Everybody agreed back in 1946 that Branch Rickey had done black ball-
players a terrific favor by bringing Jackie Robinson in from the Negro leagues to play ball beside the white folks. Rickey, the old Brooklyn mahatma, did the blacks a turn, no question about that, but look what he did for the fans of all colors. Black guys have given the game a dimension it never knew in the pre-Robinson era. Oh, there were great and colorful players before Rickey tore up the unwritten law—Ty Cobb’s spikes sliced long, lean strips from infielders’ hides and Ruth’s bat built the most famous ball yard in this galaxy. But blacks have brought a certain high style, a kind of cool, that gives fans new moments for tingling.
You see it when a black guy settles under a fly ball, Dave Parker, say, the Pirate outfielder. It’s a big catch, it means a great deal; there are two out and the runners are churning. As anyone who has ever set an example for a child knows, outfielders use two hands, right? Not the black guys; black guys give it the old one-handed nonchalance. Parker stands there, raises the gloved right hand casually and lets the ball drop in; a guy taking a butterfly and not disturbing its dust.
Bang! You see it when Willie Montanez, a first baseman long in the tooth picked up late by the Expos for insurance, takes a pop fly near the mound. The runner at third is moving because there are two out, so it’s not a ball to fool around with, and it goes up and up and up before it comes straight down. Willie ambles over, scowling as though somebody has swiped his beer, gets under the ball and with exquisite timing he slaps his mitt past his right ear at the rapidly descending ball, snatches it out of the air, the hand continuing its route and hanging against Willie’s right thigh as Willie walks to the dugout.
And you see it when Hawk Dawson drifts into second base with a double to the left-field corner. This is a play that can be close if the outfielder, playing the carom right, wheels and throws a strike to second where the runner is sliding in. But when Dawson does it for the Expos he is never sliding in, he is gliding in. Actually slowing down, easing into the bag, standing up, smooth. You see it, too, when a black guy has hit a home run. The players who have scored ahead of him wait at the plate and when he comes in they don’t shake his hand like a bunch of Rotarians at lunch on Tuesday. What they used to do, they used to slap palms (“Gimme five, man”), but what they do now is reach high and bang hands up there (“The high five, man”). When they reach the
dugout everybody has come pouring up the steps and there are high fives with both hands in a laughing melee, black guys and white guys, grinning away. White guys throw in occasional refinements, such as Gary Carter, the Li’l Abner in the Expo tools of ignorance, who lays on a high five and a low five, the right hand above the head and, quickly, down by the thigh.
Why do black guys catch fly balls one handed? Why don’t they shake hands? Nobody will say. Oh, they’ll say something but they won’t really say, anymore than Parker will say why he wears a diamond in the lobe of his left ear. “I can reach farther with one hand” (Dawson), “Feels more comfprtable” (Parker), “See it better” (Montanez).
But the question is rhetorical. There’s no reason black guys brought in the one-handed catch, Willie Mays the basket catch. There’s no reason they dreamed up the high five. It’s all part of this style, this cool, this way they are. Mike Schmidt will talk about this. Mike Schmidt, the home-run king of the big leagues, the Phillies slugger, is a white guy whose closest friends in the ball club over the years have been black guys—Dave Cash, Richie Allen, Garry Maddox, his roomie on the road with the current club. The magazine Inside Sports, making its bow a year ago, carried a piece on Schmidt saying some Phillies think Schmidt tries to be cool because black players are cool, that “maybe he’d rather be black.” Schmidt, a contained, slow-striding, remote fellow, says this is a bunch of baloney.
“It’s ridiculous, I can’t even dance,” he said with nice disdain. “If people say I try to be black, I can’t take that as a compliment, but if they mean that I’m trusting like black people, that I’m honest like black people I’ve known, that’s fine.” Not every ballplayer is enchanted by what the black guys have added to the grand old game, Bill Lee for one. You could call Bill a left-hander’s lefthander, a zany guy who has worn a gas mask to the mound and a beanie with a propeller on it. Bill is a white guy, a purist who hates artificial turf, the designated-hitter rule and hotdog ballplayers. “One-handed catches are TV sensationalism,” Bill says. “They shouldn’t be allowed, like a lot of other things that are screwing up baseball. Eventually the unused arm will fall off. It’s being bred off, like little toes. Save the little toe! Walk barefoot! Save the other arm, catch two-handed.”
Still, all of it’s color for the folks at home, speaking of whom by the way, the black guys have done an enormous favor. When television louts with handheld cameras crept up on players sitting on the bench for silent close-ups, players looked embarrassed and spied upon. It was the black guys who sped to the rescue. They leered at the nosey lens, or beamed. “Hi Mom,” they hammed. Just what TV deserved.
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