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In the spring of 1968, there were just four black members of the New York Mets. They had the good fortune to be with the team in Palm Springs, Calif., at the tail end of spring training in the first week of April, removed from the tumult of riots and National Guardsmen that had gripped most of America’s cities in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. at a Memphis hotel, 50 years ago today. 

They were chatting with columnist Dick Young of the New York Daily News, a stodgy veteran writer who was no bastion of progressive thought. But together, all five lamented what had just happened in the country, and expressed their fears for the nation’s cities, especially as young, more radical leader Stokely Carmichael publicly called for blacks to arm themselves and seek retaliation. Mets third basemen Ed Charles shook his head at the notion. “One idiot trying to stir up other idiots,” he told Young. 

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Outfielder Tommie Agee wondered, “Some people were on the borderline, undecided which way to go — violence or non-violence. Which way do you think they’ll go now?” Pitcher Al Jackson had a different question. “A man tries to do some good, like Martin Luther King,” Jackson said. “He does good for black people and for white people. … Somebody doesn’t agree with him, and gets a gun. And you say to yourself, ‘My God, can a thing like this happen in this country?’”

April 4, 1968, was a monumental and sad day in American history. For baseball, it would prove to be an embarrassing moment for the game’s weak-kneed and profit-obsessed leadership. But out of that came a new element the game had hardly seen in the past. Players spoke up. They protested. They forced ownership to bend to their collective will. So long dominated by a system that left them virtually powerless against the dictates of ownership, players asserted their viewpoints and prerogatives in the days after the murder of King like never before. 

Of course, athletes, particularly black athletes, had already been establishing themselves in the years before King’s death as powerful voices in society — Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown — but in baseball, the black athlete had been mostly muted. 

A series of missteps

By the '60s, Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier two decades earlier, had grown fed up with the lack of effective voices on racial inequality within his sport. He heavily criticized star players who, he felt, were not carrying on his legacy. According to the April 20, 1968, edition of The Sporting News, Robinson called Giants star Willie Mays, who’d been seen as a potential heir to Robinson’s civil-rights mantle in baseball, “a do-nothing Negro in the area of race relations.”

But after King’s assassination, as the owners who ruled baseball were on the brink of allowing the reputation of the sport to sink into ignominy, it was the players who found their voices and ultimately rescued the game from irredeemable blunders.

King was murdered on a Thursday, and from the beginning, baseball’s response was a series of fumbles and missteps. The game was led by commissioner William Eckert, arguably the worst commissioner in the history of American sports. Eckert was a retired Air Force lieutenant general who had been plucked out of obscurity 2 1/2 years earlier, not so much for his skills as a leader or his familiarity with the game, but because he was a pliable figurehead who could dazzle the public with his military record but be easily manipulated by owners behind the scenes. 

This is how bad Eckert was: When he was introduced to league managers and media members in the winter of 1965, he pulled out a series of index cards and read his prepared remarks from them. Confusion set over the room, however, when Eckert began extolling the progress of the airline industry and gushed over technological advances in aviation. He’d apparently forgotten that he was scheduled to give a talk to United Airlines executives that night, and was reading the wrong note cards. Worse, he just kept going. Eckert couldn’t tell Gil Hodges from Gil the accountant. 

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A's owner Charley Finley said of Eckert, “We wound up with a guy nobody knew, who knew nothing about sports. That’s when I began to realize I was sitting with a bunch of dummies.”

The ineptitude caught up to Eckert from the outset of the 1968 season. Baseball’s Opening Day was slated for the Monday after King’s murder, and King's funeral was to be held on Tuesday, April 9. From the beginning, baseball’s response was indecisive and confused. 

Though wide-scale rioting was taking place in cities from Washington, D.C., Boston and Philadelphia to Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles, baseball continued to hold its exhibition games in the days after King was killed. That was because most teams held very profitable local rivalry games — the Cubs were scheduled to play the White Sox, for example, in Evansville, Ind., as well as in Milwaukee — after they left their spring training locations in the South and returned home. 

Some players refused to play in the exhibitions, out of respect for King. And Eckert left the decisions about whether to delay Opening Day, and whether to play on the day of King’s funeral, up to individual teams. When the sport most needed a strong and decisive hand, it had a spate of owners controlling 10 games (there were 20 teams), allowed to make ad hoc decisions on whether they’d play, and when. 

'We owe this gesture'

Most owners, focused on the potential loss of gate receipts, wanted the games to go on. When it became clear that the message coming from playing on Opening Day as scheduled would be too crass and disrespectful to King, all teams decided to delay their Monday openers — but did so of their own accord, not on a strong mandate from the commissioner's office. After the Monday games were settled, playing on the day of King’s funeral became a heated topic. 

The idea from ownership, originally, was that it would not be disrespectful to play on Tuesday, only after the completion of King’s funeral. But players took a much tougher stance. In Pittsburgh, which had the largest contingent of black players on the roster (11 of 25), player representative Maury Wills led a meeting of players and told his teammates that the black players were against participating in the opening games in Houston, where the Astros were planning to go forward after King’s funeral on April 9. 

Wills got immediate backing from the Latino and white players on the team. All 25 Pirates would refuse to play on the day of King’s funeral, even if it meant accepting a forfeit and fines from the organization. To show solidarity, the players put out a joint statement, but not from Wills — it came from Roberto Clemente, a native of Puerto Rico, and white pitcher Dave Wickersham. 

“We are doing this because we white and black players respect what Dr. King has done for mankind,” their announcement went. “Dr. King was not only concerned with Negroes or whites, but with poor people. We owe this gesture to his memory and ideals.”

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By Sunday, April 7, nine openers had been moved to Wednesday, each team registering its individual decision. But one team held out — ironically, the Dodgers, Jackie Robinson’s team. Owner Walter O’Malley wanted to open the Dodgers’ season in Los Angeles on Tuesday night, no matter King’s funeral. 

National League president Warren Giles backed up Eckert’s ad hoc approach by telling the Los Angeles Times, “I see nothing disrespectful about the Dodgers playing so many hours after the funeral. It is generally accepted practice for businesses to close during the services and reopen after they are over. The decision is up to the Dodgers.”

Like the Pirates, though, the Phillies — the Dodgers’ slated opponent — said they would refuse to play. Their refusal began on Saturday with the team’s five black players, led by first baseman Bill White, saying they would not participate in a game on the day of King’s funeral. The players got immediate backing from the team’s owner, Bob Carpenter, who said the team would accept the forfeit if the Dodgers did not budge. 

White told the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time, “It angers me that the team that pioneered the advent of the Negro into baseball would take such a stand. Of course, you realize O’Malley had nothing to do with that. He is a businessman-come-lately. He is interested in dollars.”

O’Malley did, finally, agree to move the game to Wednesday, but, as Inquirer writer Frank Dolson said, “what began as a meaningful gesture by the Phillies turned into an embarrassing mess.”

'Deeper than politics'

Indeed, baseball’s handling of the King assassination was a mess, but it would have been much worse if not for the will of the players forcing ownership to avoid a bigger mess by staging games on the day King was buried. 

The game’s magnates, however, didn’t learn much from the experience. Just two months later, New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, and again baseball handled it poorly. Giants owner Horace Stoneham, who had a popular “bat day” promotion scheduled for the weekend after Kennedy’s murder, was outraged when the Mets refused to play out of respect for Kennedy. 

Eckert decreed that teams could start their games after Kennedy’s funeral (which wound up being delayed) was over. As Mets beat writer Joe Trimble wrote, “It was nice of them to wait until the last shovelful of earth was deposited in the grave before yelling, ‘Play ball!’”

But, again, players carried the day. The Mets’ stand against playing on the day of Kennedy’s funeral had support from Hodges, the team’s manager and himself a former player. “I’m very, very happy they voted that way,” Hodges said. “I’m not a political individual at all but I have my feelings. This goes deeper than politics.”

One postscript to come out of the mess baseball made of the King and Kennedy assassinations: Eckert was fired at the end of the year, eventually replaced by Bowie Kuhn. “You can't blame Eckert," one longtime baseball employee told Sports Illustrated. "He tries hard, but he is involved in a game he doesn't know a damn thing about. If you sent a watch to a plumber for repairs and it still didn't work you could find one of the biggest reasons why just by looking in the mirror."




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