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Blacks-in-baseball forum a hit at St. Louis Public Library

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 15, 2009 - Ted Savage played the game of baseball and Mike Claiborne broadcasts the game. Together, they made a fantastic double play combination during an entertaining and educational discussion of African-Americans in Major League Baseball – present and past - on Saturday at the Grand Hall of the St. Louis Public Library’s Central Branch.

Savage is a long-time employee of the St. Louis Cardinals, a team he played with from 1965-67 after breaking in with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1962. He serves as director of target marketing.

Claiborne serves as a voice of the Cardinals for select games, teaming with Mike Shannon on KTRS 550 AM. He is also a sports talk radio icon in St. Louis.

They both know the game of baseball and the impact it has had on their lives and the black community.

In fact, Savage said early in the conversation that his competition was not with white ball players when he broke into the game – it was with other African Americans.

“I was trying to outplay the black ball players. I was not the best black ball player. I knew that there was only room for two or three black players,” he said.

“I knew if the coach cared about you or liked you, you got to move along (in the minor leagues.)

Savage shared the story of a fellow minor leaguer named Pat Patterson.

“He stole 60-65 bases a year. But the coaches didn’t like him and he didn’t get a chance,” Savage said.

Savage rationalized that if he could play with a Curt Flood or a Lou Brock, he could make it in the Majors.

Once he made it, though, he ran into trouble because “I was an educated N-word,” said the Lincoln University graduate.

Savage played for eight teams during his nine-year career and said, “I got into it with a lot of managers and coaches. I outplayed many guys and had one manager tell me, ‘you’re better than the other guy. But I’m not keeping you because I just don’t like you.’ ”

Encouraging All-star Rosters

The conversation soon skipped to the modern era and the lack of black players on many Major League lineups.

Claiborne said that he was excited by the fact that there were 12 African-American participants in the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis, with just one being more than 30 years old.

But he added that some teams – as well as front offices including the Cardinals – are sorely lacking in African-American representation.

He also addressed the explanation that many young black athletes choose basketball or football over baseball.

“Where is the 6-foot 2-inch black athlete? He’s not in the NBA and he’s not in the NFL. Major League Baseball has allowed that athlete to do other things. Which is fine, especially if that person is seeking an education,” Claiborne said.

Claiborne noted that pitching phenom David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays is one of the game’s brightest young stars and also holds a degree from prestigious Vanderbilt University.

“I do think this past All-Star Game could start a renaissance of for the next era of African-American baseball players.”

No Instant Money

Both Savage and Claiborne agreed that the resurgence of blacks in baseball as players and managers hinges on individuals being willing to endure bus rides, bad accommodations and the lack of luxury that goes with minor league life.

“The money is instant in the NBA, and also in the NFL. In baseball, you’ve got to go to the minors, ride buses and all the rest. In the other sports, your shelf life isn’t as long, though. If you stay with baseball, you can also walk out with a considerable amount of money,” Claiborne said.

Savage said black players and coaches were overlooked for managerial positions since the era he played – but he added that some turned down the opportunity to manage in the minors because they were used to a Major League lifestyle when it came to travel, pay and accommodations.

Savage was very honest with the audience as he shared the different aspects of his playing and front-office career.

He said that Jackie Robinson gave him some of the best advice he ever received when he told him “no matter what they say, give them a smile and keep going.”

“I could still hear and see everything from the stands. But I remembered what Jackie said. Some guys wanted to quit. They couldn’t take it.”

Savage said that his and other black players’ wives often didn’t tolerate the segregated lives they were forced to lead in small towns and in the South as they worked their way toward the Majors.

“It was a hardship, but we understood. They didn’t want to live like that,” he said.

Then, once he got to the Majors, Savage said the problems didn’t end there. “Some teams had players that just didn’t want you. It was tough to play like that, where you weren’t wanted” he said.

'64 Cardinals Were Special

But the 1964 Cardinals were not one of those teams. Savage joined the team after first baseman Bill White, center fielder Curt Flood, right fielder Lou Brock and young ace Bob Gibson were members of a team that author David Halberstam called the first truly integrated team in Major League Baseball history in his book “October ’64.”The book chronicles that season and the Cards’ triumph over the all-white New York Yankees in the World Series.

Claiborne called White the second-most important black player in Major League history behind Jackie Robinson “because of his influence with owners and management.”

“He galvanized players. He was the one that went to management and said accommodations were not up to Major League standards (for black players.) Other black players sought him out between games to ask his advice, to discuss things with him.”

He said the Cardinals team of 1964 was “more equipped to go through what was happening in the country in 1964 than any other team. “

Both men praised the legacy of Flood, who Claiborne said rated third in importance behind Robinson and White, agreeing that he has never received his just due from MLB or its current players.

“I doubt 3 percent of the today’s players even know who Curt Flood was or what he did for them,” Claiborne said.

Time for a Rooney Rule?

Claiborne says he checks out the media guides of other teams to see what the level of minorities is in “decision-making positions.”

‘Some teams, including the Cardinals, don’t have people in those positions. It used to be that you only got former players. But that is not true now, so the pool for front-office positions is much larger. Now you have all kinds of guys with all kinds of backgrounds there. This is a concern.”

He added that he thinks baseball will soon have a “Rooney Rule” like the NFL that mandates that a black candidate be interviewed for a managerial or front office role. “We’re not that far off from that,” he said.

Alvin A. Reid is editor of the St. Louis Argus and a weekend host on the new ESPN 101.1 FM. His weekly Major League Baseball - St. Louis Cardinals column, which is now published on The Beacon every Monday, was honored by the Missouri Press Association as Best Sports Column in 2004 and 1999. He is co-author of the book, "Whitey's Boys: A Celebration of the 1982 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals" and was a member of the inaugural staff of USA TODAY Baseball Weekly.