Words of racial prejudice hit home

Diversity: A childhood baseball uniform begins author's journey toward cultural understanding.

March 25, 2001|By Gerard Shields

MAYBE THE WAY he blessed himself before batting caught my attention.

Or maybe I admired how he threw his body fearlessly at every skittering ground ball.

He batted .261, reaching base only about once out of every four bats. Yet to this day, Antonio Nemesio "Tony" Taylor remains my favorite baseball player of all time.

So that's why on my eighth birthday, I asked my dad for the flannel Philadelphia Phillies uniform with red logo emblazoned across the breast plate. The conflict happened when the store clerk asked which number should be stitched on the uniform back. Before he could finish asking, I blurted out: "No. 12! No. 12! Tony Taylor! No. 12!"

My enthusiasm embarrassed Dad, who bowed his head for one reason - Tony Taylor is black, Afro-Cuban actually. Taylor and his family fled their homeland before Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. The white store clerk looked up and smirked to see if Dad would crack under his little boy's pressure.

"I thought you wanted No. 6, son," Dad said, referring to Johnny Callison, the team's white left-field hero.

"No, Dad," I said. "You know Tony Taylor is my favorite player."

"Are you sure?" Dad asked, hoping persistence might wear me down. "Why don't you get 6? What's the difference?"

"No, Dad. It's gotta be No. 12."

"OK, OK," Dad said, surrendering and rolling his eyes at the amused clerk. "Make it No. 12."

Years later I figured out that Dad worried about me walking around our all-white East Philadelphia neighborhood wearing the number of a black ballplayer. Mostly though, he worried about how it would reflect on him.

Yet I proudly wore that uniform through the neighborhood that day, even wearing it to my official Little League game for the Port Richmond Robins that night, where friends shouted: "Hey Taylor. Yo Tony."

A recent reminder

The Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl win brought back memories of the Tony Taylor incident.

A man standing next to me at a Super Bowl party rejoiced when quarterback Trent Dilfer threw a 38-yard pass to wide receiver Brandon Stokley, who crashed into the end zone for the first score. As every rejoiced, the man turned and said: "And it was a white boy who scored."

"What does that have to do with anything?" I asked.

"I'm just saying," he replied. "There aren't many white guys who play wide receiver in the league."

And the guy wore a shirt representing the Promise Keepers, a Denver-based Christian men's group whose tenets call for "reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity."

The brief exchange caused me to reflect on my own long and difficult racial sensitivity journey.

I grew up in Kensington, best described as Philadelphia's Brooklyn. The factory neighborhood in 1920 stood as the most productive in the nation. Yet the river ward earned a second reputation in the 20th century - as one of America's most racist.

In 1970, journalist author Peter Binzen wrote a book about it titled "Whitetown, U.S.A." The enclave's entrenched hatred of minorities - still alive in many parts today - leaves Kensington as one of the last vestiges of segregated Philadelphia.

"It is the home for 100,000 proud, irascible, tough, narrow-minded, down-to-earth, old-fashioned, hostile, flag-waving, family-oriented, ethnic Americans," Binzen wrote.

For years, local nightly news broadcasts routinely showed footage of Kensington homes being defaced, bombed or vandalized after rumors surfaced that black families planned to occupy it.

As a child, I watched my mother and brothers join in the protests. I was no more than 10 when I stood around the corner and watched neighborhood youths break out the windows of a home with rocks and pelt the facade with eggs.

Venetian blinds of white aluminum, much like those that hung in the windows of our home, dangled bent in the busted windows.

"Two-four-six-eight, we don't want to integrate!" the mob shouted.

Then, a police car arrived and an officer stepped out with the swagger of a cowboy, ending the chants with his mere presence. He parted the sea of angry faces, hushing the crowds.

Decked in a spit-and-shine blue police uniform representing city authority, he stretched out his arms, palms skyward to collect two eggs surrendered by the crowd.

Then, to the surprise of everyone, he turned and hurled them at the house. The crowd cheered as the goo slid down over the sturdy red bricks.

Racism at home

Dad was a racist. Frederick J. Shields truly believed that whites were superior to blacks, whom he considered an ignorant, lazy drain on American culture. Even the most talented African-Americans on his beloved Philadelphia Phillies baseball team never caught a break from Dad.

He cursed black athletes as he perched on his living room recliner. His favorite target was Phillies first baseman Richie Allen, one of the most gifted ballplayers to ever tread on the field. Dad mocked him, calling him "Super N---."

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