New generation recalls efforts of trailblazers AN AMERICAN HERO

April 15, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Orioles relief pitcher Alan Mills scrambled to find a new baseball and rushed across the visitors clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium the other day. Former Negro leagues star Buck O'Neil was there, and Mills just couldn't let him get away without signing a baseball.

How many more opportunities like that would there be?

O'Neil has become much more of a celebrity in his old age than he was in his prime, thanks to the Ken Burns documentary "Baseball" and the renewed interest in the Negro leagues that has coincided with the 50th anniversary celebration of Jackie Robinson's entrance into the majors.

Maybe five years ago, O'Neil could have passed through the locker room unnoticed, but now he is recognized as one of the most eloquent voices of an era in which major-league-caliber baseball was played in two very different worlds. He signed the baseball with a halting hand and smiled at the excited young pitcher for remembering how it all began.

It has been a half-century to the day since Robinson crossed baseball's color line and changed the game forever, but O'Neil said that the new generation of major-league players does understand the significance of his struggle.

"I feel that most players - especially black players - are aware of Jackie Robinson and what he's all about," O'Neil said. "I think you'll always find that there are some young people who don't really know, but there are also young people who don't know anything about Babe Ruth.

"Everything changed with Jackie. That was the real beginning of the civil rights movement in this country."

Mills has a special appreciation of that era. He is named after a distant uncle who played in the Negro leagues. And he is a young black man who knows a little about racial prejudice and knows his predecessors endured far more than he has had to experience.

So the obvious question, as he proudly packed away his O'Neil baseball, was this: How would he have reacted if the guy walking through the locker room last week had been Jackie Robinson?

"I probably wouldn't have asked him for his autograph," Mills said. "I wouldn't have known what to say to him. Knowing the magnitude of what Jackie Robinson went through, I just couldn't imagine what that would be like."

He has trouble imagining what it must have been like. Today's players - black and white - are heaped with tremendous wealth and celebrity. Robinson was heaped with abuse from the day he stepped onto the field with his white teammates until mainstream America got used to the idea of blacks in baseball.

"He was under an enormous amount of pressure," Mills said. "To come out like he did and play the way he did, it's still amazing. This game is hard on its own, let alone with the obstacles that he had to overcome."

Robinson was tormented by the fans. He was ostracized by other major-leaguers. He was only grudgingly accepted by his teammates. Today's black players still face racism in its various forms, but they are not required - as Robinson was - to keep silent.

"If you're a black player playing this game today, you have knowledge of Jackie Robinson," San Diego Padres star Tony Gwynn told the Denver Post recently. "I'm lucky that my father grew up in the era when he came into the big leagues. He was really proud of him, and he relayed that pride to his kids. As I grew up and started in pro baseball, you ask questions that help you finally realize what he had to go through to make it.

"In today's sports, scrutiny follows Albert Belle around or Dennis Rodman or Barry Bonds, but it doesn't even compare with what he had to go through."

Most black players share that sentiment. They live in a world of adoring white fans, first-class flights and five-star hotels, but they know that social and economic progress does not come without a price.

"He's a big reason why I'm here and can do the things I can in this game," said Texas Rangers second baseman Mark McLemore. "I can't imagine what he must have gone through. His anniversary should be celebrated every year, not just every 10 years or however long they wait."

"Not enough do understand," said Boston Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn. "I think he has to be really recognized for integrating not only baseball, but all sports. He opened the way." Orioles outfielder Eric Davis agrees, though the question, he said, is not whether today's players appreciate the significance of the anniversary, but whether the anniversary is the only reason Robinson is a hot topic of discussion this season.

"It's all about education. My worst fear is that when this 50-year thing is over, will he be in the conversation next year? Nobody asked me about him last year," Davis said.

Crossing the lines

The first blacks in the four major pro sports:

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