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Jackie Robinson movie spurs memories of integrated American Legion baseball team [Commentary]

BaseballCollege BaseballJackie RobinsonAmerican Legion42 (movie)

Over the years I sometimes think of Tony Carter and wonder what happened to him. Carter was a left-handed hitting second baseman who had some pop — baseball lingo for power. I also remember he ran on the tip of his toes and had a large Afro.

I grew up in rural Virginia and Carter was the first African-American teammate I ever had in baseball. I played organized baseball from the time I was 6 through my freshman year of college at what is now Eastern Mennonite University, a Division III program in Harrisonburg, Va.

But it was not through a school team in which Carter and I were teammates. It was the summer of 1980 that we were on an American Legion team together in Harrisonburg. Carter and several of his Harrisonburg High teammates played on the team, and several of us from Turner Ashby High, Harrisonburg High's rival, also played for American Legion Post 27. I guess the mixing of players from rival schools must have worked: Both summers that I played we won our district title and got to play in the state tournament near Richmond some three hours away.

I thought of Carter again the other day after I went to see "42," the new movie about Jackie Robinson that stars Howard University graduate Chadwick Boseman as Robinson.

Robinson, of course, broke the color barrier in Major League baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1947 season. As a life-long follower of baseball, it was a movie I definitely wanted to see.

I was fortunate to work for a weekly newspaper in Brooklyn as an intern while I was in college in the 1980s. I heard some great stories from residents about those years in the 1940s and 50s when the Dodgers were part of the fabric of life in Brooklyn, before the team moved to California in the late 1950s.

When I saw the movie in Bowie April 15, it was the 66th anniversary of the day Robinson played his first big league game with Brooklyn. And, sadly, it was the day of the bombings near the end of the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

The irony is not lost: Robinson was encouraged to espouse non-violence by front office executive Branch Rickey of the Dodgers, and that is portrayed in the movie "42." I was also glad to see Hollywood gave a glimpse into the role faith played, notably in the life of Rickey, in the grand experiment.

Robinson played second base most of his big league career. That is the same position Carter, my former American Legion teammate, played.

I don't have any tear-jerking stories about racial tolerance on our American Legion team, nothing that compares to the scenes in "42." When we stopped at McDonald's after games our Post commander gave us all a dollar. No one ever denied Carter a place to eat or sleep — a regular occurrence when Robinson played.

I grew up in a small town, Dayton, outside of Harrisonburg. While the population was about 1,000, I once read in a book it was the largest town south of the Mason-Dixon line at the start of the 20th century that had no black residents. In 12 years of public education in rural Rockingham County I remember just two students of color — both African-American males.

I think the most powerful moment for me in "42" is when a white man in the deep South approaches the actor who plays Robinson before he had joined the Dodgers. The white man tells Robinson, and I paraphrase here, that he hopes he makes it to the big leagues because he should be judged by what he does on the field and that everyone deserves a fair chance — a fitting mantra for baseball, and life in a Democratic society.

After writing this I called a former Legion teammate who played in high school with Carter. He told me the last he heard Carter was a pastor near Harrisonburg.

David Driver is a former Laurel Leader sports editor.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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BaseballCollege BaseballJackie RobinsonAmerican Legion42 (movie)
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