Legendary Houston Astros player Jimmy “The Toy Cannon” Wynn, who was born in Hamilton and schooled at Cincinnati Taft High and Central State University before signing with the Cincinnati Reds in 1962. A three-time all-star who had his number retired by the Astros, Wynn was known for his monster home runs even though he was just 5-foot-8. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: columnist
Photo: columnist

Archdeacon: Baseball and race — A living history

The diminutive long ball hitter – nicknamed The Toy Cannon, proof of the old idiom that good things come in small packages – was born in Hamilton and schooled at Cincinnati Taft High School and Central State before being signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 1962.

His first minor league assignment was with the Tampa Tarpons in the Florida State League and immediately be became a target.

“I was the second black ballplayer to play in Tampa and there was an individual who sat in the stands hollering and screaming, calling me all kinds of names. That was my first introduction to being segregated,” Wynn explains in the compelling documentary – “A Long Way from Home: The Untold Story of Baseball’s Desegregation” – made by celebrated Miami filmmaker Gaspar Gonzalez.

The film features several players with Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians ties and each has forceful, first-hand accounts of the trials they faced helping integrate the game.

“Jimmy tells a great story about his first trip to Miami,” Gonzalez said when we talked about his film over lunch recently in Miami. “He and Lee May were the only two blacks on the Tampa team then.

“Jimmy had never been to Miami before and as they were driving across the causeway (to Miami Beach), he sees all the beautiful hotels and palm trees and goes ‘This is fantastic! I love this!’

“And Lee May says, ‘But WE’RE not staying here.’ And they drop off all the white guys at the hotel, then go back across the causeway into Miami and the two black guys are left at a little ramshackle place.”

Wynn recalled the moment in the film: “We went into this raggedy motel. There were no windows….Flies and bugs were everywhere. And we had to live there for four days.”

Back then Miami Beach didn’t allow blacks to stay overnight, even the big-name black entertainers who headlined on the hotel stages or Cassius Clay – soon to be Muhammad Ali – who was just coming to fame at the Fifth Street Gym.

Bobby Tolan – who played 15 years in the Major Leagues, including five with Cincinnati – had a similar experience in 1964 in the Texas League.

“We stopped off at a roadside diner and all the white guys got off the bus to go in for something to eat,” he said. “When I got into the restaurant, the waitress came over and said, ‘What would you like – to go?’

“And I was tired like the rest of the guys and said, ‘I’ll just eat right here.’

“She said, ‘No sir.’ She was very polite, but she said, ‘We can’t serve you guys.’

“I’m like, ‘What in the hell is going on here?’ Being from Los Angeles, I’d never experienced that.”

Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Perez, the Cuban-born slugger who was a member of Cincinnati Reds Big Red Machine and later managed the Reds. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: columnist

The stories of Wynn and Tolan and guys like Tony Perez, J.R. Richard, Mudcat Grant, Orlando Cepeda and other African American and Latin players from the 1950s and 1960s bring home the point of the film:

Breaking baseball’s color barrier took more than just one man, it took a generation.

“That moment in 1947 when Jackie Robinson joined the all-white Dodgers, that is a moment of the desegregation of baseball,” said Yale University historian Matthew Frye Jacobson, whose initial idea and research helped launch the film. “But how long does it actually take for baseball to be desegregated?

“It takes 13 years for all 16 of the teams to include a black player. But then you have players that you associate with the 1960s who are still breaking barriers through the minor leagues.”

As Gonzales put it: “You find guys throughout the ‘60s who had to be Jackie Robinson all over again, but they did it in the context of the Deep South and they did it without publicity or protection and sometimes all alone.

“Imagine doing this like Dick Allen did in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1963? Or Tony Perez in Macon in 1962 or in the Appalachian League like Enos Cabell did as late as 1969.”

Cabell – who later played 15 seasons in the big leagues – recalled in the film when his Bluefield team won the Appalachian League title in Pulaski, Virginia:

“We beat them in the championship game in Pulaski. When we came off the field, that’s when I had my first dealing with the Ku Klux Klan.

“They broke all the windows in the clubhouse…and in the bus. We were all down on the floor…We really thought we were going to die. They had their hoods on and everything.

“And when we finally got out of there, I said, ‘How can people hate other people that much?’”

As Jacobson noted: “A lot of these guys were coming in at a more volatile moment (than Robinson) in the overall realm of civil rights history.”

Jonathan Holloway, another Yale historian, agreed: “There was a lot of pent up anger over the fact of integration and a lot of violence that came with it. Things actually became more dangerous for blacks in the post-integration moment.”

He mentioned the confrontations that came with the desegregation of schools, blacks getting seats in the front of buses and at lunch counters: “It’s hard to imagine what (black players) experienced when they rolled into town.

“Do they have to get off the sidewalk when a white person approaches them? Can they afford to make eye contact? Can they expect to be fed at certain places?”

Orlando Cepeda – the great San Francisco Giants star who grew up in Puerto Rico and didn’t speak English as a 17-year-old prospect – talked in the film about first joining a Salem, Virginia team:

“I rode all night on the Greyhound. When I got there, I went for a walk in the white downtown and the police stopped me. I have no idea what they said to me, but they put this scared kid in a squad car and took him to the other side of town.”

Grover “Deacon” Jones, former Chicago White Sox player, who then served as a coach, manager and scout for big league teams. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: columnist

Grover “Deacon” Jones, who played for the Chicago White Sox, said he’ll never forget some fans in Charleston, S.C: “Man, they used to shoot BB guns at us black guys. They’d try hit us in the butt.”

Gonzalez said a team in Birmingham, Ala. disbanded rather than integrate.

And in Little Rock, a real stink was raised when Allen was set to join the club.

There were protest banners and anti-integration leaflets, which read:

“Conspiracy at Little Rock to Negro-ize the Travelers baseball team…Travelers Field, our hotels and coffees shops.”

As Jacobson noted, “Young Dick Allen thought: ‘I thought Jackie Robinson Negro-ized baseball years ago.’”

Telling untold stories

Gonzalez said Jacobson was writing a cultural history of the civil rights movement and was “trying to tell stories that hadn’t been told or had been lost.

“He got really interested in writing a chapter about Dick Allen, but in the course of his research he realized this was a phenomenon throughout the ‘60s where these minor league teams hadn’t been integrated.”

Jacobson contacted Gonzalez, an Emmy-winning filmmaker whose credits include a PBS film. “Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami,” an ESPN 30 for 30 Short on Alexis Arguello entitled “The Guerilla Fighter,” and several other works. His latest venture is “Errol Flynn’s Ghost: Hollywood in Havana.”

This idea intrigued Gonzalez, who reached out to Tony Perez, the Reds Hall of Famer who was raised in Cuba as were Gaspar’s parents.

“Tony said, ‘Yeah, whatever you want. Come over,’” Gonzalez said with a smile. “But a few weeks went by and by the time we got there, he didn’t remember what the film was about.

“When we walked in, he said, ‘Alright what we talking about today? The Big Red Machine? Johnny Bench? Joe Morgan? Pete? The ’75 Series?’

“I said, ‘No, No. Macon, Georgia, 1962.’

“Well, that just blew his mind. Nobody had ever asked him about that.”

Perez talked about people taunting him to show his green card and mentioned snubs when he first joined the Reds.

Orlando Pena – who pitched 14 seasons in the Major Leagues, three of them with the Reds – recalled breaking into pro ball in 1955 in Daytona Beach, Fla. with another Cuban player:

“Valdez made an error in Daytona at second base. When he came off the field, he was assaulted by the fans – punched in the face, thrown on the ground. The next day he went back to Cuba and never played ball again.”

Sometimes the punch in the mouth came not from a mob, but an old lady.

Deacon Jones told how he and his wife were looking for a place to live before the season and he saw an ad for a furnished one-bedroom apartment:

“I said to my wife, ‘Oh Baby, this is it. This is us.’

“We drove there, knocked on the door and this little, old, white lady answered.

“I said, ‘Yes, Madam, we’ve come to inquire about the ad you have in the local paper. My wife would like to look at it.’

“And she looked at me and said, ‘I don’t rent to (N-word)!’

“I never felt so little in my life.”

‘Cannon, Cannon’

Mudcat Grant grew up in Lacoochie, Florida where he said blacks and whites lived in separate areas of town and attended separate schools.

As an 18 year old he went off to play pro ball in Moorhead, Minnesota in 1954 and returned home afterward:

“I was the Rookie of the Year in the Northern League, so I felt pretty good coming back. I had forgotten, ‘I’m now back in the South and I better be careful.’

“We go to a juke joint and all of a sudden a couple of policemen show up and start questioning us: ‘So you causing some problem out here?’

“I said, ‘No.’ I shoulda said, ‘No sir.’

“I got kicked in the rear and when I turned around, there was a .38 in my face. And the policeman said, say ‘Yes sir’ … (N-word)! “

It was those kind of experiences that led to a confrontational moment before one game in the Cleveland Indians bullpen in 1960, one that still resonates today with the Colin Kaepernick situation.

Grant told of standing for the national anthem and when they got to the line about “land of the free,” he said he added a light-hearted, but pointed line of his own:

“I said ‘And the land is not so free, cause I can’t go to Birmingham and sit down at the countee (lunch counter).”

“Ted Wilks was the assistant pitching coach and he said to me, ‘Well, if we catch you (N-word) in Texas, we will hang you from the nearest tree.’

“So I said, ‘Well, I’m glad you said that ‘cause we are not in Texas. We are in Cleveland O-HI- O!’… And whomp!”

Grant reenacted the KO punch he threw:

“I was suspended for that little ditty, but instead of feeling more anger, I felt pretty good after that.”

Grant explained the problem black and Latin players often faced back then:

“Those remnants of slavery and segregation were so deep-rooted into society. It was hard for them to see us as equal in terms of humanity.”

Several of the players mentioned that black and Latin players not only had to be better than their white counterparts to make the team, but even better than other blacks and Spanish players not at their position because there often was a limit on the non-white players a team would carry.

Wynn talked about walking through the dugout and counting the black players and knowing full well what he had to do to make the cut.

And he did just that with his bat. Picked up from the Reds by the expansion Houston Colt 45s – who became the Astros three years later – he ended up one of the franchise’s greatest players. He was three-time All Star and his number 24 has been retired.

In 1967, he finished second to Hank Aaron – 37 to 39 – for the National League home run crown. Playing home games in the cavernous Astrodome, he still finished his career with 291 home runs, many of them colossal swats for a “5-foot-8 guy.”

At Crosley Field in 1967, he cleared the 58-foot scoreboard in left field and the ball landed on the exit ramp of the Mill Creek Expressway. He hit a Phil Niekro knuckleball 500 feet into the upper deck of the Astrodome and another shot easily cleared the 457 foot center field wall at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field.

Emmy-award winning filmmaker Gaspar Gonzalez. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: columnist

Gonzalez said he asked Cabell, who now serves as a special assistant to the Astros: “When did it change that black payers had to be better than white players to make it?

“He said, ‘I’ll let you know when it happens.’ The feeling is there is a lot of unfinished work.”

This wonderful film brings much of that to mind. It’s why it was shone at Cooperstown. Why the Boston Red Sox have talked about showing it to the entire organization. Why earlier this year it won a prestigious Golden Telly award.

It was broadcast nationally on TV One and is now available on iTunes, Amazon and Kanopy.

There have also been special showings in several cities around the nation, especially Houston, where several of the players – including Wynn – now live.

Some 300 people showed up at that event, many with young teenagers in tow. And there was one guy Gonzalez won’t forget:

“He was a Jimmy Wynn fan and every time Jimmy showed up on the screen, you could hear him from the back of the room:

“’Cannon!’

“’Cannon!’”

Unlike that one-word taunt he got in Tampa at the start of his career, Wynn was being saluted with respect, love and playful embrace.

And he was now proof that good things don’t just come in small packages.

They come in black and brown ones, too.

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