Tuesday, July 24, 2012

It was only Willie Mays

        He was the best baseball player of my lifetime, and I believe others will feel the same way. But even Willie Mays -- wondrous Willie -- was traded once.
         And when I think of baseball trades -- with this year's trading deadline coming up -- I think of Willie, and The Shreveport Times in 1972.
         When Willie was traded from the Giants, his team for 21 years, to the New York Mets, it sent  him from San Francisco (where the Giants moved in 1958) back to the city where his major-league career began with the then-New York Giants in 1951.
        Actually, it was not at the trading deadline (as my mind suggested). It was May 11, relatively early in the season.
         It was almost unbelievable at the time. Willie Mays traded? That had a "wow" factor.
         But he was 41 years old at the time. He was still playing center field -- no one ever played it better, in my opinion -- but he had slowed down and, at times, he was playing some at first base (just as Mickey Mantle in the final years of his career).
         Willie was still a superstar, but more on reputation than deed. And at his best, in the 1950s and 1960s, I'm saying there was no one better. No, not even Hank Aaron or Roberto Clemente.
           And so he went to the Mets because he still had drawing power in New York City and because he was still a viable player. But, please, what were the Giants thinking? This guy had been their franchise.
           OK, on with the story. The trade happened on a Thursday. Willie needed a few days for personal business until he reported to the Mets. It just happened that the visiting team at Shea Stadium for the weekend series was ... the San Francisco Giants.
            He did not play until the Sunday game, starting at first base and batting leadoff for the Mets.
  In his first at-bat, he drew a walk and scored on Rusty Staub's grand slam. But by the fifth inning, the Giants had rallied to tie the score 4-4.
           And then Willie hit a home run. Turned out to be the final run of the game, a game-winner, giving the Mets a three-game sweep of his old team, the Giants. Another "wow."
             In those days, my role on many Sunday evenings at The Times was to lay out (design) the sports section, edit the copy, pick the photos. I made the Giants-Mets game story the centerpiece of the section, with a fairly large picture of Mays swinging and hitting the home run.
              I thought the story deserved that kind of play.
             When I came in the next day, everyone in sports had a memo from the editor: We will not run any photos of black people above the fold in sports, until further notice.                   
               I am not making this up. Why would I?
              Sure, we were puzzled. It was 1972, schools were intergrated, most public facilities were. We had run photos of blacks on our front sports page before, such as Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
             Bill McIntyre, the sports editor, felt the memo had originated with the publisher, who was a member at East Ridge Country Club and had heard negative remarks about the photo from his friends (and possible advertisers) out there. The publisher didn't want those people angry.
               McIntyre and the paper's editor weren't about to challenge the publisher. It wouldn't have done any good.
                It was -- I felt this then and feel it now -- a chicken-spit thing to do. It was Willie Mays; it wasn't exactly an obscure name. And it was the story of the week in American sports.
               I wish that never would have happened again. But it did two years later.
               This time it involved a picture of Louis Dunbar, then a star basketball player at the University of Houston -- one of the nation's top programs. Dunbar was from Minden (30 miles from Shreveport), the best player I've ever covered other than Robert Parish, with whom Dunbar had some classsic duels in high school.
              Houston was in Shreveport to play against Centenary, an ongoing series and always a top draw on the Gents' home schedule. Dunbar, at 6-9, was a forward but could play liked a guard. He played any position he wanted. He was a Magic Johnson-type a few years before Magic.
             He was a personable young man; I knew that from a couple of stories I had done on him when he was at Webster High in Minden (he led his team to a state championship). He should have played in the NBA, but he didn't (for reasons I've yet to figure out).
             But his skills were so great -- and his personality so vivid -- that he became Sweet Lou Dunbar, clown prince of the Harlem Globetrotters for 25 years. He played until he was 49, then stayed  with the Globbies as a personnel director.
               Anyway, the advance story on Houston-at-Centenary had a photo of Dunbar on the lower half of the front sports page in The Times. Dunbar had a huge Afro, the type you saw often in those days.
             Next day, another memo from the publisher and editor: We are not to run photos like this again.
              Again, unbelievable.
              I have lots of great memories of Shreveport, North Louisiana and even some of The Shreveport Times. These two episodes are not among them.

1 comment:

  1. After our conversation last week about this, you did good. Tasteful and to the point.