Vets, baseball icons look back on battle for equal rights
WASHINGTON — For baseball historians and World War II buffs, it was a triple play.
Three veterans who went on to become baseball icons delighted an audience of about 1,000 Sunday on the closing day of the nation’s tribute to “The Greatest Generation.”
Bob Feller, Monte Irvin and Buck O’Neil told stories of war overseas and more when they returned home to experience the opening salvos of the battle for civil rights.
“Let’s put the white boy in the middle,” O’Neil cracked as they took the stage, placing “Bullet” Bob Feller in the center chair as the audience roared.
Irvin, a star with the New York Giants in the early ’50s, was drafted into the Army in 1943. He talked about landing on Omaha Beach some six weeks after D-Day and winding up in Paris for the end of the war.
“More good days than bad days,” he said.
Feller, who many argue had the fastest fastball in the history of the game, won 266 games for the Cleveland Indians despite missing four years to the war effort.
“I’m no hero,” he said. “Heroes don’t return. There were 406,000 (Americans) who didn’t return. I’m just a guy who did his job.”
Feller was a “40 mm” gun captain on the USS Alabama, which brought supplies to the Russians in Murmansk and Arcangel, as well as seeing action in Tarawa, Saipan and Kwajalein.
O’Neil was in his thirties, he said, playing ball for the Kansas City Monarchs, when, thinking about the war, he realized “I got to go.
“A white friend said to me, ‘Why you want to go fight for this country,’” noting that blacks didn’t have many of the rights he’d be fighting for.
“I said, ‘Hey man, my folks came over here (to America) before y’all’s did.’”
O’Neil, a Navy Seabee, was called to his commander’s office one night, where he was told that Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a professional baseball contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“I said, ‘Thank God, it finally happened!’ Then I got on the [ship’s intercom] and said ‘Hear this, hear this, hear this. Jackie Robinson just signed’ with the Dodgers, and there was whoopin’ and hollerin’, and we didn’t sleep much that night. That was the beginning of the civil rights movement.”
“I started a traveling baseball show when I got back — Bob Feller’s White All-Stars against Satchel Paige’s Black All-Stars. We toured everywhere — baseball wasn’t west of St. Louis yet. Buck played with us, and we made a lot of money on that tour.”
“So much, my wife thought I was stealin’!” O’Neil laughed. “One hundred dollars a day. Yes, sir.”
All fondly remembered Robinson and his many talents.
“Jackie wasn’t the best black ballplayer,” O’Neil said, “but he was the right black ballplayer. He understood the capitalist system.
“One time a gas station owner came out to fill our bus,” O’Neil said, “and complimented us on our game. We said thank you, and Jackie got off the bus.
“Jackie started walkin’ to the bathroom and the man said, ‘Where you goin’, boy?’
“Jackie said, ‘I’m goin’ to use the restroom.’
“Man said, ‘Boy, you know you can’t use that bathroom; that’s not for coloreds.’
“Jackie said, ‘Then take that hose outta the tank.’
“The man thought about it for a minute — we had two 50-gallon tanks on that thing, and he wasn’t gonna sell that kinda gas for the whole day.”
“Then he said, ‘You boys go ahead, but don’t stay long!’”
The audience roared.
“Then on, we never filled up where we couldn’t use the toilet, never stopped where we couldn’t eat,” O’Neil said. “Jackie Robinson knew the system.”