In the early 1950s, I met a man named Charlie Geboe who had recently moved into my neighborhood. As I recall, Charlie was the band director at the local high school. He was also the first black man I had ever seen, and although I was rather young at the time, I still remember Charlie at many of the sports events and often at the local swimming pool. I don’t know if he was considered a “novelty” by our small South Dakota townspeople or if I was too young to notice discrimination, but I grew up knowing Charlie as just another friendly, happy guy who went about doing his job.
A decade later, I found myself retrieving baseballs for another black man who had become somewhat of a local hero. His name was Bob Gibson who later went on to become one of the greatest pitchers in modern baseball. Gibson, like many Basin League ballplayers for the Chamberlain Chiefs, rented a room from our backyard neighbors. Often he could be found outside playing catch with his roommates. If I got lucky, the ballplayers would get a little wild giving me a chance to retrieve the ball, sometimes receiving a nickel or a dime for all my work.
Gibson stayed around for only part of one season playing centerfield when he wasn’t pitching, often making spectacular catches and hitting long homeruns. By the end of the summer, Gibson was back in his hometown of Omaha, just one step away from the big leagues, while I was still retrieving baseballs.
Shortly after graduating from high school, I took a trip to Florida with my best friend Freddie, the top athlete at our school. Freddie had a blazing fastball that earned him a look by several major league scouts. By the summer of 1964, Freddie was playing Legion ball and on his way to a Vero Beach, Florida, summer camp for a tryout with the Dodgers. I was only 17, but I managed to con my parents into letting me go to Florida under the premise of spending the summer working at a gas station for Freddie’s uncle.
Traveling in a brand new Chevy convertible with his brother’s credit card in hand, we set out on a long journey to the Deep South. Although Freddie was tan-looking because of one Native American parent, he never mentioned his heritage. Traveling through Mississippi one fine afternoon, we pulled over at a local gas station to fill up with gas and put the top down on the convertible. The service station attendant, who had been watching us, finally walked over and spoke. I’ll never forget the words that brought me to the reality of the ugly discrimination that existed in our country. A dark-skinned man and a white boy were traveling together in the Deep South, very visible in the convertible as if this was the most normal thing in the world.
The redneck, in a not too friendly manner, said, “If I was you guys, I’d be out of this state before that sun goes down. People around these parts are going to think you’re a couple of those civil rights workers from up north. We don’t take too kindly to them.”
We drove all night passing through Selma, Alabama, that dark evening in 1964, reaching Florida just before daylight. Following that initial shock of dangerous discrimination, we put the top back up on the car and decided against renting a room, opting to sleep in a gas station parking lot for a short time.
Fast forward a half century and these questions still linger in my mind. They arise each year as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Have race relations improved in this country since the Civil Rights era? And, did Freddie make the big leagues?
Because of Martin Luther King, we are able to answer the first question with an arguable, though not resounding, yes.
Unfortunately, incidents such as the distasteful MLK Day fraternity party at Arizona State University where a bunch of privileged white boys thought it cute to mimic NFL thugs and chug booze from watermelon cups make one wonder. These college-educated merrymakers who hold the future of America in their hands failed to realize this was not only an immature act deserving censure, it was very insulting and mean-spirited.
It surprises me that the Arizona Republican Party censured Senator John McCain for being too liberal to represent their values instead of censuring behavior that fails to represent the values and equality this country is supposed to represent. We still have a long way to go.
The answer to the second question: No, Freddie never made the big leagues. He returned home to Chamberlain where he became an upstanding citizen of his community. I regret that shortly after the Florida trip, Freddie and I never saw each other again. Now he is gone and that opportunity is lost.
Life is too short and full of missed opportunities. Treat all people as you would want to be treated; and go see your old friends before it’s too late.