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Hagerstown to Willie Mays: 'Honest, we've changed'

July 11, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

Forty-eight years ago in Atlanta, Ga., Branch Rickey began his speech to the One Hundred Percent Wrong Club banquet with the warning "Ladies and gentlemen, my plane doesn't leave until tomorrow at 10:35 a.m. and I haven't a thing to do between now and then but to talk - and I feel like talking."

Indeed, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager had a lot to say, specifically about how he was able usher the first black baseball player into the Major Leagues after a century of racial exclusion.

Branch's speech was delivered nine years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and six years after Willie Mays made his professional debut on the minor league field here in Hagerstown. Branch was under the impression that "Baseball's Great Experiment" was going well, although a few Hagerstown residents hadn't gotten the memo - they hollered slurs such as "watermelon man" when Mays took the field.

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There are many things in life you wish you could know, but realize you never will.

One such unknowable tidbit would be this: What would the chap who yelled "watermelon man" at Willie Mays have thought if he had been told that, 54 years hence, Willie Mays would not only return to Hagerstown, but that white men would pay up to $1,000 to shake his hand?

Would he be outraged? Defiant? Disbelieving? Or would the information just fail to compute, fail to register in the world as he understood it, as he looked back at you with jaw slightly agape, saying nothing?

The man responsible for us even considering this question is Hagerstown Suns General Manager Kurt Landes, who has certainly cut an asymmetrical swath through the Hagerstown landscape. His proposed "Osama bin Laden Bobblehead Night" flopped after the community found it startling and tasteless. His "free funeral giveaway" at the ballpark, however, drew national headlines and was seen in promotional circles as a stroke of genius.

And now this. Willie Mays, for a price, comes back to where it all started as the guest of a Hagerstown Suns team, which is now, ironically enough, a farm club for Mays' own Giants.

There are more delicious story lines running through this than you would find in a David Foster Wallace novel, beginning with Landes himself - who looks in all of this like half P.T. Barnum and half Frank Tannenbaum.

Barnum the huckster would love the show; Tannenbaum the sociologist would love the implications.

In "Slave and Citizen," Tannenbaum wrote that four things are needed to stem the tide of racism: Proximity, that is rubbing elbows and getting to know one another individually; an intermingling of arts and entertainments; a strong and democratic middle class; and finally, a recognition of the fundamental truth that all men are created equal.

I might add one more element: time. Time is the great and imperceptibly moving glacier that will blandly swallow up a human being's most sacred beliefs and ideals and spit them out five decades later as an unemotional curiosity, just so many leather-covered bones and colored scraps of cloth.

As florid as are today's debates over abortion and gay marriage, does anyone really want to bet the farm that in another 50 years abortion won't be seen almost universally as barbaric and gay marriage won't be seen almost universally as nothing out of the ordinary?

Almost certainly, the "watermelon man" man would have stood before you in 1950 and stridently argued that black athletes would never gain the acceptance of mainstream America. Ever.

Forever, as they say, is a long time. Issues have a way of being adjudicated, and adjudicated correctly, by the natural forces of society.

Even today's problems seem less problematic when viewed in the context of history. You may believe rap music is bad, but racial segregation was worse. You may believe the girls on MTV show too much skin, but these women will have the right to vote. Kids may seem disrespectful, but we are not putting them to work for 12 hours every day in the mills. The government may be obsessed with our expanding waistlines, but huddled masses of immigrants aren't freezing to death in tenement basements.

Yesterday the Klan was feared; today it's a joke. In fact, I trace the defacto demise of the Ku Klux Klan to the day in 1974 when Mel Brooks released the blockbuster "Blazing Saddles," a movie that drew roars of laughter over two hooded Klansmen who get duped into an ambush by the black sheriff of Rock Ridge with the catcall "Where da white women at?" A butt of a joke wields little in the way of political or social influence. Time had passed. The Klan's epitaph was written on the wall for all to see, and laugh at.

So re-enter Willie Mays into Hagerstown, 54 years and 660 Major League homers later. Another unknowable tidbit is how the great player and the great man himself will view this appearance. Is it just another paycheck, or is there more meaning?

Mays recalled Hagerstown unfondly in his autobiography. Landes says this is our chance to show him we've changed.

Of course we've changed. America has changed (or at least is in the glacially slow process of changing). Changed so much in fact, there is no longer any need or reason for Mays to tell us he forgives us. We understand the pain that we caused. Mays surely understands that we understand. I think it's enough for everyone if we can know, and can appreciate, the blessed force of time and the ultimate goodness of society, and recognize that in some ways 1950 is a million years in the past. Being mindful, of course, that in other ways, a million years isn't long enough.

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