American Legion baseball and the late Johnny Ritchey cross my mind this time of year.
The Jackie Robinson of the Pacific Coast League
Ritchey gained that iconic tag with the great trailblazer as the first black player in the PCL in 1948. The American Legion youth tournament has been a part of the national past-time’s landscape since 1925. This year’s event wrapped up Aug. 19 at its permanent home in Shelby, N.C.
Ritchey played for San Diego American Legion Post 6in the 1938 tournament as a 15-year-old and in 1940 as a 17-year-old. His life story is underappreciated as an American baseball hero and World War II veteran in the U.S. Army with five battle stars from Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge.
My mind wanders to the distant American Legion summers of 1938 and 1940 when Ritchey and black teammate Nelson Manuel suffered humiliation in the Jim Crow South.
Ritchey’s North Carolina visit is a little-known page of Tar Heel sports history. I’ve written this story before as a San Diegan, but I want to post it again as a resident of the Tar Heel state. I’ve come to learn some areas of North Carolina put segregation behind it earlier than other parts of the South.
As the 1940 San Diego American Legion Post 6squad won games and advanced east, including a win in St. Louis, San Diego coach Morrow was determined to avoid a Jim Crow repeat from two years earlier in Spartanburg, S.C.In 1938, Ritchey and Manuel were 15-year-olds barred from competing in the American League tournament final against Spartanburg.
As San Diego approached the Mason-Dixon Linein 1940, Morrow had been assured by Legion officials his black athletes would be permitted to compete on Dixie turf. Everything seemed fine when Ritchey and Manuel played without incident in a semifinal victory at Shelby, N.C.
That changed upon arrival in Albemarle, N.C. Racist town officials overruled the tournament and barred the black players.
Ritchey and Manuel watched the three-game series won by Albemarle from the dugout. Ritchey took home a trophy as the American Legion tournament’s leading hitter despite not playing in the final series.
I learned this story from Perry Eury, a North Carolinian, in 2008. Eury’s research included an account in the Charlotte Observer that was written by sports editor Jake Wade.
“A crowd of something like 12,500 wrote history, with frenzied emotion such as has never been witnessed in a ball park in the Carolinas. The crowd did not always behave so nicely. Parts of the crowd, I should say. The boos for the San Diego colored boys, when Coach Mike Morrow of the Coasters ill-advisedly had them warming up, was brutal.”
Eury also found a story in a California paper by Art Cohn, sports editor of the Oakland Tribune:
“A great club, that San Diego team. It waded through the local, State, sectional and National play-offs and loomed as a cinch for the title. Until it hit Albemarle. Then hell broke loose. Once below the Mason and Dixon, the most un-American of prejudices, racial discrimination, reared its ugly head, and, as a result, two regulars on the San Diego team were ruled ineligible.
“It seems that John Ritchey and Nelson Manuel, the two boys involved, had been found guilty…of being Negroes. Ritchey and Manuel were good enough to play with and against their white brothers in California, Arizona, and even in Shelby, North Carolina, but it was a different story in Albemarle.”
Eury began to research the story after he discovered a dusty box of old family photographs. Frozen in time -- like a Ken Burns baseball documentary clip -- was a black-and-white photograph snapped by Eury’s father before the San Diego-Albemarle final.
The San Diego team photo shows a broken-hearted pose struck by Ritchey. Eury sent a copy to Bill Swank, a San Diego baseball historian.
At first glance, the photo appears to be a case of the Eury’s father snapping the shutter with the players unprepared. Ritchey looks down, the bill of his cap pulled low to hide his face, with his chin buried in his left hand (photo: second row, second from left).
Ritchey passed away in 2003 at age 70, so we’ll never know his true thoughts. But Swank, who knew Ritchey and understood his personality, remains adamant the forlorn look was the deliberate pose.
If Ritchey’s posture was a silent protest, he was 28 years ahead of 1968 Olympics protest staged by track and field medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
They raised one fist each with black gloves, wore black socks without shoes and bowed their heads atop the medal stand.
I thought of Ritchey’s story last football season, too. When Syracuse played at Maryland, Maryland officials made amends for a disgraceful 1937 Jim Crow incident; Maryland had barred Syracuse black quarterback Wilmeth Sidat-Singh from taking the field.
For the 2013 Syracuse-Marylandcontest, Maryland officials wanted to right a wrong with an apology 76 years later. Sidat-Singh had died in a World War II training crash as a Tuskegee Airman, so Maryland invited family members for the on-field ceremony.
I wonder if American Legion baseball – innocent victims in the 1940 incident -- might consider a similar apology to Ritchey’s family. Ritchey is the more famous player, but Manuel should be recognized too.
Shelby, the North Carolina town that permitted Ritchey and Manuel to participate, is a fitting location to apologize on behalf of Albemarle as the tournament’s home. Veterans Stadiumalso is appropriate, with Ritchey having served with the Army Corps of Engineers. He was with American troops when they marched into Berlin.
Yes, 74 years have passed since Albemarle. But as Maryland demonstrated last football season,
It’s never too late to right a wrong.