It was around 1930, and my grandfather was playing baseball with a bunch of kids at his elementary school in the Concord section of Staten Island. He was playing third base, which was rare for a lefty, and his brother Jack was pitching. It wasn’t Jack’s day, as he walked a half-dozen batters in a row. Jack turned to the teacher who was coaching, and asked if his brother could pitch instead.
The teacher, Mr. Henry, agreed to the position switch. He handed my grandfather the ball and let him pitch, for the first time ever. It was one of those small moments that change a life. My grandfather spent the better part of his adolescence striking out batters, and at 18 he was offered a contract to pitch for the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. He had family obligations and it was the Great Depression, so he declined. Six years after that, though, he signed to pitch with the Boston Braves organization, and had great success as a minor-league pitcher before calling it quits in 1945.
Throughout every one of those 15 years between my grandfather’s first pitch and his departure from the minor leagues, the door was open for him to make the major leagues if skill and fortune allowed it. As for the man who’d pointed him in that direction, this was never an option. Mr. Henry, you see, was black.
During our childhood, my brother and I would spend many Sunday mornings with my grandfather. He’d pick us up from Sunday School, at a church that is part of the whitest denomination in the United States. Then he’d drive us around to see relatives, play ball, and visit his soda warehouse – a distributor business he’d leveraged toward success using his notoriety as one of the better Staten Island athletes of his generation.
Our favorite part of these Sundays involved a trip to a cigar and candy store on Bay Street, where my brother and I would load up on baseball cards and comic books while our grandfather placed a few bets on that Sunday’s football games. We’d hustle into the store, as many of the men walking around this area looked poor and somewhat desperate to us. Most of them were African-American, and we didn’t know many people who were black.
Some 35 years later, one mile down the street from that cigar store, a 43-year-old African-American man was approached by police under suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. His conversation with police, the attempted arrest, the chokehold – all are well-documented, and Eric Garner’s parting words of “I can’t breathe” have been echoed around the world many times over.
My grandfather was a role model to my brother and me throughout our lives, in particular for the ways in which he shared clear-eyed stories of his own mistakes, especially with substance abuse. He lived most of his life within three miles of the spot where Eric Garner died, and he did far worse in his life than selling loose cigarettes. But never did a police officer lay a hand on him, save for his own father, who was a cop.
The world in which my grandfather lived was built to protect him – a white heterosexual man of German and English descent who saw around him not just friendly neighbors, but a community in which systemic racism was as ingrained in society as any law. He was able to make mistakes, get back on his feet, and live to tell the tale. He could take advantage of opportunities or bypass them, knowing that there would be a way forward for him either way. He could buy a house or sell it, and could avoid Bay Street except for the bets and the baseball cards and the bars where he’d deliver soda. He could tell his grandsons the story of Mr. Henry and his first pitching gig without even seeing the irony, because his worldview didn’t require that he notice it.
When we tell stories of our grandparents’ generation, part of the narrative is supposed to include the message that things have changed for the better. Yet throughout my grandfather’s life, people of color on Staten Island and throughout America faced racism every day, in every way. Eight years after my grandfather died, a man lost his life on Bay Street in a police chokehold for no reason, and many others died in similar ways. Six years after that, the streets of America were filled with protests – in the midst of a pandemic, mind you – after more individuals of color died in ways we cannot understand.
I miss baseball. I’ve never experienced a spring without it. The pitcher’s delivery, the swing, the defense, the cheers, the high-fives. The absolute necessity of teamwork. The clear lines between fair and foul. The belief that anything is possible, and the knowledge that ballplayers of every race will do things that take your breath away.
In his later years, my grandfather never stopped talking about baseball. In fact, shortly before he died – melanoma got him in the end – he asked me about the following year’s Yankees team, and whether I thought they’d win it all (they didn’t). Some of his favorite players were African-American by then, as was his visiting nurse, and some of his neighbors, and some of his fellow Alcoholics Anonymous members. My grandfather had taken some clear steps forward for a man of his generation.
If he were still here, I know he’d say that this is not the way for us to treat one another. He’d say we’re supposed to improve upon generations, not regress. He’d say that Mr. Henry, Eric Garner, George Floyd, and so many others have every right to the opportunities he had. He’d say these individuals deserve equality at every level – from the right to walk down a street to the right to play ball. That shouldn’t be a question for the world’s biggest experiment in democracy.
And yet it still is.