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Integration through baseball

Oct. 8, 1966, is for me, a day thick with enduring and vivid memories. It was a Saturday, the day of the first World Series game ever played in Baltimore, and I doubt that an autumn sun ever shined so brightly or felt so inviting as the one that fell that day on the baseball faithful of this town. We were nothing less than collectively giddy. In the most improbable fashion, the Orioles had beaten the favored Dodgers in the series' first two games in Los Angeles, defeating the defending champions and their two Hall of Fame-bound pitchers on successive afternoons earlier that week.

For game three at Memorial Stadium, my brother and I had scored tickets in what typically was the general admission area of left field. A unique blend of Baltimore came together here, above the high green outfield wall, to share backless bench seats on a first-come, first-served basis. It was a relaxed place, and often one of the most racially and ethnically integrated spots in the city, providing a venue for personal observations on baseball and on life.

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But on this day, all seats were reserved, and so we found ourselves half up the concrete bowl, sun-drenched and squinting toward the distant batters' box, as Paul Blair awaited the next pitch in the fifth inning of a scoreless game. His swing made perfect contact, and the ball was launched on a soaring trajectory in our direction. As it rose, it soon became clear that it would land in our section. And so it did, just a few rows in front of us, sending the entire crowd into a state of utter exultation.

Paul Blair was the batting hero of a 1-0 win that glorious afternoon, which enabled the Orioles to go on to complete a euphoric four-game sweep of their first ever World Series. But he was far more than that. He had arrived in 1965 from the minor leagues as a 21 year old and claimed center field. He would remain there for 12 seasons, winning eight Gold Glove awards (and, for all of you sabermetricians, compiling a 39 WAR), while helping the Orioles become the winningest team of their era. Like several American League teams, the Orioles historically had few African-American players, and it was Paul Blair who became the team's first home-grown black star.

During that 1966 World Series, the Maryland gubernatorial campaign was playing in the background. A hotly divided Democratic primary had been won by George P. Mahoney whose slogan — "your home is your castle, protect it" — was an obviously segregationist appeal to opponents of open housing. Just two years earlier, Alabama Gov. George Wallace had won 15 of Maryland's 23 counties in the Democratic presidential primary with an openly segregationist platform. Racism then was by no means subtle. It was, in fact, overtly asserted, and an ever-present part of our community.

Paul Blair stepped into this racial chasm with an enormous smile and an equally broad talent. His cheerful personality and superb athleticism erased barriers that otherwise loomed imposingly over our relations. What he did on the field was simply astonishing. With an uncanny ability to chase down balls hit over his head, he played shallow, making plays on balls that routinely landed in front of other outfielders. On long flies, he would race to a spot, where he would then turn and wait for the ball he instinctively knew would arrive at that precise location. It was track-and-field physicality and principles of astrophysics combined and performed as a ballet. For baseball fans, it was a joyous spectacle.

Off the field, Paul Blair was full of humor, self-effacing and outwardly grateful for the privilege of playing Major League baseball. When he died the day after Christmas in 2013, it was a loss for both baseball and our community, and those who saw him play will never forget that smile or the graceful strides he used to turn a would-be double into just another out.

I think of him this opening day in particular against the backdrop of the racial tensions that have flared in places like Ferguson, and in light of our own Police commissioner's comments about the racially segregated communities in our city. I think of how far we have come since I sat in left field during so many games in the '60s and how far we clearly still have to go. How some of our communities look as though the segregationists, who lost at the ballot box, may have still prevailed.

In those early days of the struggle for racial justice, when racism was as much express as implied, we found the ability to come together in the general admission area. There we were just people and baseball fans, equally fixated on the events transpiring on the heavenly expanse of lush green grass before us. And on that field, Paul Blair served up notice that talent and character could be universally embraced even in the face of inherent prejudice. It was baseball, after all, that led us toward integration. And, as a new season begins, I believe the game retains its capacity to unify us in mutual appreciation of the ability of humans to do extraordinary things, and, while doing so, allow us to see each other in entirely new way.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His email is rdburke@ober.com.

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