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Ernest Fann lives in Birmingham, on a dead-end street down near Valley Creek. As the days go by, and he’s home during the coronavirus pandemic, he has something he wonders about.

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“I need an answer, someday, that I can live with,” Fann told Deadspin this week. “You drafted Black men into the Army to fight and die for the freedom of this country. Why can’t they play baseball? We Black men helped build this country. Why can’t we play baseball? Those two questions, I’m 77 years old, somebody needs to give me an answer to live with. I don’t have one yet.

“What is it about Black baseball? The only answer that I see that makes sense is that when God put entertainment on this Earth, He put it for all races to enjoy — men, women, children, boys, and girls. Why is it that the white man took control of baseball and said that’s for them? I’ll get my answer one day.”

Illustration for article titled emWhy is it that the white man took control of baseball and said that’s for them?/emem/em

Graphic:

Fann, whose brother Ralph did fight and die for this country, succumbing to cancer as a result of Agent Orange from the Vietnam War, is well aware that Black men obviously can play baseball. After all, he did so himself. Fann played at Ballard Hudson High School in Macon, Ga., with future major league All-Star Blue Moon Odom, then headed to North Carolina to play with the 1960 Raleigh Tigers in the late stages of the Negro American League. After that, Fann played in the minor league systems of the St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City A’s.

The point that Fann is making with his question is illustrated through his experience.

Although growing up in the Jim Crow South, Fann described the Macon neighborhood of his youth as largely harmonious and integrated. Baseball took him all through the South in the early 1960s, busing around the Carolinas with the Tigers, then in the Georgia-Florida League with the 1962 Brunswick Cardinals, and the Florida State League with the 1963 Daytona Beach Islanders in the A’s system.

Fann’s other minor league stop was in the Midwest League, with another A’s affiliate called the Burlington Bees, in Iowa.

“That was the worst experience in my life,” Fann said. “I have never been subject to racism as I was when I was in the Kansas City organization. I was in Burlington, Iowa, in the Midwest League. They didn’t allow but two Blacks on the team. On my team, I was the only Black. Can you imagine, you’re Black, you have to sit in the bullpen by yourself. The white guys didn’t want you sitting on the bench with them, because they didn’t want you to hear what they had to say.”

Except, that is, when they did.

“When I got into professional baseball, I didn’t know that kind of racism existed,” said Fann, who was 19 when he first got to Burlington in 1963. “I had a guy come up to me on the bench, and he asked me — this was amazing — he said, ‘What are you doing here? This is a white man’s game. Ain’t no n*****s supposed to be here.’ This is what my teammate asked me. He didn’t say it no more. He found himself getting up off the dugout floor. You know what the manager ran up to me and said? ‘You’re not supposed to hit a white boy.’ I walked right back up to that manager, and said, ‘You call me what he called me,’ and I’d have hit that manager.”

Why is it that the white man took control of baseball and said that’s for them?

“When Jackie Robinson signed, you know what [Branch Rickey] asked him: ‘Are you a Black man who’ll keep your mouth shut, or are you gonna fight?’” Fann said. “My generation came right after Jackie Robinson and we were not going to take that. That’s why they started getting rid of Black baseball players in professional baseball. As generations changed, attitudes changed, and that’s why they got rid of us.”

After the A’s released Fann, he met with the Cincinnati Reds, who had tried to sign him out of Raleigh, but offered less money than the Cardinals. Fann was hopeful that he might get to play with the Reds’ affiliate back in Macon. But the Reds were no longer interested, showing Fann a folder of his alleged character issues, including that he played his music too loud.

“I played my music too loud?” Fann said. “I didn’t have anything to play no music on. … I couldn’t believe the lies they had told. This is what they’d do to Black ballplayers.”

Ernest Fann at a Negro Leagues reunion.

Ernest Fann at a Negro Leagues reunion.
Photo: Courtesy of Cam Perron

For an organization that thought enough of Fann to purchase his contract from the Cardinals in the first place, the A’s sure didn’t seem to want anything to do with him. While the rest of the team in Burlington lived in a trailer park that the organization had set up to house them, Fann was left on his own to stay at a motel. At the ballpark, Fann was asked to convert from catcher to pitcher — he liked the idea because he had bad knees and a good arm — only, after seven appearances, during which he went 2-0 with a 3.86 ERA, Fann was told that his future would be in the outfield.

“I found out later why they got me out of Burlington, and you might know his name,” Fann said. “There was a catcher they were prepping for a manager: Rene Lachemann.”

According to Fann, the A’s were grooming Rene and older brother Marcel.

“Rene Lachemann had a brother named Marcel Lachemann, and he was trying to get him signed. Now, when I got on the pitching mound, they were thinking I was gonna fall, that way they could sign Marcel. But I didn’t fall. So, Marcel was not going to sign until they got rid of me. They signed Marcel, and he couldn’t get my grandmama out. They signed Marcel and took him to the major leagues. He didn’t last long.”

This story doesn’t quite add up because Marcel Lachemann joined the A’s organization in 1963, while Fann and Rene Lachemann were teammates with Burlington in 1964. It’s likely that nearly six decades, and justified lingering resentment over racist treatment, have clouded some of the details. But both Lachemann brothers did wind up in the majors with the A’s, despite middling minor league numbers (Rene hit .249 in 762 games in the minors, while Marcel went 38-48) and became baseball lifers as coaches and managers, while Fann wound up in Birmingham, working at Stockham Valve & Fittings and enlisting in the National Guard, where he ran the local unit’s motor pool.

Why is it that the white man took control of baseball and said that’s for them?

The A’s organization was prepping Rene Lachemann to become a manager, and after a 118-game major league career as a catcher, he did become one. In 1981, after Maury Wills was fired 24 games into the season, the 36-year-old Lachemann took the helm of the Seattle Mariners and went 140-180 over the next two-plus seasons. Fired by Seattle, Lachemann immediately got another job as manager of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1984. After losing 94 games and finishing last, Lachemann was fired there, but quickly found a job on the Red Sox coaching staff, then moved to the A’s coaching staff, and then became the first manager of the Florida Marlins.

In his three jobs as a manager, Lachemann had a career record of 428-559 (he lost another game as interim manager of the Cubs in 2002), and his teams finished with a winning record exactly zero times. Compare that track record to Willie Randolph, who went 302-253 in three-and-a-half seasons with the Mets, took them to Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, got fired by the Wilpons in the middle of the night in 2008, and has yet to manage in the majors since.

“Chance after chance after chance, and fail every chance,” Fann said. “I could see, maybe one time, you’re successful, and you keep getting chances, but to fail every time and keep getting chances — why do you keep giving it to him? Because he’s a white man.”

Why is it that the white man took control of baseball and said that’s for them?

After Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, it took until 1959 for every major league team to integrate, with the Boston Red Sox the final holdout. Over the course of that decade-plus of the Big Leagues adding Black players, the Negro Leagues continued on, providing a showcase for major league scouts and opportunities for players. But the business was doomed by the time Fann got to Raleigh in 1960, and within three years, it was finished.

“We just didn’t get paid,” Fann said. “We would ask the owner for money, and he would make all kinds of excuses. He had to buy equipment. He had to buy gas. We played with some really bad equipment. My catcher’s mitt, it was so old, the center of the mitt was rotting out. The strings would burst. Every game, they would burst, and sometimes I would take shoestrings and tie it back up. But we played, and I didn’t complain, because when I was a kid, younger than that, I didn’t have anything other than my bare hand. Hell, we didn’t have gloves and bats and balls. All we had was a broomstick and a tennis ball. That’s why I didn’t complain. I just did the best I could to catch with it.”

The owner of the Raleigh Tigers, Arthur Dove, ran a business selling record players, and not paying Tigers players in 1960 was par for the course for him. Two years earlier, when the team bus broke down in a small West Virginia town, Dove simply left the team there and headed back to Raleigh himself. The days of Rube Foster helping to cover the payroll for teams in distress were long gone, and the Negro League experience of 1960, which included washing uniforms in creeks and drying them out the windows of the bus, was a nightmare in every way except for on the field.

The integrated major leagues were the death knell for the Negro Leagues, but Pumpsie Green finally cracking that Red Sox roster was not the end of the story for racism in Major League Baseball, not by a longshot. The Mets took Steve Chilcott with the No. 1 pick in the 1966 draft over Reggie Jackson because they didn’t like that Jackson, a future Hall of Famer, dated outside his race. It took until 1975 for MLB to have its first Black manager, Frank Robinson in Cleveland. In the past 40 years, the number of Black players from the United States has steadily declined in the majors. Even with a surge in MLB’s Latino population, the majority of players are still white.

Not that Latino players don’t experience racism in their own right, and not that Latino players like Martin Dihigo weren’t part of the history of the Negro Leagues, but once the Negro Leagues were gone, Baseball largely forgot about Black players and moved on to exploiting cheaper labor from Latin America. The institutional racism of the United States helped to stunt the flow of Black talent through amateur ranks here, while a higher percentage of Latino players gives the impression that the game hasn’t moved backward with Black inclusion.

“They have the Birmingham Barons here, and I go out because our Negro League museum is right up the third base line, right on the roof,” Fann said. “And I go out, and sit up there, and I watch the Barons play. … It does make it seem like they’re less racist, but if you dig deeper, it’s there. To just sit up at a baseball game, it would seem less racist, but those are foreign baseball players.”

Those players from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and elsewhere in Latin America can be signed at the age of 16 and developed at MLB team academies, a system that has, at least to an extent, taken over for what the Negro Leagues and larger minor league systems were doing when Fann played. Then, as now, teams will shell out for star potential no matter a player’s race: Odom got a $75,000 signing bonus from the A’s, a huge amount at the time. But a player like Fann could hit .303 as a catcher in the low minors, have his team decide to ship him out, get converted to pitcher, and eventually shuffled around so much as to waste his talent entirely, before eventually bouncing him out of the game for hazy “character” concerns.

Only now, because of the economics of the game, a Black kid from Macon wouldn’t get even that chance because it already went to a kid from Santo Domingo two years before he’d be eligible to join an MLB organization. Those later-round draft picks — at least, when there were later-round draft picks, would be overwhelmingly white.

“The feeling I’ve had all my life is, as long as I’m good enough, let me play,” Fann said. “But it didn’t happen that way.”

Nearly six decades later, all too often, it still doesn’t.

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