Has Philadelphia buried its racial bias in baseball?

OPINION - Jackie Robinson said his visits to Philadelphia were among "the most unpleasant days in my life, that brought me nearer to cracking up than I had been."...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

If you walk around Philadelphia’s African-American sections these days, you’ll see that Phillies Fever is, truly, everywhere. Whether it’s North Philly, West Philly or Germantown, you’ll see a large number of people wearing Phillies hats, tee shirts and jerseys.

Like everyone else in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia’s black community is hoping that the Fighting Phillies can come back from their 3-1 deficit to the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series to try and bring home their second World Series title in three years.

From local back-oriented talk radio stations like WURD-AM to the Facebook pages of black Philadelphians, the Phillies and their championship quest have become a hot topic.

Much of that interest centers on two of the Phillies key players: first baseman Ryan Howard and three-time Gold Glove shortstop Jimmy Rollins. The two former National League MVPs are African-American players who are beloved by Phillies fans regardless of race.

“It’s all about watching this team, and being able to see someone like myself. I can identify with Rollins, Howard, and (Shane) Victorino,” said freelance journalist and sports publicist Anthony Gilbert.

Radio One (Philadelphia) talk show host E. Stephen Collins said the African-American community has also embraced the white and Latino players as well in the course of following the trials and tribulations of the Phillies postseason runs over the last four years.

“In our house we are very into the Phillies and want them to win and when they lose, we are depressed until they win again,” Collins said. “It’s interesting how we feel for the non-African-American players like Roy Halladay and Chase Utley and Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz and Raul Ibanez. They’re part of our family.”

But some of the interest in the Phillies from Philadelphia’s Black Community has been nurtured by the ownership group under CEO David Montgomery and chairman of the board Bill Giles that is trying to do better by a community it had wronged in the past when the team was owned by the Carpenter Family from 1943 to 1981.

“Phillies management has done huge outreach to Black and Latin fans in the tri-state area (Pa., N.J. and Delaware),” Collins said. “Dave Montgomery to his credit has done a great job at opening up the doors. The Phillies have done a lot to reach out and make African-American fans feel welcome to the baseball stadium.”

During the five years that I covered the Phillies on a regular basis, I have come into contact with many older black fans that refused to root for the team to this day because of the hostility heaped upon Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson and Dick Allen, the Phillies’ first black superstar.

When Robinson integrated baseball in the late 1940s, it was expected that he would get a hostile greeting in places like Cincinnati and St. Louis, which was then considered baseball’s only Southern franchise.

But the most viscerally racist greeting Robinson received would be in Philadelphia. Some of the things that were said to Robinson had nothing to do with “brotherly love.” The Phillies were one of the last clubs in Major League Baseball along with the Boston Red Sox to integrate its teams.

In Arnold Rampersad’s book, Jackie Robinson: A Biography, Robinson said his visits to Philadelphia were among “the most unpleasant days in my life, that brought me nearer to cracking up than I had been.”

According to Rampersad, whenever the Brooklyn Dodgers played at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia in those days, Robinson heard racist taunts from Phillies players that were led by then Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who was from the South. Some of those included: “Hey ni**er why don’t you go back to the cotton fields where you belong?” Or “We don’t want you here, ni**er.”

Strangely enough, it was Robinson who was among the first to congratulate the Phillies when they won the National League Pennant in 1950 according to a story that was often told by late Phillies pitcher Robin Roberts.

Then there was the bizarre odyssey of former Phillies first baseman Dick Allen, who played with the team from 1963 to 1970 and 1975-1976. Even though he was the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1964 and hit 40 home runs in 1966, fans at Connie Mack Stadium would hurl racist insults at him as well as sharp objects such as old batteries and spare change.
In an interview I did with Allen back in 2005, he told me that he had to wear his batting helmet in the field: “They used to throw their change down there, and it felt like a .22 caliber bullet hit you.”

Allen, who insisted upon being called Dick instead of Richie, was labeled as a troublemaker and a player that was simply unmanageable by the media mainly because of his self-assertiveness and was ultimately traded from the team in 1970.

“It was very tough back then,” Allen recalled. “A lot of criticism was usually around that black player. I could have played longer. It shortens your career.”

Philadelphia had developed such a bad reputation for black baseball players that when the St. Louis Cardinals traded Curt Flood to the team, he refused to come here. The Phillies also traded Hall-of-Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins to the Chicago Cubs.

Flood’s refusal to play with the Phillies ultimately led to his unsuccessful Supreme Court fight to challenge baseball’s reserve clause which committed a player to a team for life with a series of one-year contracts. Flood’s fight against the reserve clause did pave the way for free agency in baseball.

Meanwhile, as time has gone by, there have been other black players who have played for the Phillies and did not receive the kind of treatment that Allen did and were quite popular with fans back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Centerfielder Garry Maddox, who was known as “the Secretary of Defense” and Bake McBride were key players on the Phillies team that won the 1980 World Series. In 1983, Gary Matthews was the MVP of the National League Championship Series. Milt Thompson was a key contributor to the Phillies team that went to the 1993 World Series.

Recently, it has been the success of Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins as well as the rest of the team that has African-American fans in Philadelphia singing the praises of their hometown team.

During Howard’s tenure in Philadelphia, he has won the National League Rookie-of-the-Year Award (2005), the National League MVP Award (2006) and he has hit at least 30 home runs and 100 runs batted in each of the last five years.

Rollins, who won the NL MVP Award in 2007, has been the team’s catalyst and it was his bold declaration that the Phillies are the team to beat that has propelled the Phillies to its recent success.

But another reason why the Phillies have become so popular among African Americans is because the the team’s management has made an effort to reach out to the African American community. Through programs like Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), projects with African American community groups and other outreach, the team has made an effort to connect with the community.

The current Phillies ownership — CEO David Montgomery and chairman of the board Bill Giles doesn’t like to be judged for the team’s past because they weren’t part of the ownership group during the times of Dick Allen or Jackie Robinson. As Montgomery told me four years ago, the Phillies are a product of who they are today. The success of players like Howard and Rollins along with the team’s postseason runs have certainly endeared the team to black fans in Philadelphia.

Over the years, Allen, who was hired by the team as a consultant back in 1994, told me that the success of players like Howard and Rollins has brought a sense of closure to his own tumultuous experience here in Philadelphia.

“It’s almost a healing kind of thing, it happened unjustly back then,” Allen said. “It got around the world, ‘oh no we don’t want to be with the Phillies because look at what they did over there to this person and some didn’t want to be here. That’s the biggest and most important change is to make guys even want to come here.”