Funny when you are a young kid, how really historic moments may drop into your lap and you don’t realize it. I was only 10 years old and living in Bakersfield, CA, when my Dad came to the breakfast table one morning, smiling and holding a pair of tickets in his hand. “Son,” he said, “I’ve got two tickets to a baseball game at Sam Lynn Ballpark for today, would you like to go?” Well, I did play Little League Baseball and just a year before had become a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, after watching them win their First World Series. So, I said, “Sure.” It wasn’t until I was an adult, many years later, and was sorting through an old box of my belongings from my youth, that I realized, “My God, I got Willie Mays’ autograph.”
Now, let me put a couple of things in perspective. Bakersfield only had about 50,000 residents at the time. A Major League Baseball player coming to town was about as rare as seeing an eclipse with the naked eye. A whole team of Major Leaguers coming to Bakersfield to play an exhibition game was like stumbling over a gold nugget only to find an entire mine just beneath your feet. And yet, the Hall of Fame outfielder of the then New York Giants did come to town with a barnstorming group of ballplayers billed as, “Willie Mays Major League Negro-American All-Stars Tour.”
The sad thing is I probably knew who WIllie Mays was, and that might have been the hook that convinced me to go to the game. But, truthfully, I am too old to remember. I do recall that Dad bought me a souvenir program for the game, and in it was a page which about half way down had the word “Autographs” printed on it over a large area of empty white space. I cannot tell you much about the game – who won it, who made the great plays, or if Mays hit a dramatic homer. Like I said, I was 10 years old. I Checked with The Bakersfield Californian, the city’s only major daily. It does not have a record of the game. Only by finding a Willie Mays biography on the less than reliable Wikipedia did I discover that Mays did indeed go on a tour with black Major Leaguers that year.
I do know that I spent a considerable amount of time sticking that program and a blue ink pen in front of every ballplayer I could get close to that day. Before I get to the players, how about some history? Only nine years before Mays and company came to Bakersfield, there were no black players in Major League Baseball. The Color Line was not broken until the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to play for them in 1947. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat in Birmingham predated Mays’ visit by only a year. Governor George Wallace would not block the entrance to black students trying to enter the University of Alabama for the first time until seven years later in 1963. Equal rights for African-Americans would not be achieved until President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civll Rights Act of 1964.
There was plenty of racial turbulence around the country and more to come after that game played in Bakersfield. Much has been said of Mays as a ballplayer, but to take an all-black team on a series of exhibition games in cities around the country, during that time in history, showed how much of a forward-thinker he was, too. The saddest thing is that he had to do it at all. One other detail about the game in Bakersfield – the opposing team was comprised of all-white players, mostly minor leaguers. Segregation was still alive outside Major League Baseball – matching race against race – not on the streets but inside a ballpark. » Read more: Baseball History on a Scrap of Paper