If you think the intersection – and conflict – of sports and politics is something new, well, you haven’t been paying close enough attention to either for a very long time.
Don’t think so? Check out President Trump’s pardon of the controversial African-American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, who held the title more than 100 years ago. His reign was consumed by the politics of the day. So it is no surprise that the debate over NFL players and the national anthem remains a divisive topic.
Anything that is going to have the powerful symbolism of sports —and the ability to unite, as we have seen right here in Washington during the Capitals’ Stanley Cup playoffs run — is also going to generate enough passion to divide as well, in death as well as life.
That was the case 50 years ago, as Major League Baseball tried to cope with the proper way to mourn the death of New York Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy on June 6, 1968.
William D. Eckert — the troubled short-lived baseball commissioner at the time — committed an error when it came to a response to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, failing to recognize the importance of a strong united voice that understood the bad look of playing games while the country was burying yet another murdered leader.
He wouldn’t be the first one to fumble the grieving process and symbolism of sports in America. The biggest failure of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle was failing to call off football games following the assassination of Robert’s brother, President John F. Kennedy, nearly five years earlier.
Rozelle was able to withstand the criticism. Eckert was not. The U.S. Air Force general was forced to resign at the end of the 1968 season, even though he still had three years left on his contract with baseball owners.
Instead of calling off games, Eckert announced that two days later – Saturday, June 8 — no scheduled games would start before the burial of Robert F. Kennedy, set for that day. But the funeral began later than scheduled, and baseball teams took the field to play in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Boston and Detroit.
The Major League Baseball Player Association sent a telegram to Eckert asking him to declare an official day of mourning for Robert F. Kennedy: “The Major League Baseball Players Association on behalf of the players hereby expresses its strong opposition to the decision of the commissioner of baseball to permit each club to decide whether or not it will play its full schedule of games this weekend. The players believe that each club should observe a day of mourning as a tribute to the memory of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and thereby urge the commissioner and the league presidents to so order.”
Instead, Eckert balked at wielding his power, leaving the chaos of each club making its own decisions.
A number of players were angry. Some teams voted not to play, such as the New York Mets, who were scheduled to face the Giants in San Francisco on a bat day promotion. Giants owner Horace Stoneham claimed he lost $80,000 by the Mets’ refusal to play.
While the nation was suffering, Stoneham filed a complaint with National League President Warren Giles, who ruled that if the Mets did not play the game, it would be considered a forfeit. Giles said the Mets’ front office would be fined, and suggested the players would be docked a day’s pay.
Reportedly, Chub Feeney, Giants vice president, talked his owner and Giles into softening their stance.
“It would give baseball a black eye,” he told reporters. “It doesn’t look good.”
That ship, though, had sailed.
In Cincinnati, Reds players had initially voted not to play Saturday, but their manager, Dave Bristol, convinced enough of them to change their minds, and they took the field. But the story for baseball was not how they shared the sorrow of a nation, but instead their petty bickering over games, money and promotions.
In Washington, Senators management decided not to play that Saturday. While some teams postponed their Sunday games, the Senator played the Minnesota Twins that Sunday — the Senators’ Children’s Hospital Day promotion at D.C. Stadium – a name that would soon change in the wake of Robert F. Kennedy’s death.
⦁ Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.
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