game itself served as the conduit of harmony, and the boys' single-mindedness made the game the thing.

Octogenarian Clarence Irving still laments the shortsightedness that relegates what he considers a social manifestation of major magnitude to the back pages of American culture. "Segregation of this type was unusual in Brooklyn at that time," he said. "At the Parade Grounds it was virtually non-existent." When Irving organized his Bisons team in 1949, he put an ad in the Brooklyn Eagle inviting all to try out. Athletes came from all over the borough, and Irving made no decisions based upon race, religion, or ethnic background. As a result, his team covered all bases. Sebastian Pepi, an Italian American who played with the Bisons, remembers, "There was never a problem from day one. Not even a passing word. It was baseball only. Color was never an issue. We were brothers."

Wally Edge was born in segregated Heflin, Alabama, in 1936. He came to Brooklyn after the eighth grade and ultimately became team captain and center fielder of Irving's 1955 championship Bisons. Edge does not recall any racial issues at all. "There were none in my time," he said. "I was simply part of the team. We transcended racial stuff. I was cushioned by my teammates, absorbed into it, and never faced any problems, even at times when my teams traveled south for tournaments."

Unlike the Bisons, most sandlot clubs had their genesis in the neighborhoods where the boys lived. Some were almost all Italians; others, like Joe Schwartz's Eagles, were predominately Jewish. The all-black Brooklyn Seals featured a hard-throwing, right-handed pitcher named Sonny Williams, who later played some minor-league ball. Another all-black neighborhood team, the Breevoort Senators, came from Breevoort Place in the Bed-Sty section of Brooklyn. These clubs shared the spotlight with all-white or mixed teams, with no racially motivated confrontations.

The camaraderie among the boys and young men playing ball in Brooklyn was neither contrived nor forced. The problems of the times struck them as real only after playing professionally in other parts of the country. In his autobiography Chasing the Dream, Joe Torre recalled a motel in Bradenton, Florida, in 1961: "Even there they had to feed us in a private room where no one else could see blacks and whites eating together. …