The Santa Barbara of 1962 was a sheltered harbor for an 8-year-old boy. The world looked eminently fair and sunny from here.
Baseball had become my first love, and she appeared to be a virtuous and impartial sweetheart. The best man, not the privileged man, always won her favor. She found his merit in the black and white of hard, cold statistics.
What I didn’t yet know was that the margins in Major League Baseball were all white.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred began to rewrite that history on Wednesday, bestowing Major League status upon seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920 and 1948. Their statistics will now be researched and made eligible for baseball’s record books.
I began to realize how overdue this was back in that summer of 1962.
My beloved Los Angeles Dodgers, like baseball’s statistics, were black and white, too. They had broken baseball’s color barrier 15 years earlier by signing Jackie Robinson and now had five blacks in their starting lineup.
John Roseboro was the Gold Glove-winning catcher. Shortstop Maury Wills was turning double plays with Junior Gilliam and stealing a record 104 bases. Left fielder Tommy Davis was winning the batting and RBI titles, and Willie “Three Dog” Davis — who’s only relation to Tommy was skin color — was making circus plays in center.
Pro baseball had also returned to Santa Barbara that year. News-Press sports editor Phil Patton — known more affectionately as “Dad” in our romper room of a home — had helped to lobby the expansion New York Mets into bringing their “Class C” farm club to our town. The Mets even tipped their baseball cap to Santa Barbara’s ethnic heritage by naming their team the “Rancheros.”
My favorite Ranchero was also a man of color — an 18-year-old kid, actually — who came to Santa Barbara straight out of L.A.’s Manual Arts High School. Paul Blair’s dashing runs and impossible catches in Laguna’s expansive centerfield turned every summer night into a thrill.
And then the Mets ran him right out of their organization.
Dad gave me fair warning about this after I’d fawned over a News-Press photo in the evening paper. It showed my favorite Ranchero and three teammates with Rogers Hornsby, who was the Mets’ roving hitting instructor at the time. Hornsby, a Baseball Hall of Famer who had retired in 1938 with a career batting average of .358, was in town to give tips and scout the team’s talent.
“When do you think Blair will make it to the big leagues?” I asked my pops.
He shook his head and frowned. I could tell it pained him to tell his 8-year-old son about the real world of 1962 — a world that could even pollute my safe harbor of Santa Barbara.
“Hornsby said they were going to let Blair go,” he said as he folded up his sports section. “He said the Mets didn’t have colored players.”
By summer’s end, Dad’s revelation had proved correct. The dashing Paul Blair was left off the club’s protected list of players.
As Bob Dylan would sing two years later, however, the world was a-changin. The Baltimore Orioles signed my hero right after the Mets let him go. The kid from Manual Arts High even returned to Santa Barbara with the Stockton Ports the following year.
The Rancheros were now affiliated with my beloved Dodgers, but I still smiled when Blair hit a baseball out of Laguna Park for a game-winning, ninth-inning home run. It had become easier to smile after our team’s owners, Caesar Uyesaka and Jerry Harwin, had run the Mets out of town when Dad told them what Hornsby had said.
I wasn’t too old to cry when the Orioles swept my beloved Dodgers in the 1966 World Series. I must admit, however, that I smiled again when Blair hit the homer that beat them in Game 3. Even at 12, I knew some things were more important than winning a baseball pennant.
Blair would win eight Gold Gloves, another World Series ring, and play in two All-Star games.
Hornsby, on the other hand, had died at age 66 just a few months after the Mets released Blair. A man who couldn’t see beyond the color of a player’s skin died of a heart attack, ironically enough, while undergoing cataract surgery.
The Myopic Mets, in dire need of a centerfielder, struggled through several years of extreme mediocrity. Then they traded for Tommie Agee, a man of color, and became the Miracle Mets just a year later. Agee led them in homers and RBIs as well as to victory over the Baltimore Orioles in the 1969 World Series.
With the Series tied at one game apiece, Agee preserved the Mets’ victory in Game 3 by making a head-first, diving catch of a line drive with two outs and the bases loaded in the seventh inning. I was only 15, but I was probably the only baseball fan in America who could see the irony of the moment: The batter had been Paul Blair.
Baseball, in my eyes, was coming around. Two years later, Satchel Paige became the first of 35 Negro League stars to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, a superstar with Santa Barbara roots, had laid that groundwork during his own induction in 1966. He had competed against Negro League teams during his barnstorming tours of the early 1940s and knew they deserved to be in Cooperstown, as well.
“I hope that someday, the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson can … be added to the symbol of the great Negro League players that are not here only because they were not given a chance,” Williams said.
Williams, considered by many to be the greatest pure hitter of all-time, was the last player to bat .400 when he finished at .406 in 1941. But Manfred’s edict could now have Gibson beat that by two years and 35 points: Gibson batted .441 in 1943, according to the Negro League database known as Seamheads.
Williams was the son of a Mexican-born mother and was often left in the care of his Santa Barbara aunt, Henrietta Venzor. He described his uncle Saul, a star player of his day and manager of the semi-pro Santa Barbara Merchants, as his “first instructor.”
Williams had also kept his ethnic heritage under wraps. He knew that the Boston of his era did not have the safe harbor of a Santa Barbara.
But the sun shines brighter these days. And it can only enrich us to have all the numbers — black and white — brought into the light of the record books.