Beyond the Game: Black History in Mesa's Baseball Scene | Visit Mesa

Posted By Visit Mesa Team
January 26, 2024

Beyond the Game: Black History in Mesa's Baseball Scene

The Arizona Cactus League has made a huge impact on the City of Mesa. Hear from guest writer, Charlie Vascellaro as he walks us through the historic impact of early African American Major Leaguers and Spring Training in Mesa.

The Hammer and Mr. October at the Crossroads of the Cactus League

Reggie Jackson on his early baseball days in Arizona and his first meeting with Henry Aaron

By Charlie Vascellaro

The late, great Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron made his first spring training appearance in Arizona on April 4, 1970 as the Atlanta Braves touched down in the desert for a bit of barnstorming against the home team Oakland A’s. The Braves were en route to their regular-season opener in San Diego.

For the fortunate few in attendance (1,612), Aaron did not disappoint, knocking a 350-foot home run in the sixth inning and a double in the eighth. He also took time to pose for a photo with one of baseball’s rising stars, Reggie Jackson, by the batting cage before the game.

Reggie Jackson, on the left and Hank Aaron, on the right at Mesa’s Rendezvous Park, April 4, 1970. Photo Credit: Larry Ward, Mesa Tribune

“Hank hit a home run in every [freaking] game he played almost,” Jackson, 74, recalled in a recent telephone interview.

It was Oakland’s second spring season at Mesa’s old Rendezvous Park (built in 1920) and the start of Jackson’s fourth season with the A’s -- the first of his four clubs during a 21-year career. It likely was the first time Hank and Reggie faced each other in a game.

“I wore number 44 because of Hammer,” said Jackson who changed his number from 9 to 44 after signing as a free agent with the New York Yankees in 1977.

Aaron entered the 1970 season in third place on the all-time home run list with 554, behind Babe Ruth’s 714 and Willie Mays at 600, and needed just 44 hits to reach the coveted 3,000-hit plateau.

Reggie was coming off what would be a career-best 47 homers in 1969.

The game took place exactly two years after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and four years before Aaron tied the Babe at 714 on Opening Day, 1974, in Cincinnati.

Jackson was among what might be considered the third wave of Black major leaguers, making his big-league debut in 1967, a full generation after Jackie Robinson and then Larry Doby broke the color barrier in 1947.

Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers did not exactly open the floodgates to other black players. It was more of a slow trickle, like a small hole in a dyke that a white finger kept plugged up; it took more than another full decade before the pressure for integration on both major and minor league baseball was too strong to hold back *(from author Charlie Vascellaro’s book Hank Aaron: A Biography. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005).

Jackson made his debut with the Kansas City (soon to be Oakland) Athletics in 1967, following the trail blazed not only by Robinson and Doby, but also Roy Campanella (1948), Monte Irvin (1949), Mays (1951), Ernie Banks (1953) and Aaron (1954). All bridged the divide from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues.

Doby, Irvin, Mays and Banks were among the first group of Black major leaguers to participate in spring training in Arizona. They endured indignities associated with segregation and racism such as not being allowed to stay in the same hotels (or any hotels) and eat in the same restaurants as their white teammates.

Other Black and Latin American stars appeared on the horizon shortly thereafter including Roberto Clemente (1955), Frank Robinson (1956), Curt Flood (1956), Willie McCovey (1959), Billy Williams (1959), Bob Gibson (1959), Juan Marichal (1960), Lou Brock (1961), Willie Stargell (1962), Dick Allen (1963), Joe Morgan (1963), Fergie Jenkins (1965).

“Hammer was my man, there is a picture of me, him and Frank Robinson at the Hall of Fame”- Reggie Jackson (Photo Credit: Reggie Jackson, Facebook)

Jackson signed with the Kansas City Athletics in 1966, two years after the Civil Rights act was passed into law and said he did not face the same racial discrimination and prejudice as some of his predecessors.

“I had a house in Tempe, and I didn’t need to look for lodging,” he said. “I lived there and knew a lot of people. But Arizona was always a far-right (politically) state they had prejudice and racism there. I knew that.”

Jackson knew the area well. He had attended Arizona State, where he played football as well as baseball.

“I was very fortunate,” he said, “played football for Frank Kush and he didn’t have any tolerance at all for racism, and neither did Bobby Winkles the baseball coach.”

That does not mean Jackson, whose paternal grandparents were Puerto Rican, did not experience being treated differently because of the color of his skin.

“In 1966 I was on the baseball team, and coach Winkles was a southerner from Arkansas,” he said. “He was a great guy, but they never had a colored player on the team. They had a guy named Sterling Slaughter who was a mix, but he passed for white and he didn’t really (pass) for Black. I was the first 'Black' player they had."

“When we were going to go on a road trip to play in New Mexico to play the New Mexico Lobos, we were going to have to share a room and they left me outside and they were going to vote to decide who was going to room with me. We had a captain of the team, a guy named Jan Kleinman, and he was the first baseman. And he told the players and the coach, ‘We’re not going to have a vote, Reggie is going to room with me.’ That was the end of that story, but I sat outside and waited for them to have a vote and they never did vote because Jan Kleinman said, 'I’ll room with Reggie and I’ll be OK. That was my experience, it wasn’t a good one, it wasn’t a fun one, it hurt.'"

Winkles advised Jackson to forgo his junior and senior years at ASU and enter the amateur draft.

“‘Go get the money for your family,’ he said," said Jackson. ‘‘‘Go sign in the minor leagues. You’re not going to be the number-one pick because you’re dating a Mexican girl, and they’ll think you’re a troublemaker,’ He told me they called that dating out of your race. I said, ‘Really? My middle name is Martinez and I’m part Puerto Rican.’ So that’s the first time I knew we Blacks were lower than Mexicans.”

When he arrived in the big leagues and began coming to Arizona for spring training with the Athletics, Jackson was taken under the wings of some of the veteran Black players.

“I ate dinner almost every night with Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Ernie Banks and they never let me pay,” he said. “I was only making maybe $10,000 or $20,000 a year and those guys were always making $100,000, We ate at a place on Indian School Road called The Fig Tree. We congregated there. We met there. It was just a great time for me because I was the kid, and they were teaching me what to do. ‘Don’t get hurt,’ they said, ‘don’t ever get hurt. Somebody might take your job. They’ll give your job away. Look around you don’t see any Black players sitting on the bench. They don’t let Black players sit on the bench and get paid.’"

“They were telling me about not dating white women and stuff like that they would hold against you. ‘Don’t say too much, etc.’ But I grew up in an era and I grew up in a family where I spoke out and said what I felt. I didn’t hold back. When I spoke, I said something with intelligence, and I didn’t run my mouth and sound stupid. But I was quick to speak out about racism. I was quick to speak out about unfairness and quick to speak out about the inequities.”

Returning to the subject of Aaron, who died on January 22:

“I went to Henry’s house on November 6th and spent a couple of hours with him for my documentary (a film project still underway) and he was candid, and I’ll never forget what he said," said Jackson. He said, "'Reggie I wonder if the color of our skin is a curse. Is being black a curse? Sometimes I sit in the backyard with my wife, Billie, and I just cry. Tears come to my eyes.’ That’s what Hank said to me when he was 86 years old on November 6, 2020."

“There is some progress to be made,” Jackson continued. “I don’t know that it will be made in my lifetime. I’m going to try to do something about it…That’s my main goal to remember Henry Aaron when he said to me ‘I wonder about whether our black skin was a curse.’ A guy’s 86-years-old and an unbelievable human being and he still wondered.”

The Historic Impact of African American Major Leaguers in Mesa

Written by Charlie Vascellaro

Now, where were we?

Last, I recall it was another sunny spring afternoon at the ballpark. Baseball fans from across the country had emerged from their winter hibernation, flocked to the Arizona desert, and descended as they do upon the state’s 10 Cactus League ballparks. The scents of hot dogs, peanuts and nachos were in the air. Beer was flowing from the taps. All was right with the world. To paraphrase “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks it was a perfect day to “play two.”

And then someone or more specifically something turned out the lights, the Covid-19 virus pulled the plug on the baseball season indefinitely beginning with the immediate suspension of spring training in Arizona on March 12, about how halfway through the 2020 Cactus League schedule.

The 2020 Major League Baseball season was supposed to be an ongoing celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues and African American involvement in the sport. Much of the early history of African American major leaguers took place during the spring training seasons in Arizona.

(Cardboard cutouts of Negro Leagues legends in attendance at a major league game in Kansas City during the 2020 season)

The official birth of Arizona’s Cactus League spring training circuit in 1947 coincides with Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s racial barrier and, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the cities of Phoenix, Tucson, Scottsdale, and Mesa served as early proving grounds for integration and race relations. Spring training baseball in Arizona assisted in accelerating the nation’s integration process a full generation ahead of the civil rights movement.

In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Cactus League, four pioneering African Americans who paved the way for generations to follow in Arizona were inducted into the leagues Hall of Fame: Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians, who was the American League’s first black player, Monte Irvin, and Willie Mays of the New York (now San Francisco) Giants and Ernie Banks with the Chicago Cubs. All four pioneers of integrated baseball in Arizona crossed over from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues.

Video credit: City of Scottsdale Arizona, Mike Phillips

Ernie Banks was the first black player signed by the Cubs, making his big-league debut on September 17, 1953.

The Chicago Cubs joined the Cactus League in 1952 conducting spring training operations at Rendezvous Park in Mesa through 1965, Banks was the team’s best and most popular player the whole time, winning back-to-back MVP awards in 1958-1959 and played in eight consecutive All-Star games from 1955 – 1962.

Chicago Cubs

While the game of baseball was becoming integrated much of American society remained segregated throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, including the living conditions of Cubs players in Mesa.

Banks spoke about the living conditions during spring training in Mesa in Jackie Robinson’s 1964 book Baseball Has Done It:

“A few years ago we had a little housing problem in Mesa. We stayed at a white hotel with the team, but when we tried to bring our families to Arizona with us, we couldn’t rent a place for them. We brought this situation to the club’s attention. They made an issue of it, threatening to move the team to another site. As a result, we now bring our families to Mesa; mine has spent the last two spring training periods there. We were able to rent a house two years ago and an apartment in an all-white building last year. Mesa has a nice climate and a relaxed sort of living. Our being there has opened up the question of segregation in the entire area. The Chamber of Commerce and civic leaders…all have turned tail and are now fighting against discrimination,” said Banks.

Hall of Famer Billy Williams signed as an amateur free agent with the Cubs in 1956 and made his Major League debut in 1959. Like most of the second wave of black players to enter the major leagues in the years following Robinson, Doby, Irvin and the other firsts among their franchises, Williams was guided through the integration process by Banks.

“We all used to go to the Elks Club in Phoenix. I used to follow Ernie and a guy by the name of Tony Taylor all the black ball players congregated at the Elks club. It is a place that you could eat, and they had a pool table, and you could play games. I was a young buck trying to make it in this organization and Ernie and Tony Taylor used to take me a long with them over there and there you would find Willie Mays, McCovey mostly every black ballplayer that was in the area,”
said Williams.

During the time Banks and Williams were with the Cubs in Mesa for spring training in the mid-1950s the team’s hotel was still segregated.

“There was an old, old hotel in Tempe, Arizona where we were allowed to stay but I never did stay there. I rented a little place in Mesa, Arizona which was a Doctor’s office,” recalled Williams of his temporary living quarters located in the home of the city’s first black physician, Dr. Lucius Alston. Williams stayed in Dr. Alston’s office in his home at 435 N. Pima St. northeast of the intersection of Center and University Street just three blocks from Rendezvous Park. Originally built in 1929, the Alston house was the 25th property in Mesa recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

Photo credit: Charlie Vascellaro

“It was a doctor’s office; I rented a television and I had to rent a bed. It didn’t have a kitchen, so I used to go over to Andre Rodgers place around the corner on Center Street for breakfast because he had a stove,” said Williams.

Williams spent 16 of his 18 big league seasons with the Cubs in Arizona for spring training in Mesa and Scottsdale and returned to Rendezvous Park with the Oakland A’s for his final two spring seasons in 1975-76. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.

While African American players like Banks and Williams and others created a strong and lasting presence with the Chicago Cubs at Rendezvous Park, Hohokam Stadium and Sloan Park, they also had a historic impact on the civil rights movement in Mesa.

About Charlie Vascellaro:

As a former 20-year resident of Arizona, I spent my formative years and cut my journalistic chops watching Cactus League spring training baseball. Since moving to Baltimore 14 years ago, I have made an annual pilgrimage to my former home writing baseball-travel stories for a wide variety of publications. My writing on spring training baseball has appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Sun Times, and annually in U.S. Airways in-flight magazine since 2005. During the past two decades, I have been a constant contributor to Cactus League team programs and for the past couple of years I have also written Arizona baseball stories for Cowboys and Indians magazine and the Smithsonian Institute's Museum of the American Indian magazine. I am the author of three books including, a biography of Hank Aaron, and a young reader's biography of Manny Ramirez as well as a limited-edition historical volume commissioned by the United States Department of Commerce called Baseball is America.

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