Fri September 2, 2005
Here's to You, Jackie Robinson
How two men, one on a national stage and one in a small town in Alabama, both helped the cause of race relations in America
By Don Noble
Despite the title, the heart of this book is the story of Jesse Norwood, who, by all accounts, was a great human being.
In 1954, 36 years old, a married man with three young children (one of whom, Jesse Jr., is now the mayor of Prichard), Norwood took notice of a bunch of black boys playing ball in the streets of Prichard.
These boys played baseball using a soda bottle cap for a ball and a broken broomstick for a bat. Norwood bought them a hard rubber ball, then a real bat, and then organized them into a real, disciplined baseball team.
They started in a vacant lot with a makeshift backstop of chicken wire. Spectators sat in kitchen chairs they carried over from their houses.
The boys briefly named themselves the Giants; then, after Norwood read a book extolling the democratic organizational virtues of the Iroquois Confederacy and the Mohawks in particular, they took their permanent name, by vote, of course.
They worked and saved to get uniforms and set up a regular practice schedule.
Norwood was a great coach and a smart baseball man, but, more importantly, he was actually one of those coaches who develops character in his players.
The team was run on schedule, everyone to be present and on time, serious, prepared, knowledgeable about their position and their duties--when to sacrifice bunt for the team, how to be there backing up your teammate.
"Everybody's got a job," he would say. And "you just got to be in the right place."
The lessons learned on those fields in the 50s, these former Mohawks say, literally saved their lives.
These boys did not go down the drain of drugs, alcohol, and violence. They tell Formichella that they owe their very existence to Norwood, and they mean it.
The Norwood story is a good one and might have stood alone, but Formichella chooses to augment it with a parallel life--that of Jackie Robinson, and some fascinating information on the Negro Leagues and baseball race relations in general.
Formichella uses Robinson's story to contextualize the Norwood story within the larger arena of race and baseball.
Robinson, of course, "broke in" in 1947, thanks to Dodger owner Branch Rickey. Despite being taunted and spit on and spiked, Robinson was under strict orders to remain calm, turn the other cheek, not get into arguments or fights; Rickey even had him reading a life of Jesus.
For a proud man, an ex-Army officer, ignoring the insults was extremely hard, and, finally, Robinson's triumph of patience and self-control rivals in importance his superb performance on the field. He reputedly served as a model in the 50's and 60's for Martin Luther King, Jr.
Formichella gives a thumb-nail history of the Negro Leagues but also reminds the reader that baseball was integrated up to the 1890s, when the first major league was officially organized.
A sidenote: "An 1868 want ad in the Brooklyn Eagle reads: The National Club of Washington are looking for a first baseman. . . . No Irish need apply."
Those were tough times.
This book contains a number of good stories, well told--how two men, Robinson and Norwood, one of them on a national stage and one of them in a small town in Alabama, both helped the cause of race relations in America.
The most moving sections, though, are the interviews with the old Mohawks.
Even though Mobile was the home of many major league players--the entire outfield of the '69 Miracle Mets and Hank Aaron of the Braves, just to mention a few, none of the Mohawks got to the big leagues.
But they became preachers and businessmen, warehouse foremen and politicians, and they did not go under.
They feel they owe it to Jesse Norwood and are unanimous in the opinion, "You'd be surprised the difference one good man can make."
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.