July 15, 2024

Reggie Jackson, on live TV from Rickwood Field, shares stark stories of racism

In unsparing terms, Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson talked during a live national television appearance Thursday about the reality of coming up as a young Black ballplayer under Jim Crow. Between sepia-toned features voiced by A-list Hollywood stars on Fox’s pregame coverage of Major League Baseball’s game at historic Rickwood Field, Jackson teared up as he recalled the taunts, racial epithets and threats of violence he faced as a minor leaguer in segregated Birmingham.

“I said I would never want to do it again,” said Jackson, whose comments were uncensored. “I walked into restaurants and they would point at me and say, ‘The n—– can’t eat here.’ I would go to a hotel and they’d say, ‘the n—– can’t stay here.’ We went to Charlie Finley’s country club for a welcome home dinner and they pointed me out with the N-word, ‘he can’t come in here.’ Finley marched the whole team out. … Finally, they let me in there and he said, ‘We’re going to go eat hamburgers. We’ll go where we’re wanted.’”

The game was scheduled as a celebration of the Negro Leagues and its players, with special tributes to Willie Mays, the Hall of Famer and former Birmingham Black Barons outfielder who died Tuesday at age 93. But Jackson’s interview was a reminder of just what he and so many others dealt with not only at Rickwood, but beyond its fences.

“Coming back here is not easy,” Jackson said. “The racism when I played here, the difficulty of going through different places where we traveled — fortunately, I had a manager and I had players on the team that helped me through it — but I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”

In his second professional season, Jackson was part of the first integrated professional team to play at Rickwood Field when Charlie Finley brought the Kansas City A’s Double-A team to his native Birmingham in 1967. That team, managed by John McNamara, featured Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi, Dave Duncan and Tony La Russa.

Jackson played 114 games for Birmingham that year, the same year he made his debut in the big leagues. Jackson played there just four years after four girls were killed in a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church. In that same year, 1963, the University of Alabama was desegregated. Rickwood, for all of its history before 1967, had been segregated.

At 20 years old, Jackson found himself in the Deep South for the first time after growing up in Pennsylvania and going to college at Arizona State. The year before, he’d played in the A’s minor-league system in California and Maine.

Alabama in 1967 was a different place.

“People said to me today, I spoke, and they said, ‘Do you think you’re a better person, do you think you won when you played here and conquered?’” Jackson said when asked about his time in Birmingham by Fox’s Alex Rodriguez.

“Fortunately, I had a manager in Johnny McNamara that if I couldn’t eat in a place, nobody would eat. We’d get food to travel. If I couldn’t stay in a hotel, they’d drive to a hotel to find a place where I could stay. If it had not been for Rollie Fingers, John McNamara, Dave Duncan, Joe and Sharon Rudi — I slept on their couch three, four nights a week for a month-and-a-half. Finally, they were threatened that they’d burn our apartment complex down unless I got out. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

After giving context of the history, Jackson concluded his remarks by thanking some of his teammates at the time, saying he wouldn’t have made it out of Birmingham if not for them.

“I would have never made it, I was too physically violent, I was ready to physically fight,” Jackson said. “I’d have gotten killed here because I would’ve beat someone’s ass and you’d see me in a oak tree somewhere.”

Rodriguez said, “We love you, Reggie,” and then hugged the 78-year-old Jackson.

Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston played at Rickwood Field because MLB denied them, and others, such as Cool Papa Bell, Monte Irvin and so many others, from playing with White players. Until 1963 — just four years before Jackson played for Birmingham — it was illegal for White and Black players to play on the same field anywhere in Alabama.

Until his health deteriorated, Mays had hoped to return to the ballpark for Thursday’s game between the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals. His son, Michael Mays, told a crowd Monday that his father wanted to be there “bad.”

Mays issued a statement that same day to The San Francisco Chronicle noting that he was unable to travel, but describing the stadium, opened in 1910, as “like a church.”

It was fitting, then, that the ceremonial first pitch was thrown by the Rev. Bill Greason of nearby Bethel Baptist Church. Greason, 99, was one of several former Negro Leaguers honored at the game. A native of Atlanta who grew up on the same street as Martin Luther King Jr., Greason was Mays’ teammate with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948, when Mays was just 17. Greason was the first African American to pitch for the Cardinals, debuting May 31, 1954.

Greason, the oldest living Negro Leagues player, was escorted by Cardinals coach and 1985 National League MVP Willie McGee to throw out the first pitch.

The Giants wore the uniform of the San Francisco Sea Lions, a Negro Leagues team that folded after its only season in 1946. The Cardinals wore uniforms of the Negro Leagues’ St. Louis Stars.

Giants manager Bob Melvin played at Rickwood Field in parts of three seasons in the early 1980s as a minor-leaguer. Melvin, who told his team Mays stories before the game Thursday, said the ballpark, even with the renovations and all the temporary support structures, still looks mostly the same on the inside from what he remembered 40 years ago.

“This is one of the signature games in baseball history. Now we’re celebrating it with (Negro Leagues) statistics mattering and much more awareness of what happened here in the Negro Leagues and the great players who played here,” Melvin said. “And for us, it’s about Willie and this is where Willie started. We’re the perfect team to be here and play. The message is how many great players, legends of the game, walked this field. Now we have a chance to be on it.”

In all, 181 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum played at Rickwood Field, including Charley Pride, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, who played for the Black Barons in 1954.

Cardinals shortstop Masyn Winn, the lone Black player in the Cardinals’ lineup, said “I grew up playing on a team called the Negro League Legends. To learn about these guys and now getting to play on the same field that some of them played on is super special.

“I’m sure my stepdad will shed a couple tears, even I might. Honestly, it’s going to be pretty emotional for me.”

Although the game featured appearances from baseball legends such as Jackson, Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Derek Jeter, among many others, the focus was on Mays, among the greatest players in the game’s history and a son of Birmingham.

“The first big thing I ever put in my mind was to play at Rickwood Field,” he said in the statement to the Chronicle earlier this week. “It wasn’t a dream. It was something I was going to do.”

Mays did that in 1948 when he joined the Black Barons of the Negro American League as a 17-year-old. He played for the team until he graduated high school in 1950 and signed with the New York Giants.

Bonds was emotional when asked about Mays, his godfather and former teammate of Bonds’ father, Bobby.

“I could share a lot of things … there it goes,” Bonds said, unsuccessfully holding back tears. “I can’t control it. For me, it’s just too soon. It’s too soon, because it’s an out-of-control feeling.”

On the Fox set, Jeter shared a text Jackson sent him after Mays’ passing Tuesday.

“He was at the very least one of the greatest of all-time. We all wanted to be Willie,” Jackson wrote and Jeter read. “When one played against him, you got caught up in watching Willie. He was pure baseball. My all-time favorite. Loved the guy. I wanted to be like Willie.”

Staff writers Andrew Baggarly and Katie Woo contributed to this report.

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(Photo: Daniel Shirey / MLB Photos via Getty Images)