Martin Luther King Day

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Martin Luther King Day

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Martin Luther King Day is coming up Monday and I had occasion this week to talk to someone who knew Dr. King well. Just ten days before he was assassinated, Dr. King had dinner with his friend Don Newcombe who had been an All-Star pitcher in the Negro Leagues... and then a Dodgers teammate with Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. Dr. King told Don Newcombe that last night they were to see each other that it wasn't Rosa Parks, it wasn't Dr. King himself, but it was the baseball players of the 1940's who led the brave revolution of the civil rights movement.

Don Newcombe is a very fit nearly 80 year-old today, coming up to his 50th season as an executive with the Dodgers. He's good-natured, nattily dressed in his blue-pinstriped suit and signature Panama hat and tells stories from 60 years ago with incredibly detailed recall. The sting of the sometimes inhuman bigotry he and his black brothers experienced back then is still alive in his voice, on his face. He came to tears a couple of times while talking to me. And I in turn came to tears as well.

The summer of '49 was exceptionally hot across the South and into the Midwest. When the Dodgers rolled into St. Louis, all the white guys hopped onto the air conditioned bus. While the team headed to a first-rate hotel, Don and Jackie and Roy were sent to what Don calls a &quothell; hole&quot.; Underground, no windows, no air conditioning, insects in the mattresses. Urine as well. Rooms attached to a sleazy bar with loud music and raucous fights all night long. Don told the other two he was going to the nice hotel and demand they stay there. Jackie pleaded with Don not to rock the boat. He said they needed to swallow their pride for the first couple of years until they had a chance to prove themselves on the field. Jackie told Don that night how it actually came to be that he was the first black man in history to make it to the Major Leagues. He said his mentor, Dodger owner Branch Rickey, told him he only needed to answer one question correctly. If he got it right, he'd make more money than he ever dreamed possible, and make history at the same time. The question was: &quotJackie;, if a white man slaps your left cheek, what will you do?" Jackie knew the game. &quotMr.; Rickey," he said &quotI;'ll turn my head and present my right cheek for the next slap." Bingo, right answer. So in this St. Louis flea bag, Jackie implored Don Newcombe to wear his bittnerness under skin and somehow tolerate their horrific conditions.

In the meantime, Don Newcombe joined the armed forces for two years. It just so happened that he got back to the Dodgers at just the moment that they were heading off for another road trip series with St. Louis. That was 1954. Nothing had changed. The white guys again climbed aboard the air-conditioned bus and the three black guys were shuffled off to the seedy brothel. When they got there, Don couldn't contain his anger any longer. He told Jackie and Roy that he had just served his country shoulder to shoulder with white guys and he had earned the right to stay in the same hotel with his white teammates. He was going over to the nice hotel and demand a meeting with the hotel manager. When pressed, the manager said the whites couldn't tolerate the idea that a black person might swim in the hotel pool. Don, 60 years later, slumped in his chair and the tears welled up in his eyes. &quotWhat;", he asked, &quotdid; they imagine we could do to dirty their pool, by virtue of the color of our skin?" So Don Newcombe assured the manager they would not set foot on the pool deck. The three moved over to the nice hotel.

The great black players who first played the big time suffered gross indignities. Their teammates even yelled racial epithets at them from the dugout during games.

How can we ever apologize for our ignorance and our inexcusable treatment of such fine men, such gifted athletes? Perhaps we dedicate this particular Martin Luther King Day to Don Newcombe and the first black Major League baseball players.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad