top of page
  • Writer's pictureScanlan Athletics Dept

Scanlan Board Member Stood Toe-to-Toe with Racism

Sixteen years after Jackie Robinson’s debut, Bob Oliver got to see baseball’s ugly side – National Post

Originally Published: Mar 26, 2013

Jackie Robinson; Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame; 1962

As he walked through the airport with his teammates, Bob Oliver noticed a familiar face. He had never met the woman, but he approached her and introduced himself. They shook hands.

The conversation was cordial and brief. He told her he admired her husband as a baseball player and a man. She said thank you. So did he. “I don’t get excited about too many things, but I got excited about that,” Oliver recalls. “I shook hands with the wife of the great Jackie Robinson.”

Bob Oliver remembers much about the racism he experienced in the minor leagues 40 years ago. But he does not remember the year of his brief chat with Rachel Robinson, except that it probably was in the early 1970s, when he was playing for the Kansas City Royals. He spent eight years in the majors, and enjoyed some good years as a corner infielder and outfielder.

He is 70 now, still coaching youth teams in California with his older son, Tony. His younger son also made a nice career in baseball. His name is Darren, and he is a 42-year-old relief pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays, starting his 20th big-league season. April 15 marks the 66th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major-league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. As Robinson was reporting for the spring training of his historic 1947 season, Bob Oliver was turning four years old.

As a baseball-crazy youngster, Oliver saw Robinson play on TV but says he never truly understood the price Robinson was paying to break baseball’s colour line. Growing up in California, Oliver did not experience the rank racism that black youths faced in the Deep South.

Then, at age 20 in 1963, he became a professional player and was sent to Gastonia, N.C. in the Western Carolinas League. It was the first stop on his way to the majors and the beginning of a three-year bus tour through minor-league towns in the southern United States.

Beyond the baseball world, the sit-ins, marches and riots of the civil rights movement were sparking a revolution. In his own world, Oliver was learning a lot about the Jackie Robinson experience.

He and his black teammates could not stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as their white teammates. “We had to stay, as they called it then, in ‘coloured town,’ ” he says. “I didn’t understand that, and I didn’t like it, but I didn’t have any choice. That’s the way it was.”

On some road trips, their team needed a police escort into and out of town. Police were hired to protect the black players as they walked from the clubhouse to the bus.

“The fans were bad,” Oliver says. “We were called all kind of names, the same names they called Jackie back in the day — nigger this and nigger that, and possum and coons and Aunt Jemima’s kids and all that stuff. And we just went ahead and did our job.”

On his early road trips in the minors, Oliver and his black teammates had to stay on the bus while the whites went into a restaurant. They would give money to their white teammates to bring back food.

Joe said, ‘If these guys are good enough to be on the field with us, they should be good enough to eat at a restaurant with us. So if they can’t go in here and eat, I’m not going to eat either,’

Occasionally, the black players would try to enter a restaurant with the rest of the team. “We don’t serve your kind here,” they were told. Sometimes police came to drive home the point.

Finally, the blacks had enough. If they could not join their teammates for a decent meal, they would not eat at all. Some of the white players objected, but eventually, everyone was on board, thanks to the leadership of a white pitcher from New York named Joe Solimine.

“Joe said, ‘If these guys are good enough to be on the field with us, they should be good enough to eat at a restaurant with us. So if they can’t go in here and eat, I’m not going to eat either,’ ” Oliver said.

“So some of the white players just stayed on the bus. And after about five or 10 minutes, our manager said, ‘Let’s go. If they can’t eat, we don’t eat.’ ”From then on, the team took box lunches on road trips.

Joe Solimine in his Pirates uniform.

As well as Solimine, other white players would add their support. Oliver has not seen them in many years, but he distinctly remembers two of them and where they came from. Both were outfielders, Frank Vanzin from Pennsylvania and George Lott from Mississippi, minor-league lifers and big-league men who stood up to racism.

“It was tough to play baseball back in that day,” Oliver says. “There was a lot of racism in baseball. I understood more and more of what Jackie had to go through the older I got, and the more I started to read about him. He went through hell. But he opened the door for ballplayers like myself and the other black ballplayers before me.”

And Bob Oliver helped open the doors for those who came after him, among them his son Darren. One of Darren’s first stops in the minors was Gastonia, N.C., where his father made his professional debut 26 years earlier. Darren found Gastonia a more tolerant place than his dad did. But racism still lived there, less menacing, more subtle, just as it continues to live elsewhere.

As a boy, Darren was incredulous when he heard his father tell those stories from the 1960's, Bob says. Darren remembers something else his father said too. “He always told us, ‘Treat people like you’d like to be treated, I don’t care who they are,’” Darren recalls. “That’s probably the best advice he ever gave us.”

View original article here.

bottom of page