As a young person I realized segregation was wrong but, unlike the younger Rickey, I was not in a position then to do anything about it. Over a period of time I decided, like Branch Rickey, that I would help change things if I ever had the chance. I was not alone among white Democrats who came of political age in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
And there is a strong baseball connection in my coming of age. My local Double A baseball team, the Ft. Worth Cats, was a Dodgers farm team so I followed the Dodgers, along with the St. Louis Cardinals who were carried on radio throughout the south during my teenage years. Many players who ultimately made it with the Dodgers played for the Cats at some point in their career. As a kid, I knew the story of how a white southerner, shortstop Peewee Reese, had befriended Robinson during his very tough first year in the majors.
I crossed a personal Rubicon in my attitude on race relations when my long-time hero, Stan Musial, retired from the Cardinals 50 years ago. I needed a new hero and in no time that became Cardinal pitcher Bob Gibson. Gibson was a ferocious competitor who personally willed the Cardinals to World Series victories in 1964 and 1967. For a white southerner to have an African-Americanl hero was nothing short of stunning.
This was about the time I started to seriously contemplate a career in politics. And like Branch Rickey, I decided to make a difference in race relations if I ever had a chance. My impact pales in comparison with what Rickey did by integrating baseball, but as a congressman I stood with Ron Dellums on trying to stop apartheid in South Africa, supported extension of the landmark Voting Rights Act and voted for other civil rights legislation on a consistent basis. In my own way, I made a small difference.
I was not alone among my white contemporaries elected from the South during this era. Whereas southern white Democrats had once stood as a barrier against civil rights, a number of white Southerners of my generation took stands for racial equality, even if their politics were somewhat conservative on other issues. The world had changed.
The magnificent movie “42” reminds us of how far we have come as a nation and that this change did not happen easily. Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters like Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) faced even more violent challenges when they took a stand for civil rights a generation after Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Dodgers.
America is such a sports crazed nation that it should come as no great surprise today that the battle for civil rights made great strides on an athletic field before our laws were changed by Congress.
Go see this movie even if you don’t care a whit about baseball. It tells us a lot about the courage it takes to make change in America.
Frost represented the 24th Congressional District of Texas from 1979 to 2005. He was chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1996 and 1998 and served as chair of the House Democratic Caucus from 1999 to 2003. He is a partner in the Washington office of the Polsinelli, Shughart law firm.