When King died, Major League Baseball struck out
The league waffled for days until black players forced the commissioner to postpone Opening Day
Fifty years ago, on Thursday, April 4, 1968, the sun began to set on Memphis, Tennessee.
At the downtown Lorraine Motel, Martin Luther King Jr., dressed for dinner, stepped out of Room 306 and onto the second-floor balcony. Seconds later, he met what his followers feared most: a sniper’s bullet. Within minutes, he lay in the back of a speeding ambulance on the way to St. Joseph’s Hospital. Shortly after 7 p.m., the driving force of the American civil rights movement was dead at the age of 39.
As word of King’s assassination spread, the nation went into shock. In Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Detroit; Kansas City, Missouri; and Newark, New Jersey, angry residents took to the streets, rioting against years of bigotry, police brutality, poverty and housing discrimination. The message was clear: With the death of King, many black Americans had lost hope — and patience.
President Lyndon B. Johnson declared April 7 a day of national mourning. Flags were flown at half-staff. Churches and synagogues offered special memorial services. And virtually all sports events were canceled. The NBA and the NHL rescheduled playoff games. The Greensboro Open golf tournament postponed its final 36 holes. The National Tennis League suspended its matches, as did the North American Soccer League for four of its five matches. Racetracks closed their gates.
Yet Major League Baseball, due to open its season on Monday, made no announcement.
The best one can say of MLB commissioner William Eckert’s lack of leadership is that he had little precedent to draw on. In April 1945, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered a fatal stroke five days before the start of the baseball season, and his funeral didn’t conflict with the league’s schedule. Eighteen years later, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, the NFL went ahead with its full schedule of Sunday games. (Commissioner Pete Rozelle would later say he regretted the decision.)
Prominent observers said Eckert was capitulating to the club owners, most of whom didn’t want to lose the revenue that came with their season openers. “The commissioner of baseball was running around as though his head had been cut off,” the famously acerbic Dick Young wrote in his New York Daily News sports column. “He was calling up the club owners, not to tell them what to do, but to ask them.”
For Eckert, the issue became even more complicated when it was announced that King’s funeral would take place in Atlanta on April 9. Schools in many cities announced they would close for the day, as did banks and department stores. Even the New York Stock Exchange would shut down, the first time it had done so in honor of a private citizen. If baseball were to follow suit, Opening Day would have to be pushed back two days.
That kind of decision required awareness and conviction. Ultimately, it wasn’t Eckert but a team that stood up for King. The Pittsburgh Pirates, led by black stars Roberto Clemente and Maury Wills, would refuse to play, prompting other teams to take a similar stance. It was the 1960s equivalent of taking a knee.
Several mysteries surround Eckert’s tenure as commissioner — the most curious being how he got the job in the first place. A retired Air Force lieutenant general, Eckert had shown virtually no interest in the game. He’d participated in several sports while in the service — tennis, squash, golf and horseback riding — but never baseball. When he was hired in 1965, he hadn’t been to a game in more than a decade. And he hadn’t played it since participating in intramurals at West Point.
By many accounts, Eckert’s appointment was a case of mistaken identity. Apparently, his name showed up on a list of candidates because some club owners thought they were electing the similar-sounding Eugene Zuckert, the former secretary of the Air Force.
One thing was certain: The owners wanted to replace the retiring Ford Frick with someone from outside the game. Eckert held a master’s degree in business from Harvard, and after retiring from the military he served as a director of the Logistics Management Institute, a Department of Defense advisory group. He’d also sat on the boards of electronic and real estate companies.
Still, Eckert’s appointment flummoxed those in and around the game. Upon his election, the New York World-Telegram’s Larry Fox decried, “Good God! They’ve elected the Unknown Soldier.”
In the aftermath of national tragedy, Eckert’s silence quickly became untenable. Forced to take a stance, the Unknown Soldier came to the most spineless decision of all: He passed the buck to the league’s 20 clubs, leaving each to decide independently whether it would play.
Sportswriter Frank Dolson was enraged. “All the commissioner had to do was take a stand,” Dolson wrote in his Philadelphia Inquirer column. “All he had to do was say, ‘Gentlemen, in view of the tragic slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King … in view of the fact that his funeral will be held Tuesday, the opening of the 1968 baseball season will be postponed until Wednesday’ … Sadly, but not surprisingly, he didn’t do it.”
The ruling not only infuriated the pundits, it confused the clubs.
The Washington Senators had moved their season opener from Monday to Tuesday. But upon learning that King’s funeral had been rescheduled, they pushed the game to Wednesday. The Reds, following the Senators’ lead, also postponed their opener to Wednesday. The Houston Astros, meanwhile, announced that their Monday night home opener against Pittsburgh would proceed as scheduled.
That’s when the Pirates stepped in. Theirs was one of the most integrated teams in baseball. At a time when the major leagues were nearly three-quarters white, the Pirates were almost equally divided between white and nonwhite players. And the team’s 11 black players included veteran stars Willie Stargell, Donn Clendenon, Matty Alou, Clemente and Wills.
To them, it didn’t feel right to take the field.
Clemente was especially shaken by King’s murder. He’d gotten to know the man and had even hosted the civil rights leader at his farm in Puerto Rico. Clemente had been raised in the Caribbean and wasn’t familiar with American racism until baseball brought him to the United States in the 1950s. Upon being subjected to Jim Crow laws during spring training in Florida, Clemente gave Pirates general manager Joe Brown an ultimatum: Since the club’s black players weren’t allowed into segregated restaurants with their white teammates, they wouldn’t get on the team bus with them either. Brown found a middle ground: He gave the black players their own station wagon. They still couldn’t enter “whites-only” restaurants, but at least they’d no longer have to sit on the bus waiting for their teammates to bring them food.
The assassination also deeply affected Wills, who had met King in Los Angeles in 1966 while playing for the Dodgers.
“Meeting him, I felt so insignificant. I had met presidents, movie stars and very significant people,” Wills told The Undefeated. “I was stoked. We didn’t get to talk much because I was on my way to Dodger Stadium. I was just amazed at seeing him. He was bigger than life. Nothing ever touched me the way it did when I met Dr. King.”
As a black man playing minor league baseball during the 1950s, Wills was all too familiar with how the nation’s ingrained racism meant he was treated differently from his white teammates. Recalling an incident in Shreveport, Louisiana, he said, “I got on a city bus to go to the ballpark and I saw my teammates sitting up in the front and I saw an empty seat beside one of them. I plopped down and started talking with them. I noticed the bus hadn’t moved and I finally looked around and the driver was staring at me, and he said, ‘Get in the back, boy.’ ”
Even while playing in Los Angeles, Wills came under attack.
“I got hate mail I wouldn’t wish on anybody,” he said. “It started when I was with the Dodgers. Sandy Koufax [who is Jewish] and I used to read one another’s hate mail. And we would have fun with it and read the letters out loud to the team. I’d be saying, ‘Oh, Sandy, you don’t want to read this one.’ ”
So when the Astros decided to stick to the schedule and host the Pirates on Monday, Wills, Clemente and their black teammates came to their own decision. On Friday night, April 5, in Richmond, Virginia — the team was in town to play a weekend preseason series against the Yankees — the black players gathered in Clendenon’s room at the Holiday Inn. There, they voted unanimously to sit out the Sunday exhibition game against the Yankees, plus the first two regular-season games against Houston.
The next day, all 25 Pirates, white and black, gathered at Richmond’s Parker Field and held a team vote. The outcome was the same as the night before: a unanimous decision to not play until Wednesday. Clemente and Dave Wickersham, a white pitcher, read a joint statement to the media that was printed in the Pittsburgh Press. “We are doing this because we respect what Dr. King has done for mankind,” they declared. “Dr. King was not only concerned with Negro or whites but also poor people. We owe this gesture to his memory and his ideals.”
Looking back on that meeting, Wickersham told The Undefeated, “Our team pretty quickly decided we weren’t going to play. Nobody had to be persuaded. It’s not that we didn’t want to play, it was more that we shouldn’t play.”
Steve Blass, who would later become a broadcaster, was then a young pitcher on the Pirates staff. “We were white and we felt the same way about Dr. King,” Blass said. “We were all part of the whole experience. The vote was easy because there was equal representation [of black players], if not more so, with the emphasis on high-profile guys like Stargell and Clemente and Maury Wills. Maury was very emphatic … he was not afraid to speak out. I remember that being impressive, a black guy being very emphatic about not wanting to play in those games. But you didn’t have to be black or white to be aware of doing the right thing and respecting the whole situation.”
Wickersham remembers the atmosphere in the clubhouse as quiet and somber. “Some of the black players were pretty upset,” he said. “I probably should’ve gone around to them and said that [King] was a good man, which he was. And he was speaking when our nation needed it.”
When the Pirates arrived in Houston on Sunday, they found out their vote carried only so much weight — the Astros’ front office hadn’t canceled the opener or the following game. Asked why his team had decided not to postpone, Bill Giles, the Astros’ vice president, told United Press International that it had complied with the day of mourning on Sunday: “We didn’t feel we were interfering with the funeral of Martin Luther King.” Besides, Giles added, “Our fans are counting on it.”
At that point, a few of the Pirates’ black players went into the Astros’ clubhouse to appeal to their counterparts.
Bob Watson, an outfielder for the Astros and a future general manager (and the first African-American general manager to win a World Series title) needed little encouragement to take a stand.
“Anytime a man says you’re going to be judged by your character and not the color of your skin, that gets your attention,” Watson told The Undefeated, “and it got mine, especially when I was playing ball in the South and we were still living with Jim Crow laws.”
Watson recalled an incident in 1966 when he was a minor leaguer in the Astros organization. He had spent the spring with the parent club in Cocoa, Florida, and lived in a dormitory that housed all of the players. When spring training ended and the major leaguers left to start the season, the minor leaguers assigned to the Florida State League had to find their own lodging. Unable to rent an apartment or get a hotel room, Watson and another black player were forced to sleep in the black-owned mortuary for four nights until they found a black family to take them in.
So when the Pirates approached Watson, he was immediately on board.
“I remember Stargell and Clink — that’s what we called Donn Clendenon — talking to us. They said, ‘Hey, we’re not playing. That’s the bottom line.’ And [Joe] Morgan, [Jimmy] Wynn, Don Wilson and myself said we’re not gonna play either. Once we said we weren’t gonna play, the rest of the team said fine, just out of respect.”
Other teams soon followed the Pirates’ lead and, one by one, canceled their openers. The last holdouts, the Dodgers, were due to host the Phillies in Los Angeles. Team owner Walter O’Malley, who was the club’s vice president in 1947 when the team signed Jackie Robinson, wanted to go ahead with the game. According to an Associated Press story, O’Malley figured King’s funeral would be over by the time his team took the field on the West Coast.
Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi explained the club’s position to the press: “We are going to follow the schedule,” he said. “We would not play the game if the interment was not completely over. I’m not sure Mr. Giles [Warren Giles, president of the National League] has any jurisdiction in a case like this.”
Bill White, the black first baseman for the Phillies, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “It angers me that a team which pioneered the advent of the Negro into baseball would take such a stand. Of course you realize that O’Malley had nothing to do with [signing Robinson]. He’s a businessman-come-lately. He’s interested in dollars.”
Dick Young was equally incredulous at the Dodgers’ strategy. “Teams in the East and Midwest, which would be playing during the funeral hours, should postpone their games,” he wrote, summarizing O’Malley’s and Eckert’s plan. “[But] teams in California, which would be opening an hour after the funeral had concluded, would play. It was as though someone was standing by the side of the bier with a stopwatch and a starter’s gun.”
Phillies general manager John Quinn finally ended the madness, announcing that his team would rather forfeit than play. O’Malley, after meeting with Quinn and Giles, relented.
Then, and only then, did Eckert call off all Opening Day games. He officially moved the start of the season to Wednesday, the day after King was laid to rest. Two months later, Eckert faced a similar decision after the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy — and handled it in the same indecisive manner. In the end, he pushed back the games scheduled on the afternoon of Kennedy’s funeral to that evening, letting the individual clubs decide whether they’d play the next day, which was designated a time of national mourning.
Blass still shakes his head over Eckert’s handling of King’s assassination. “You’d like to say this man took charge and [postponed] baseball for a specific period. That being said, looking back at age 76 now, I’m glad to be part of a team that did not hesitate,” he said.
“It was crushing,” Watson said of the days and weeks that followed King’s funeral. “To have your leader taken out cowardly like that, we were getting set way, way back. I was surprised that we, as a nation, moved on. We moved on slowly, but we still moved on.”