Sports and Obama

In the afterglow of that spectacular moment in Chicago’s Grant Park a week ago, all of America seems to want to take a bow for having responded, at long last, to what the incomparable Lincoln called ‘‘the better angels of our nature’’. Mystic chords were struck that night and with it, much history was redeemed.

Sports people are hardly at the top of the list of those who paved the way to the Age of Obama. But sport did play a role and it was often dramatic and not only substantive but genuine and done with a sense of what was ethical and correct as well as merely useful or legal.

It is also true that the fun and games industry -- like all the others -- was dragged kicking and screaming to the bar of justice. But it caught on quicker than many, moved faster to make amends, and proceeded with more genuine enthusiasm for the task than most. The process was uneven and there were monumental outrages along the way. But at least that process evolved up front and in plain view for the most part, thus providing valuable teaching moments. Battles for racial justice were waged on the playing fields of America and the lessons learned were keen.

It is thereby just and proper that at this precious hour sports gets some credit, for it is deserved. As a primal force in the culture, sports broke barriers, exposed hypocrisies, and rejected nonsense. Most of all, it offered opportunity which is the most precious of gifts.

Inspiration for the betterment of racial relations in this country was regularly featured on the sports pages of the nation’s newspapers before many editorial pages got the message. The role that sports played in advancing racial comity was its most important contribution to the American culture over the last seven decades. It gave the games we yearn to play and love to watch true and redeeming social value.

The list of the heroes of the movement is long and glorious and hardly confined to the Jackie Robinson’s who, while the most celebrated, were hardly alone. My own favorites include:

Paul Robeson: Out of Rutgers and Columbia at the brink of the roaring twenties he was the country’s best black athlete; twice an All-American acclaimed by Walter Camp as, “The greatest to ever trod the gridiron!” The son of a slave, he was brilliant at everything he touched adding to his fame with his acting, his singing, his writing, and the ferocity of his politics. Scratchy recordings of his rendering of Jerome Kern’s ‘‘Old Man River’’ remain haunting. Virtually banished after being branded a communist, he became the darling of the salon society in Paris where they had a keener appreciation of Renaissance Men. Robeson had the guts to vigorously assert his rights at a time when that could get a man lynched.

Joe Louis: Ludicrous as it may seem, his role in the fight for equality has become gravely undervalued. He was the single most important African-American athlete in this country’s history. The impact of his championship works and surpassing dignity as a person were immense at a time when the ignorance of Americans on racial issues was at its zenith. In wire service reports, the celebration of Barack Obama’s victory in the minority neighborhoods of New York, Washington and Philadelphia was said to have been the greatest out-pouring of joy since Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling in the summer of 1938. Seven decades later, Joe Louis is still ‘‘the Measure’’!

Jesse Owens: As in the case of Louis, time is diminishing his importance to the cause and that is wrong. His fabulous performance and towering grace at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 seems almost too pristine to have been real. Like Louis, he did much to reach white America with the sheer majesty of the black athlete. Rejected in his old age as irrelevant, he bore that with grace too. He was a special man.

Bill Benswanger: The largely forgotten owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates between the wars, he agitated to integrate baseball in 1930, 1940 and 1942. He failed, of course, and some have termed his efforts ‘tame’. Maybe, but he remains the only baseball owner who challenged the notorious racism of Judge Kenesaw Landis, the abominable bigot who was then the game’s commissioner. Benswanger was also the only owner of anything in any sport to even broach the subject in that tough era.

Bill Veeck: An all-time favorite and true giant of the cause. He deserves much of the credit Branch Rickey grabbed for himself. He tried to purchase the Phillies in 1943 for the sole purpose of integrating the team from top to bottom only to be thwarted by a furious Landis. Returning from the Marines after the war and with Landis finally gone, he landed the Indians and promptly integrated the American League. Unlike Rickey, Veeck pursued the cause fiercely the rest of his life.

Bob Cousy: As a true leader of the Celtics and a Jesuit-educated gentleman, Cousy embraced Chuck Cooper and was staunch on his behalf after Walter Brown made Cooper the first black player drafted in the NBA. Bob Cousy was to Chuck Cooper what Pee Wee Reese was to Jackie Robinson and his service was no less inspiring. If the tale is not as well known or as often told it’s because modesty in such matters is yet another of Cousy’s virtues.

Althea Gibson: The lanky and shy lady who electrified the tennis world by winning the British and U.S. titles in 1957. Scaling the heights of a game where people of color had been forever restricted to mowing the lawns and serving the drinks was downright Herculean at the time. Impeccably polite, Ms. Gibson reigned with dignity over her game and then retired with an elegance and silence that she maintained to her death. She was an utterly remarkable woman.

Charlie Sifford: Also in 1957, he became the first black man to win a PGA event, the Long Beach Open, culminating a long, quiet, and patient campaign in a sport that remained essentially segregated despite a Supreme Court edict in 1955 banning discrimination at public golf courses. Sifford’s task was even tougher than Gibson’s. Tennis was played in more civilized enclaves like Forest Hills, Wimbledon, and Brookline.

The Celtics: No team in any game promoted the cause more sincerely, especially in the early, more desperate years. Walter Brown was saintly on the issue and Red Auerbach was utterly color-blind. Their white stars -- from Cousy, Sharman and Macauley through Heinsohn, Loscutoff and Ramsey and onto Havlicek, Nelson and Cowens -- were near uniquely committed. So it was that Bill Russell achieved unprecedented stature and Red Auerbach fielded professional sports’ first all-black starting lineup (Jones, Jones, Russell, Sanders and Naulls). It could then only have happened on the Celtics.

Curt Flood: Symbol of a degree of courage surpassing even the issue of race, he laid down his career in the pursuit of the rights of all players: black, white or otherwise. A rather prophetic fellow he marched to a distant drummer. And he did so, rather proudly.

There are so many others. Larry Doby who was to the AL what Jackie Robinson was to the NL, no matter how few recognize it. Bobby Grier, running back of the 1954 Pitt Panthers’ Sugar Bowl team. The peerless Wilma Rudolph. The Texas Western NCAA champs of the mid-sixties, all black and unprecedented. Those 1968 Olympians, Brothers Smith and Carlos, who saluted the world and paid with their careers. The great Jim Brown, bursting with pride and anger. The tragic Ernie Davis, first black Heisman. That other Robinson, named ‘‘Frank’’, first black baseball manager. Willie O’Ree of the Bruins. With little fuss he integrated hockey. Jack Twyman, who sheparded Maurice Stokes through life and death. One could go on all night and would love to.

But you get the point. Here’s to every last one of them. To paraphrase Kipling, we hear them tramping on the road to oblivion, heroic to the last and so well remembered at moments like this.