That Rare Commitment

Matthaei Gardens, Ann Arbor, Michigan

On rare occasions in the tales of sport, a few words express the better angels of human nature.  In the clubhouse celebration following the 1964 World Series, St. Louis Cardinals’ manager, Johnny Keane, spoke such a memorable phrase.

            Autumn is a season of change, when trees trade in their greenery for vibrant hues of gold and red.  In the fall of 1964, America itself was in flux, as the country grappled with racial discrimination, which persisted as a damned spot staining the national fabric.  The Emancipation Proclamation’s bright promise remained unfulfilled after 100 years.  Black men and women were still treated as second-class citizens, as the Constitution remained lifeless words on paper for millions of black Americans.  In major league baseball, Jackie Robinson had broken the color bar in 1947, but a new generation of black players still faced barriers to their careers.

            Curt Flood, the Cardinals’ great centerfielder, spent two years in the minors, playing in Southern towns as a trial by fire. In Georgia, he had to dress in a separate cubicle in the lockerroom, since by law  he could not dress with the white players.  He often had to eat apart from his teammates.  In addition, his appearance on the field was the occasion for a cascade of vile racial epithets pouring down from the stands.  Flood could have easily retreated into a shell of bitterness.  Instead, he  responded by working that much harder, and making himself an even better player.  When he reached the Cardinals, he became the key to their great defense, a perennial all-star, and a valued teammate.  In the Cardinals’ locker room, Flood found that a man was judged, in Dr. King’s words, by  the content of his character.

            In the baseball season of 1964, amidst the civil rights movement then swirling across the country, the St. Louis Cardinals eked out a pennant win.  That year, a nucleus of young black men defined the Cardinals.  Two of them, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, would later be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  These heirs of Jackie Robinson burned with a fierce flame to overcome the obstacles strewn in their paths by racial prejudice, which still ran deep and virulent in the small Southern towns of minor league teams, and took on more subtle forms in the majors. Their identity became the Cardinals’ personality, with the white players following their  black teammates’ leadership.

            The World Series in 1964 proved to be the last hurrah of the New York Yankees’ dynasty, as they faced the rising young stars of St. Louis.  The two teams split the first six games.

               In the Series’ deciding seventh game, the Cardinals fortunes rested on the  pitching arm of Bob Gibson.  He had already won twice, and was summoned again to seal the win.  Gibson pitched brilliantly through eight innings while the Cardinals built a lead. Showing the effects of fatigue, he struggled in the ninth.  The Yankees hit two home runs and trimmed the margin.  Surprisingly to some, Cardinals’ manager Johnny Keane did not go to his bullpen.  Instead, Gibson closed out the game, and the Series.

            In the locker room, amidst the victory party, a reporter asked Keane why he had left Gibson in, rather than calling for a relief pitcher.  It would have been the safe play.  Keane thought a moment, and then said, “I had a commitment to his heart.”

            May that kind of courage, faith, and loyalty return to renew the spirit of America.

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