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On Buck O’Neil and Jackie Robinson

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I told a version this story in “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America,” which is about my year of traveling around the country with the great Buck O’Neil, Negro Leagues player and manager, brilliant scout for the Cubs, the first African American coach in Major League Baseball and the living memory of the Negro Leagues for generations of people who could barely imagine an America where African Americans were banned from the Major Leagues.

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We were in New York in the summertime. It was hot. One thing I remember about all those trips with Buck was how hot it was just about everywhere we went. It was hot in Houston. It was hot in Atlanta. It was hot in Chicago and in Washington. And it was hot in New York.

We woke up early and rode into the city for a morning radio interview. There was an easy pace and rhythm to Buck’s interviews. Everyone, more or less, asked the same questions. What was it like? Can you tell us about Satchel Paige? Was Josh Gibson as good as people say? How good was Jackie Robinson? Who is your favorite player now? What do you make of steroids in baseball? Do you think the game is as much fun as it used to be? Why aren’t more young African Americans playing the sport? And so on. There were rarely surprises, because they were unnecessary. Buck made such good radio and television. His voice was musical. His stories were like great songs — people would just want to hear them over and over again.

For instance, Buck had a story he told many, many times about Jackie Robinson — a story that had been told to him by his good friend Hilton Smith (Buck was at war when Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs and so did not witness it). A version of the story actually made it into the new movie “42.” When Jackie Robinson played with the Kansas City Monarchs, the team was riding through Oklahoma and pulled into a familiar gas station. Everybody piled out and stretched, and Jackie Robinson headed for the bathroom. It was a white only bathroom.

“Where do you think you’re going, boy?” the gas station owner said. “You know you can’t go in there.”

Robinson braced himself. How many battles like this would he fight in his remarkable life? He turned to the man and said, “Pull the hose out of the tank.” The man glared back, and Buck knew exactly what that man was thinking (This was Buck’s great gift — he empathized with everyone, even the racists who haunted his life). The man was thinking that this bus had a huge tank on the left side and another huge tank on the right side. The man was thinking that he was a gas station owner in a small Oklahoma town and he wasn’t going to see a vehicle needing this much gas for a long time — maybe forever. The man was thinking that this bus came through every few weeks, a steady customer, and he needed the business.

The man was thinking that the whites-only bathroom didn’t seem too sensible a policy, considering the circumstances.

“All right go on in there,” the man said, and then, to maintain some illusion of control he barked, “But make it fast.”

“Jackie wasn’t built the way we were,” Buck would say. “We were conditioned to segregation. We were conditioned to Jim Crow. We knew it wasn’t right, but we saw it as unchangeable part of the world. Jackie didn’t see it that way. Jackie knew the times would change. He would make them change.”

And then Buck would smile really big and say: “Thank you Jackie.”

When we arrived at the building in New York that day, there were a couple of security guards sitting behind a desk and looking at a wall of little monitors. One of them recognized Buck and asked, “What are you doing here?” Buck, explained that he was there to do a show called “Star and something or other.”

The man’s face fell. “Star and Buc Wild?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said Bob Kendrick, now president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum who was along for this trip and most of the other ones we made. The guard looked utterly crestfallen and then he said something I will never forget. He said: “Please don’t do that show, Mr. O’Neil. You are a gentleman. Please don’t do that show.”

The guard explained that the show was a shock jock thing — wilder and crazier than Howard Stern. He was getting frantic. “They talk ignorance on that show,” he said. Buck looked at the man and smiled. He was almost 94 years old. He had seen plenty of ignorance. He had never allowed that ignorance to overwhelm his good will. But he was also touched by the man’s concern for him. He put his hand on the man’s shoulder and said, “Ignorance, eh? Well, we’ll see if we can talk some common sense with those guys, eh?’

I won’t relive the fullness of the interview here. It’s in the book. All you really need to know is that fairly early in the interview — after Buck was introduced to a sidekick called “White Trash” — a question came zinging in: “Jackie Robinson was a sellout, am I right?”

What followed seemed to go in slow motion. Again and again and again — for what seemed like hours — there was question after question about Jackie Robinson being a sellout for abandoning the Negro Leagues and going to play with white players. Buck was bewildered. At one point, he went into his bit about how important Jackie Robinson was:

“When Jackie Robinson went to the Major Leagues, that was the beginning of the modern-day civil rights movement. That was before Rosa Parks said, ‘I don’t feel like going to the back of the damn bus today.’ That was before Brown vs. Board of Education. Martin Luther King was a sophomore at Morehouse College at the time. Jackie Robinson went to the Major Leagues and that’s what started the ball rolling. That was the start, man! Are you listening.”

The argument raged on for another full segment and it grew nastier and more intense. I don’t know what it sounded like on the radio. For me, watching my friend, it was heartbreaking.

When it ended, we went into the city — Buck had a lot more to do. The rest of the interviews went off without any surprises — everything seemed back in rhythm. But not quite. That morning interview had taken much of the life out of Buck. You have to understand, Buck was more joyous, more filled with life, more filled with hope than anybody I ever knew. By that time that day ended, Buck was as tired and deflated as I ever saw him. He was a man who cherished the two meals a day he allowed himself — always ate dessert — but when we got to the hotel he announced he was too tired to eat. He was going to his room to sleep.

And then as we walked toward the hotel, we saw a woman in a red dress. As I have written many times, this wasn’t any ordinary red dress. It was bright red, fire red, lipstick red. a Marilyn Monroe red dress. It was a Broadway show all in itself. As I walked into the hotel, I turned to Buck to ask him what he thought … only he was gone.

I looked around. Did he slip into the bathroom? Did he sneak upstairs without me? Did he stay in the car? There was a moment confusion and then, only then, did I look out the glass revolving door. And there was Buck, talking with the woman in the red dress. Well, they were laughing mostly. Talking and laughing. And hugging also, yes. Talking and laughing and hugging. Then a man came over — her husband maybe? Her boyfriend? Buck started talking with him. Talking and laughing. Talking and laughing and hugging. They were probably out there for 10 minutes, all of them, complete strangers, only not strangers at all.

When Buck returned to the hotel, he announced in his loud and happy voice: “Let’s get some dinner!” He was reborn. He practically bounced toward the hotel restaurant when suddenly he stopped. He turned to me. He said, “Let me ask you something. Did you see that woman in the red dress?”

I nodded.

And he shook his head and he said this: “Son, in this life, you don’t ever walk by a red dress.”

I’ve told that story hundreds of times by now — to me, it summed up Buck O’Neil. The “red dress” wasn’t really a red dress. It represented the joys of life. Buck never walked by a baby without having it grab his finger. He never walked by a friendly face without asking a question like “Do you remember your first day of school?” He never walked by a worker without asking how the day was going. He never stood in an elevator without striking a conversation. He never passed up a chance for a hug, or a smile, a slice of cake, a scoop of ice cream or a chance to learn something new.

I once asked Buck if he could have been the first black man play in the Major Leagues. He said no. He said that task needed someone extraordinary, someone fierce, someone who would not stand for injustice, someone who would not bend to ease of inaction or the force of hatred. I said, “You could have done it.” He said, “No, that was for Jackie. I had a different role.”

And as I tell this story one time I realize something: I have never once said whether the woman wearing the red dress was white or black. And the honest truth is, after all the years, I don’t remember.

Adams homers in 16th to lift Cardinals over Dodgers 4-3

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ST. LOUIS — Matt Adams homered in the 16th inning to lead the Cardinals to a 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday night for St. Louis’ season-best fifth straight victory.

It was the second consecutive game that the Cardinals won in their final at-bat. They beat the Padres on Thursday after scoring a run in the ninth inning.

Adams homer came with one out off Bud Norris (5-9), who gave up six runs as a starter in an 8-1 loss at Washington on Wednesday.

Seth Maness (1-2) picked up the win with a scoreless inning of relief for St. Louis, which was playing its longest game of the season.

Jedd Gyorko hit a two-out homer off closer Kenley Jansen in the ninth to tie the game 3-3.

Justin Turner and Howie Kendrick homered for the Dodgers. Los Angeles has lost four of six. The red-hot Turner has seven homers and 17 RBI this month. He hit two homers in a 6-3 win over Washington on Thursday.

Turner blasted his career-high 18th homer of the season off Seung Hwan Oh in the ninth to break a 2-2 tie.

Corey Seager had four hits and drove in the first run of the game. He had hit in seven successive at-bats before flying out in the ninth.

Kendrick’s solo shot in the sixth tied the game 2-2. He has hit in 14 successive games trying Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon for the longest current streak in the majors.

Los Angeles starter Brandon McCarthy allowed one hit and two runs over 6 1-3 innings, the longest of his four starts this season. He left with leg cramps. McCarthy struck out four and walked three.

St. Louis starter Michael Wacha allowed two runs on 10 hits in six innings. He struck out four and walked one.

Dodgers reliever Adam Liberatore recorded his 28th successive scoreless outing by retiring two of four batters in the seventh. He has not allowed a run in 41 of 42 appearances this season.

Minor League Players’ Wage Suit against Major League Baseball suffers a huge setback

The judge's gavel is seen in court room 422 of the New York Supreme Court at 60 Centre Street February 3, 2012. REUTERS/Chip East
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A judge handed minor leaguers looking to hold Major League Baseball liable for underpaying and exploiting them a huge setback today, ruling that the case cannot go forward as a class action. Minor leaguers who want to sue over their pay and treatment still can, but they’ll have to do it individually. The ruling saps the minor leaguers of their leverage, as Major League Baseball would likely be able to fend off individual cases which, by themselves, might only amount to several thousand dollars per claim.

The background: in 2014, former Miami Marlins player Aaron Senne sued Major League Baseball, Bud Selig, and three major league clubs claiming that minor leaguers are underpaid and exploited in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. He was later joined by former Royals minor leaguer Michael Liberto and Giants farmhand Oliver Odle. Eventually others joined and the suit had been expanded to 22 teams as defendants.

The upshot of the case is that, while the minor league season lasts only part of the year, players are required to do all sorts of things outside of merely playing games for which they are not compensated. Training, meetings, appearances and the like. When all of that time is added up, the players claim, their already low salaries are effectively far below minimum wage in violation of the law. Major League Baseball has countered this by claiming that minor leaguers are basically part time seasonal workers — like landscapers and pool boys — who are not subject to federal labor laws.

Last year the judge gave the case conditional certification, allowing the players to try to establish that it should go forward as a class action. This would streamline the case from the plaintiffs’ perspective and give them the power of collective action by asserting hundreds or more similar cases into one proceeding. The judge’s ruling today, however, was that the cases really weren’t factually similar and thus collective action was not appropriate because figuring out how many hours each player worked and what was required of him varied too greatly among the players.

From his order:

“The difficulties associated with determining what activities constitute ‘work’ in the context of winter training are compounded by the fact that there appear to be no official records documenting these activities. Because it may be impossible to determine from official records the types of conditioning activities in which the players engaged, membership in the state classes based on winter training would depend largely upon the players’ ability to remember, with a reasonable amount of detail, what they did during the off-season (often for multiple years and for many, several years in the past) to stay fit.”

The judge said that, in light of this, each case would be unique and would require “individualized inquiries” to find damages and liability. That phrase –“individualized inquiries” — constitutes magic words which sink would-be class actions. If a company overcharges all of its customers by $8 due to an error repeated a million times, it’s easy to look at one set of facts and judge them together. If you had to look at a million different wrongs, that’s no class action. And so it is not a class action for the players.

As many courts who have dealt with these sorts of cases have noted, for many plaintiffs, a class action is the only practical method of adjudicating Fair Labor Standards Act cases because individual plaintiffs are frequently unable to bear the costs of separate trials. They are, by definition, (allegedly) exploited workers. They’re not going to be able to pay legal costs and fight off a multi-billion dollar business in order to collect the few thousand dollars they were underpaid. At the same time, however, the defendants have rights too and, if the facts of each players’ treatment truly differ (e.g. the Yankees make their minor leaguers do more than the Brewers do) it’s not fair to bind one defendant’s defense to the acts of another.

So, where does this leave the players? Not dead. Not yet, at least. Their claims have not been dismissed on the merits. They have only been denied the right to act collectively. The individual plaintiffs can now file separate lawsuits against their former employers and Major League Baseball under the same theories. It would be harder to land a big blow in such a scenario, but if enough do, it could end up being death by a thousand cuts for the clubs and the league. Their legal fees might go up and, eventually, if they lose enough of these cases, more might be filed. There are a lot of former minor leaguers, after all, and once there’s some blood in the water, more of them — and their lawyers — may enter the frenzy. Decertification is certainly a win for the league right now, but it’s not necessarily a permanent win.

There are likewise some other quasi-collective forms this case could take such as multi-district litigation in which the cases, while individual, are coordinated in a loose fashion. That could lead to some efficiencies for suing players even if it’s not as robust as a class action.

We’ve written quite a bit about minor league pay and treatment in this space by now, so you probably know where we stand on it. We believe that minor leaguers are exploited and underpaid and we believe that Major League Baseball has been happy to exploit and underpay them for some time. Ultimately we believe that this state of affairs cannot and will not persist and that eventually, somehow, baseball will either see fit to pay its workers fairly or, more likely, will be forced to do so by a court or by collective bargaining of some fashion.

Today, however, was a big setback for the minor leaguers. Today’s ruling will give Major League Baseball and its clubs more time and more comfort in which to underpay them. There’s no doubt about it.